Monday, 2 January 2017

New Year, New Blog

As I have just stated, I don't really believe in new years resolutions, but as I am a hot, steaming pile of hypocrite, my new year's resolution is going to be to write more. So I have decided to start a diary/blog on this shiny new sister blog to my other ramblings here.

I was reading some of the wonderful Alan Bennett's diaries over Christmas, and rather like the idea of writing a diary again (something I haven't done since I left high school, mostly ramblings about how miserable and misunderstood I was - so no change from now really). Rather than write every day, Alan Bennett will write when he chooses on topics he finds instigates a curiosity from within - and that is what I am going to attempt. Therein ends the only comparison I would ever dream to make with the legendary national treasure of uber treasures that is His Royal Highness Sir Alan of Bennett (he really should have those titles). 

And then reader, we began.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Meh

I'm not sure why I am writing this, neither am I entirely sure who will read it (and indeed, if I even care). But I have to be honest.

It is the last day of 2016, and I am tired. New year always brings self reflection. And this year is the same. However, every year always has ups and downs, good and bad, and we are misguided if we ever think any different.
But the tiredness I feel is an indescribable cacophony. Its the type of tiredness that no amount of sleep will ever cure, even if you could sleep for multitudinous decades. I am drenched with fatigue. And its the exhaustion of being me.

This 'me' doesn't even feel like me anymore. Someone has stolen my being and sold it off cheap on eBay like a broken piece of brick-a-brac. I don't even know who me is. Making the mistake of looking back on that digital BEST FRIEND! Facebook, I was dumbfounded. Was I that? Was I this? Social media lies and masquerades; a deadly online menace. Even I start to get fooled. The pixelated versions don't show the pain, the darkness, the terrifying anxieties. The hatred. The reminders of constant failures.

Maybe my inherent need to be busy, to be occupied, to be overly-exerted comes down to a single thing. I'm running away. And I think I am trying to escape from who I am, who I have become. A poor imitation copy of a person that won't even end up on the 'novelty' section of antiques roadshow; a Margaret Thatcher-esque-haired expert grinning inanely scoffing patronisingly that the carcass isn't worth a penny but 'is tremendous fun' as if 'fun' is a synonym of 'stupid poor person things'.

My body & brain is riddled and disintegrating. My enthusiasm is the cardigan I once spilled photography chemicals over; eventually browning and shrivelling up like a rotting apple. I forget things. I sometimes can't get out of bed. Coming to terms with losing who I was is the most upsetting. Am I grieving? It is utterly ridiculous to write this and not scold myself for sounding such a melodramatic odiferous pillock. But I am that too.

Some writers describing depression and decline, say the terrible disease creeps up on you. I can relate to that. In some respects it is the small shadow tied to your boot laces that somehow expands up like a bloated sponge. But for me, it has been more like that bathroom tap with the dodgy leak: drip, drip, drip - fine at first, until you realise it's 18 months down the line, and you're submerging in a room full of water. There's nothing more lonely than drowning in your own self doubt.

In the summer, I was at Barry Island and sat watching people play the penny slots. They're glued to these seedy structures, feeding in coin after coin like robots. So much effort, for such little gain. That's how I feel I have existed for too long - a worn out dismaland penny machine that should've really paid out more by now, but has a few springs missing and is just waiting to be replaced by a newer model.

So here we are. Stuck in the hard shoulder whilst the world flies by picking up speeding tickets. I still do not know why I have written this. But things are very difficult. Very difficult indeed. And I apologise to anyone who actually has to endure me. But at least you can walk away. I miss who I was, and the life I used to have, but I'm not even sure I know what any of that was.

Maybe I just need to pull my socks up. But buy new ones first.


Tuesday, 27 December 2016

A bug in the code

Processing power, gradually slowed,
Hardware and wires, begin to corrode.
Memory leakage, renders in vain,
What once was strong, is now on the wane.
Bright lights that were a glittering zone,
Now grey and dark, the pixels are blown.

There's a wretched bug hiding in code,
Contaminating; nothing will load.

Spiralling icons spinning and pending,
Churning and twisting, so never ending.
A tiresome flailing nonchalance,
Waiting for.....no response.

An Epidemic of bugs velcroed in code,
And my own sad self, won't try to load.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Visiting Chernobyl

There are a few places in the world that just by name, conjure evocative reactions. Often these are areas where, unfortunately, tragedy has struck - places where events unravelled that have sent tremor waves of shock felt across the globe.

One such location has been a fascination of mine for a long time. And that place is Chernobyl.

Photographing decaying and derelict buildings has long been an obsession of mine, something I've written and blathered on about many times. I yearn for it. I crave the ability to traipse through stale, dank crooked structures; rotten walls, peeling paint. Their ghostly existence crying out to be photographed - the documentation of manmade decline as nature engulfs it.

Photography lends itself so well to capture these haunting scenes, the emptiness, the decay - which never stops, never pauses - only within the four walls of the photograph.

Untitled

Visiting Chernobyl had become a dream of mine. I had dreamed of seeing Pripyat, the city near the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, where nearly 50,000 people had lived between 1970 and 1986. On April 27th 1986, the day after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the city was evacuated, what is left is a ghost town. Buildings not used in thirty years; roads not been driven on, the swimming pool not swum in, the kindergarten cots not slept in.

Untitled

This July, I was lucky enough to finally visit Chernobyl. The two day tour was probably one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I have explored many derelict buildings over the years, but apart from Imber, the small English village taken over by the military during WWII, I had never before had the chance to visit an entire ghost town - a cornucopia of abandoned treasures.

Trips to Chernobyl, have been allowed since the area has been deemed more safe, but there are still many precautions one must take when visiting (and quite rightly so). We had been given advice on what clothes to wear, and told to not touch things, or step on certain things. Moss for example, is particularly good at absorbing radiation so is likely to emit high levels of radiation so you are warned to not walk on it. You can imagine how difficult it becomes trying to avoid doing so whilst exploring Pripyat, trying to take in everything around you.
It is also strictly forbidden to remove anything from the exclusion zone. Entry into Chernobyl requires passport control, and the area is heavily guarded. You are not allowed to eat or drink whilst walking around Pripyat - and you can only do so whilst on the bus which would transport us around parts of the city which we could not travel by foot. During our stay in the Chernobyl hotel, there is a curfew by evening and no one is allowed outside after 8pm. You are screened regularly, having to stand in these bizarre 1970s sci-fi film-esque machines, that check you for any radioactive contamination.

When faced with these rules and regulations, the reality of where you are visiting very much strikes you. This is not a game, not a jolly. This is something that must be treated with respect, as you risked putting yourself in grave danger otherwise.








The trip began as we were taken to a kindergarten. The walls were seeping with branches and foliage and peeling crusty paint. What was left was a tragic reminder of the young lives who frequented there - dusty broken shoes, toys, torn books. So many items that looked like they had just been dumped. Rotting dolls like something out of a Stephen King film, and rows of skeletal wire cots that resembled an odd communal prison cell.

Untitled

The personal items strewn across the decaying floorboards conjure so many questions - who wore this small shoe? Who did they grow up to be? Did they survive? Who clutched the teddy bear and dropped it that day in 1986, not realising they would never get to return to fetch it?

Untitled

We were taken to many buildings and various areas in Pripyat. The culture palace, with a theatre and its stunning broken backstage.
Backstage at the theatre
It was a myriad of lighting rigs and grids of wires, now spookily silent, patiently waiting for the next performance that will never come.

The culture palace as it is today from the outside:
Untitled

As the same culture palace as it was originally:














We saw one of the vast empty swimming pools, looking gaunt and hungry without its water; bright light streaming down onto white tiles through the huge windows - bizarrely striking against the dirt and graffiti that was building up. The suicidal looking diving platform still proudly erect, angular and defiant.
swimming pool
swimming pool


We explored a school. Pripyat had around 20 schools for the 5,000 children who lived there.
School
The school we visited was a zombified grange hill. So much of the ghostly remains resembled memories from my own school days: the corridors, the small chairs, books, science labs - yet these were all decomposing and decaying - vast broken rooms filled with empty dying desks, crumpled text books, written work books in perfectly scripted Russian/Ukrainian which was still legible. The poignancy was striking - when a child had worked so hard and taken so much care on this work I was stood near, little did they know it would one day be dirt ridden and lying upon a decaying floor, as part of a strange time capsule fodder for photographers.
School book
Communist propaganda posters still hanging from the walls - Lenin, workers, anti-west diatribe. Cold war teachings. Something that seemed to only exist in history books I had seen in my own school - here they were for real.
school
It was in the school which I saw one of the most incredible sights I have ever witnessed - a sea of decaying gas masks. Gas masks themselves always look so alien and menacing. This surreal scene was an infinity ocean of cold war atomic nightmares. It churned your stomach, it made you gulp. The black holes for eyes, they resembled deformed leathery skulls. Gas masks, war. The threat. It was, of course, a reality for daily lives for the people of chernobyl.
School room


One of the most impressive structures in Chernobyl that we visited was the  'woodpecker' - an incredible mammoth duga radar structure. It derived its nickname due to the sound it broadcasted - sharp, repetitive tapping noises, very much like a woodpecker.
Untitled
There were many conspiracy theories over to what the radar tower's purpose was - with many insinuations and allegations of spying, and even mind control. Of course, none of these were ever proven. Now, the structure still stands proud....just eerily silent. Standing near it, you marvelled at its sheer size and formed beauty. Climbing the tower, scrambling up wobbling ladders you got the overwhelming sense of how minuscule you were. You were just an insignificant entity. The machine was the dominate power.
Untitled
Inside the duga buildings, a control room contained warnings of attack, yet with oddly crude posters which almost resembled school drawings of nuclear rockets. It had a beautiful naivety, yet the science it was representing, was very much contradicting this.  
Untitled

One of the most famous areas of Pripyat was the fairground. It was meant to be opened on the May day celebrations - the disaster, of course, scupper these plans. The fairground that never was. The huge abandoned ferris wheel has become one of the icons of Chernobyl. Walking up to the area, the ferris wheel suddenly poked through the trees, its yellow carts so recognisable looming on the horizon. It made my skin prickle and the hairs on my arms stand up.
Untitled
The fairground had languishing dogem cars, rusting away waiting to be driven; empty swing boats waiting to swing. Still. Expectant but dead. No sounds of children happily playing. Just static rusty structures waiting to die.
Untitled

(For a peak at what the fairground looked like shortly before the evacuation - here is an interesting photograph of the ferris wheel)

We climbed 14 floors of stairs to the roof of a defunct crumbling residential building, and saw the incredible view across Pripyat. You could see for miles into the horizon. One side there was nothing but trees, the other side, the nuclear reactor stuck out into the landscape like a curved silver beast, glinting in the glorious sun shine. The reactor looked so close. The reactor *was* so close. You could imagine how quickly the radiation would have spread to the city....

Reactor from roof of residential building

And yet at times, as I gazed into the horizon on the gloriously sunny day, it felt so peaceful. So quiet. It was almost tranquil. Such a contrast to the thought of what had happened there.
View into nothing from the top of the residential building

We were taken to a shop, a factory, cafeteria, the hospital and the cinema. All places of such mundane daily routine, of pastimes, of work, or places of social interaction - now dying and deteriorating; signs hanging off, rubble strewn, windows broken, ovens caked with rust not baked goods. Vending machines. Beds. Random items abandoned - a pepsi bottle, a hard hat, pill bottles, an old vinyl record, a torn sofa. Objects of life, signs of life, yet there is no life.
Untitled


The beauty of these broken items sometimes took my breath away. The huge cooling tower. The light against the beautiful broken glassed windows of the cafeteria, crystalloid patterns that could be in another life, hanging in an art gallery. The creepy children's camp - set in the forest and evocative of as many woods horror films you can imagine. The stunning and oddly satisfying athestic of peeling paint - the crusty curls clawing out of the walls as if their bony fingers were coming alive. The dark rusty signs or faded red propaganda posters; beautiful in their colour and form. The emptiness of an abandoned room, now useless in its initial purpose, dripping with this tragic well of loneliness.

It was all quite overwhelming. And sometimes macabre.

Nothing was more a deadly wake up call of the dangers in chernobyl, than the sight and sound of the Geiger counter alarm, approaching one of the most radioactive items still left in Pripyat - the claw. The Geiger counter was brought out at various times during our trip. Sometimes it was unnerving (but also sobering and important) to how suddenly you would be near an item that was setting the alarm off on the counter. Radiation - the silent and invisible assassin. There is something more frighting about a deadly threat that you cannot see, cannot smell, cannot hear.

'The claw', however, was off the scale. You are not allowed close to 'the claw' - a terrifyingly industrial metal claw that was used to clean up nuclear waste after the disaster. Our guide placed the Geiger counter near, and we watched in awe as the alarm spiralled into high pitched cacophony. This was real. This was dangerous.

We slowly crept away.
the claw - used to clear up after the disaster. One of the most radioactive machinery pieces left

One morning of the tour, we visited the house of a chernobyl resident. An odd experience, one that I was not sure I was comfortable with. She welcomed visitors regularly, showing people around her home and land.
Untitled
Money was no use to her, instead, we brought her items such as sugar and salt. She spoke to us via an interpreter, explaining that she had worked in the reactor, and had been evacuated the day after the disaster, but had returned to live a year later and had lived there ever since.
Untitled
She grew many crops, and these were all tested safe for consumption. Her house was primitive, her life was basic. She lived alone with her dog and cats. Whilst she made us feel very welcome (she gave us her own homemade moonshine and bread), I felt intruding, I felt as if I was patronising her by just being there.

It was a reality check to how some people live in the world, something I am far too often blinkered to - her oven was a hole in the wall, the sanitary conditions extremely basic. My life back home seemed as far away as the moon. It was like going back in time. Yet she seemed at peace; content with her lot. In some ways I left her house with almost an odd pang of jealousy.
Untitled

An unfortunate turn of phrase, but Chernobyl gets under your skin; the connotations of what happened there, the horrors, the tragedy. I have thought about what I saw, what I experienced, every day since. Did it happen? Did I really experience the sheer surreal of having lunch in the actual reactor canteen?
It is all a lingering spectre. Now, whenever I am in woods or see moss, I am suddenly wondering if it is safe to step on. The empty sadness of chernobyl shrouds you at times. What is left is a snap shot of a different time. Like many tragic events, it is a reminder of the human condition, both the bad side but also the good - let us not forget the heroic efforts of the firemen who sacrificed their lives and went into the reactor at the time of the disaster. Their selfless actions saving the world of a larger catastrophe.

Untitled

Sometimes I feel I am drawn to derelict buildings because I often feel a little empty inside, as if I am a derelict well, or as if large pieces inside are missing. But sometimes I think derelict buildings call to me so that the silent walls and objects can somehow tell their story, reveal their secrets and histories. One day we will be nothing ourselves, one day we will become these empty shell structures and nothing will be left of us but an old shoe, left languishing in the dust. And I would want someone to spot this remnant, and capture it, to speak for me when I cannot - 'look, I was here. I lived'.


You can see my full sets of photographs documenting my time at Chernobyl in my flickr albums - Chernobyl, Pripyat, Duga Radar, Exclusion Zone house visit, the Children's Camp, and Pripyat hospital.

For a fascinating before the disaster comparison, images of life in Pripyat can be viewed on Photos of everyday life in Pripyat before the disaster.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Iceland

Iceland. A mystical country that has intrigued me for years.

When I stepped off the plane at Reykjavik airport in August, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Beautiful clear blue skies, and blindingly strong sun. Not weather you always associate with the coldly named country. Admittedly, I wasn't expecting iceberg arctic conditions, and to be greeted by a north face clad penguin to collect my bags, but still.

As the bus from the airport took me to Reykjavik, I was struck by the volcanic landscape. Similar to the canaries, the land looked almost desolately lunar. It is an odd view, with its black, almost dead sensation, and yet not without it's own special kind of beauty. I was also struck by how sparse things felt - maybe too conditioned to the UK and in particular the city claustrophobic feel, where buildings are squidged next to other buildings to exploit as much millimetre of the space as possible.

Reaching Reykjavik itself in glorious sunshine, I could almost admit to feeling warm. I set out to roam. The city felt european, and yet also not quite. Buildings were colourful, something I often long for in the UK outside small seaside towns; how can you not find these inherently more cheerful than the drab grey slabs of concrete, or even worse, the red bricked modern housing estates sprawled across the UK that could be any mundane town in any ordinary place.

What I liked about Reykavik was how easy it was to walk to everything else - such a small city but packed with goodies around every corner. It's like sight-seeing christmas come early. I quickly established my mantra when alone in a foreign place - find a landmark. In Reykavik's case, you have easily, the Hallgrimskirkja.
Just before I left for my trip and on our weekend away, my friends gave me a lovely birthday card in which they wrote 'Have a great time in Iceland, look out for the big churchy thing that looks like a REALLY big set of pan pipes' which had left me chuckling at the time, but this is actually a pretty good description of the Hallgrimskirkja. A strikingly large cathedral that dominates the skyline; its blocky, concrete appearance overlooks proceedings, indeed, like a omnipresent....set of giant lego pipes.

Untitled

I went to the top of the Hallgrimskirkja tower and saw stunning 360 views of the city. I kept thinking of the difference between the last time I had been looking at similar 360 views - when I was on the top of the Tokyo governmental buildings - when the panorama before me was an endless mass Sim City sprawl of buildings until infinity. And yet here, in Iceland, was a little city of brightly coloured lego compactness.

Untitled

Reykavik is a culture hot bed. We boast in Wales of our cultural prowess for such a small country; Reykavik has it alone and yet is roughly around the same population size of Cardiff. There are many art and photography galleries, museums and a film festival. It boasts an architectural feast in the Haimj concert hall - an outstandingly beautiful construction of optically illusional glass. It reminded me of a beautiful giant kaleidoscope.

Untitled

It also did not get dark until very very late. Wandering around Reykavik at night in August, and I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn't still 3pm. The unbridled joy of going for a run around the city at 11.30pm in daylight will live with me forever (Iceland loves running. Another massive tick box of YES for me). Conversely, winter months must be bleak times (anyone who watches those endless scandinavian and nordic dramas on BBC4 will already tell you this). Icelanders must have a hard constitution, hardened by the incredibly high cost of alcohol (I think I felt drunk just reading the menu prices). It makes me feel a wuss for feeling miserable whilst running up Pen Y Fan in a January raining hale of gales.

Not far away from the concert hall that overlooks the docks of Reykavik and deep ocean, are the boats that can take you Whale and puffin watching. Having been lucky enough to visit Skomer island in pembrokeshire to see puffins, I was keen to look for Whales. I chose the smaller boat to go out to sea, for the main purpose of being closer to the Whales. What no one told me at the time, was that this of course, meant a bumpier ride as well as an increased chance of a Whale actually knocking the boat over. But luckily I am a fan of the sea and its roller coaster offerings.

It is luck and chance of the day to whether you see Whales or not of course, and I was blessed to see lots of Whales on my trip. Lead on the trip by a Scotsman (the accent threw me at the beginning), we were taken out to sea (and see) and learnt much about the sealife as a whole. And we saw many Whales. Lots of Minky Whales, gracefully gliding around the sea looking for food. We saw humpback Whales leap out of the water and land with a splash. Quite simply one of the most incredibly powerful and yet graceful scenes you could wish to witness.
The trip was utterly respectful to the animals - never deliberately approaching or getting too close, not wishing to disturb these most magnificent creatures. The girl from Wales finally saw her Whales, and I had a new found respect for these majestic, intelligent and stunning animals. That Whales must remain free (certainly not in any form of captivity), not exploited, and also not hunted, is absolutely a must.

Untitled

A short journey out of Reykjavik, and you hit the countryside. I was keen to see the beautiful landscape, the mountains and natural wonders. It is not long before you are out of the city and into the relative remote hills. The rolling hills were, to me, not dissimilar to the Brecon beacons in many ways - although that may have been because of the grey and drizzly weather. The difference being were more random houses potted around as we passed. At one point, we could even see the unpronounceable (and also troublesome to spell) Eyjafjallajökul; its looming peaks calling out to me tantalizingly in the distance between the clouds. Mountains call to me like sirens, their majesty and large forms bewitch me with their power and strength. There is something so reassuring about mountains and hills, they are stoic and reliable. Yet with a whisper of danger and intrigue.

Untitled

Then I saw the geysers. I am not sure if anything could have prepared me for witnessing large jets of hot water burst out of the floor like a bubbling random piston; it was as if the floor beneath us was alive. A dragon lay under the surface, roaming and stalking the underworld, until it teased the upside by spitting out its foaming shoots of water whenever it felt like it as if in a firy protest or just to amuse. That this natural phenomenon occurs still baffles and delights me now. It reminds me yet again that nature is so unashamedly, what it is.

Untitled

Even more incredible, was watching the people watching. Rings of people form around the geysers, phones and cameras held aloft, all waiting on baited breath for the geyser to perform. Sometimes it took ages. Sometimes the bubbling potion caused tourist oooos and ahhhhhs as the teasing water promised to deliver (and yet didn't). Even more curious were the people stood away from the geysers, hoping for a selfie. Watching the watchers became as fascinating to me as the geysers themselves.

As we drove through the hills and landscapes, I yearned to return in the winter; to see the snow and harshness - the equally beautiful but dramatic changes in season. No wonder Iceland has produced many great musical artists, with such landscapes to inspire ethereal electronic wonders. It feels an ethereal country, where volcanos rule above, and creatures tease below; where light lasts all day or darkness dictates instead. Where culture blossoms and history breathes. Beautiful, fascinating Iceland.

Untitled

See my set of photos from Iceland on Flickr.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Pen Y Fan

Peaked arms of comfort, beckon yet mock,
The luscious siren of greens & rock;
Nature's vast canvas, over it shrouds,
Charcoal sunk bleak, nefarious clouds.
Majestic beauty so persuasive,
Yet icy insults so abrasive. 
Drenched relentless, to the beat;
Yet un-abating, suffocating heat.

Through pain, 
Through pleasure,

The mountains call.

Despite the weary battle fight,
Unseen demons of hidden fright;
Suddenly I thrive.
Suddenly:

I become alive.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Japan

Murakami. Hokusai. Sushi. Samurai. Ghibli. Kurosawa.

Japan had always been my dream destination. My fascination in the country and culture started in slightly an unusual way - sifting through my Van Gogh print book aged 11, I saw Vincent's Japanese art work, The Bridge in the Rain (after Hiroshige) and was rather taken by the image. On further inspection, I learnt of the original by Hiroshige and how Vincent had been influenced by the ukiyo-e prints.

I had no conscious awareness of the why, but I just knew the style ticked a certain box within my sense of order.

As I got older, the more I delved into Japanese culture, the more obsessed I became. I read the Pillow book of Sei Shonagon. I watched all the Kurosawa films I could get on VHS from the library (I've been concocting a whole blog post dedicated to my love affair with Ikuru for months), I bought all the Murakami I could afford (I remember trying to explain to a friend once why I loved his books "He writes what I'm thinking before I've even thought it"). It was a captivation gathering momentum like a bullet train. I apologise to my long suffering friends and family for not shutting up about all things Japan. Ever.

When I finally arrived in Tokyo in May, it was a surreal moment. I had waited for over twenty years to visit. I was expecting to step off the plane and implode in a pool of melted excitement and overly large robotic anime eyes. There I was, bleary eyed and sleep deprived, finally in my island of utopia. And yet all I could think about was my desperate need to redo my eyeliner and put a fresh cardigan on. I was wary of pandering to the cliches and stereotypes that could ruin an experience that I was so hoping would be holistic.

And yet within half an hour of landing, I was baffled and bemused by the technological and language cornucopia of confusion that was  - the Japanese 'western' toilet. Behold, what was this monstrosity of undecipherable instructions and buttons that before me! I regretted my unashamed lack of linguistic ability. It was such a stereotype, but the toilet really was a thing of great wonder and yet baffling eccentricity. And I had been reduced to helpless tourist buffoon (who also then would take a photo of a toilet).

Terrified that I might press an ejector seat button that would shoot me out of the airport terminal and into a prison cell, I luckily heard a yorkshire woman explaining to her daughter in the cubical next to me how to survive the experience. "What ever you do duck, don't press any buttons - thank geoff for auto-flush!" This northern lady was my saviour. I have no idea who Geoff was either but I thanked him too. I gave her a knowing glance at the wash-basin.

Later I would experience the 'non-western 'Japanese toilet. Which would be the complete opposite of these wizardry U-bend contraptions, and pretty much be a hole in the floor.

Exploring Tokyo alone was one of the most beautifully simple and yet touching moments I have ever had. I felt alive. Every cell in my body was in awe. It struck me that in such a vast, mammoth city; one with such a reputation for the eccentric, with such a deliciously bonkers and manic reputation, and as a westerner in a place I did not know, I felt remarkably at home. Much of it actually felt natural - yes it was very different, yes it was often aberrant, but I never felt uncomfortable. From witnessing a real life Mario kart race shooting down the road within minutes, fantastic anime posters, neon signs and lights screaming from the rafters; there were no Godzillas roaming the streets (yet) or robots offering me karaoke on hover-boards in cafes run by badgers.

Untitled

Delving deeper into the different neighbourhoods of Tokyo, my senses were on overload. There was so much going on around me. Tokyo is a schmorgasboard of curiosities, a 360 twitter feed of random. It's pulsating and crowded, but I never felt overwhelmed like I have in London or even Cardiff on rugby days. Not even on the packed rush hour trains and stations, where you get to know stranger's armpits a little more than you would probably choose. Or the Takeshita shopping street, with it's endless shops and bizarrely dressed characters (cats, school girls, the infamous Maid cafes); the sound of J-pop blaring out from every speaker-ed orifice. Even at the infamous Shibuya Zebra crossing, made famous by Bill Murray in Lost in Translation (yes another one of my obsessions), just a selfie stick away from the biggest profit making Starbucks in the world; where there must have been near thousands of people crossing hourly did it feel that overly crowded. It felt exciting. It felt bustling. From the dancing Elvis in the park to the wedding at a shrine. It just felt right.

The Japanese are wonderfully polite and respectful. I was astonished to see so many people give up seats for older people on buses and trains. They queue better than the British. And there is a strong respect for cleanliness. The streets are spotless - no chewing gum, no cigarette butts, no sweet wrappers. I have never seen such a clean major city - no rubbish, no trash, little graffiti. And there aren't even bins. It's like trash is the family shame and locked away in the attic like Bertha.

Untitled
The Japanese also love their shops. I didn't like shopping before I went to Japan. When I came back from Japan, I did not like shopping. I loved shopping in Japan.

From outlets that seemed to sell every single permutation of matcha-flavoured edible ANYTHING, to 12 storied high shops of endless anime related goods from books to figurines. Need a deodorant specifically for every third Tuesday of the month that smells like Elvis on the moon in the theme of your favourite anime cartoon? You can bet they had it.

The famous Akihabara district is also known as 'electric city'. Here you can walk down a street of electronic shops and pretty much buy all the parts you need to, for example, build an entire computer. Or electronic typewriter, or probably your own helicopter with go faster stripes called Gerald. You name the diode, its there.

And the food. I have long loved sushi - another reason why I was so keen to travel to Japan. But the food was something else. Japanese sushi, from the Tokyo Tsukiji fish market was out of this world - melt in your mouth raw salmon, the freshest fish I have ever eaten. But it was the noodle dishes that wowed me over - the ramen, which I had no idea was so fantastic. The comparison with British food was noticeable. Yes, there are fast food outlets like McDonalds etc. but the lack of cakes, processed breads, (processed foods in general really) cheese and milk and instead: lots of fish, rice, noodle dishes - you can understand why the Japanese are a very healthy country.

You could also buy meals that were made to look like bears. If you so wished. Anything is possible in Japan.

Untitled

I also visited the Studio Ghibli museum - an absolute must for any fan of the Ghibli films. It was delightfully strange but beautiful. I adore Ghibli films, and the museum was as charmingly bizarre as the films - that very odd but still very adorable way that only Ghibli seem to master so perfectly.

Tokyo image album

Travelling onto Kyoto, via the beautiful bullet train, it was interesting to see a different major Japanese city. The bullet train, or rather, Shinkansen - was so wonderful it has subsequently ruined all other methods of travel. The trains leave on time to the second. You travel at seemingly 398473947 mph. The *seats turn around*. It must be on par with travelling on the space shuttle.

Kyoto had a alternative feel, the buildings were older, and of a different style. Another vast city, but it wasn't quite so neon and highrise. It was in Kyoto I visited some of the most beautiful shrines and stunning areas of beauty, but it was also here that felt the most touristy and hectic - crowds of tourists swamping the shrines left you feeling (like in many similar areas across the world) that the sacrality of the experience is completely evaporated in a superabundance of selfies. But I very much loved the city.
Untitled

What was also interesting in Kyoto was learning about the Geisha (or rather, geiko); a fascinating aspect of Japanese culture. The Geiko historical walk was very insightful - not only to learn the history, but to learn about how our perceived knowledge on the Geiko lifestyle is actually inaccurate, how these histories and 'facts' become warped through time and urban myth. I was also lucky enough to see a couple of Geikos in their daily life.

Untitled

I also visited the Kyoto film studios; a huge japanese film fan I was very glad I did too. Whilst a theme park (and I am not normally a fan of theme parks that do not involve Lego - why pay a huge amount of money to stand in queues) this was hugely enjoyable, mostly for the Japanese movie history part, as well as some great samurai history and the chance to walk through film sets that are still used today. And the chance to do some play fighting on the mock rooftop. *kapow*

Kyoto photos

Travelling onto Hakone was an altogether different experience. Hakone is a town within the area of the volcanically active Mount Fuji, centering around Lake Ashi. The national park area, this was a complete contrast to the city life of Tokyo and Kyoto. Staying in an traditional Japanese Inn, with very basic shared rooms (although probably the most comfortable of any place I have stayed in a long time) I got to experience the onsen bath (hot spring bath). This was a slightly daunting prospect. There are many rules to the Onsen; you must wash carefully before you use it, you must be naked etc. I haven't been so nervous about doing something wrong since learning to drive, only this was worse - this was doing your driving test naked. The sleep and bath left me feeling centred and peaceful, something that I have trouble doing at home. Or perhaps it was the sake tasting night we enjoyed that evening.
Hakone
Unfortunately the weather was bad during my short time in Hakone, not only did this mean I did not get to see much of the mountains and country, but I was not able to do much walking/hiking either. This made me very sad and was probably the biggest disappointment of my time in Japan. But I vowed to return.

Hakone photos

In Osaka, I got to try some very 'Japan' experiences - a capsule hotel, a karaoke booth and samurai sword fighting/role play (and the next morning, possibly the worst hangover of my life thanks to said karaoke experience). Whilst I did not see much of Osaka, it seemed if anything, more party crazy than Tokyo. It was even more neon neon neon and party party party. The city equivalent of the duracel bunny.

The capsule hotel is probably not somewhere I would choose to stay again, but I am glad to have tried it. This hotel had more room than you would imagine for your space, obviously all shared wash facilities which were fine; however there were no locks on doors (well, shutters), you could hear the ant 100 yards away bottom burping, and it did all feel....well...a little odd. Like sleeping in a dormitory of small sheds mocked up like the inside of a very budget airline. However, I have stayed in worse hotels (mostly in London).

The karaoke was drunken and potty - it was like any other karaoke night I have had in the UK, the main difference being was the fact it lasted about a gazillion hours and there was all you can drink alcohol. The Japanese really love their karaoke.

I was keen to learn Samurai sword fighting. The Seven Samurai was another one of my Japanese and film obsessions since a teenager. And who hasn't fancied themselves as a bit of a samurai legend with a walking stick in front of the mirror when no one is looking. It was great fun, but I did realise I needed to learn more Japanese; taking instructions became arbitrary. However I learnt some of the basic moves - like many of these things, it looks a lot easier than it actually is. Also I found wearing a traditional kimono was akin to having a python of thick curtains suffocating your body. I have a new found respect for Japanese ladies.  There is video footage of the role play I took part in, watching back made me realise why the peak of my acting career ended with me pretending to be Mrs Overall reading alan bennett at Aberystwyth University theatre school.

Osaka photos

For all the incredible fun I was having in Japan, and I really was loving every single second of it - it was more than living up to my high expectations, my eyes were bulging with all the sights, my ears were tingling with all the sounds, my mouth was delirious with so much great food and I was meeting so many great people. There was however (unconscious to me but at the same time it was nagging) a need for something a little bit more consequential to my experience of Japan.

Then there was Hiroshima.

I had wanted to visit Hiroshima a great deal, and I had read a lot about the city, about what had happened there since history class in school. But even still, I don't think anything could have prepared me for the impact visiting the city would have on me.

Hiroshima is a lovely city and I liked it instantly. Different again to Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, it had its own personality and character. There were trams. It felt a little more slower paced for such a big city.
I spent my first day in Hiroshima visiting the world renown Itsukushima Shrine (it is known as the floating gate) and the rest of the island Itsukushima which is a stunning area of natural beauty. The weather was stifling hot. It was busy with tourists, although unlike Kyoto it did not feel oppressive. The tori gate was beautiful and I got to see not only beautiful beaches and landscapes but also a Japanese Noh theatre stage and take the fabulous cable car to see incredible views of Hiroshima, the ocean and the blue skies around. It was idyllic. You never think of Japan as being a place to have such beautiful sandy beaches.

O-torii gate, miyajama Island (Hiroshima)

What a wonderful day it had been. Back in Hiroshima after dinner and wandering back to the hotel at night, I found myself suddenly upon a rather innocuous little monument on a dark alleyway near where I was staying. It was then that the history of Hiroshima smacked me in the face - for this monument that I was standing next to was marking the very epi-centre of the world's first atomic bomb.

I could see what was known as the A-dome from my hotel room. The A-dome is the famously burnt out building that somehow 'survived' the devastation. Images of immediately after the bomb show carnage, yet there is the carcass of a building, standing there like a gaunt spectre.

The A-dome looked eerily beautiful at night - lit up and derelict, like a beautiful skeleton of a building overlooking the river amongst the trees and modern buildings. And here I was. Stood at the point of the atomic bomb. If I had been there in August 1945, I would be dead. The heat being hotter than the sun. It is not even something my small brain could comprehend.
Wandering back over to the peace park and A-dome, I felt a strange cloud creep over my skin. It was a sensation I could not quite comprehend and even now struggle to decipher. How could this place, this city, this street, this area, have seen such devastation? How could this be the same place as those horrific images of carnage, of unrecognisable twisted wreckage of destruction? The images of the bomb aftermath looked like images of hell; other worldly. How could anything recover from that? And yet this was this place I was in now. Buildings were standing. Cars were driving past. Trams were pootling along. I thought a lot suddenly about my family and friends back home and how lucky I was to have so many people in my life whom made just...being a lot more enjoyably fulfilling.
Peace park, Hiroshima
The next day I visited the peace park properly and saw the A-dome in the daylight. The peace park is beautifully put together - a quiet and (although feels a little naff to say so, but it really is) humbling place to walk around. A strong emphasis on remembrance of course, but also a strong sense of looking forward - promoting peace. The eternal flame burns until there are no more nuclear weaponry - a cleverly ironic and yet tragic symbol. There is something rather heartening in the fact the city is now again, a city. That the strength and the character of the place and its people saw such resolve to recover. The capacity for humankind to move on and rebuild should never be underestimated.

The A-dome itself yearned at me like there was something aching in within. I am fascinated with, and have been for a long time, the very existence of derelict buildings anyway, and I could not take my eyes off it. I felt drawn to it like a magnet. How could this building have survived the blast when all else had failed? I adore architecture and buildings, but for me I think the interest is in the history they hold - their story, their tale to tell. Few buildings in the world have a story quite like the A-dome.

Untitled
 I did not want to leave the A-dome, and I felt sad leaving Hiroshima. I still feel that indescribable random ache when I think about it, as if my own mind is still digesting the whole experience. Maybe the fact this was an act by the allies in WWII was causing conflict in my moral compass. Maybe I never will make sense of it, as if the horror of this history is too great for one average brain to fathom.

Hiroshima photos

I returned to the wonderful Tokyo for the remainder of my trip. More exploring of what was becoming my favourite city in the world. Aside from the earthquake that occurred, it was all wonderful and full on. This time staying in a different area of the city, in Shinjuku. I even saw Godzilla in the street - albeit not walking around but he was still there. The last day saw a visit to the robot restaurant which was a stereotypically insane Japanese affair that is like having your eyes and ears rinsed through a washing machine full of bling robots. It is an outrageous robot show with sharks and lasers and dancing ladies...I can honestly say I have never seen or heard anything as random, and I once saw the Krankies walking down the street in Australia.
Robot restaurant
Japan had spoilt me rotten. Like a overwhelmingly kind rich old relative, it had stuffed me full of treats and delights, and yet had taught me some important life lessons and teachings. It had exceeded my expectations. It had tickled my humour and yet showed me a different culture. I did not want to leave the country. I felt as if I had just glimpsed the tip of the iceberg and that Japan had much more to share - and I was greedy for it.

It is a cliche, but I felt Japan had changed me, it had given me more pieces to the jigsaw, it made me think and see things at home a little altered. Far from feeling lost in translation, I had felt oddly at home. It made me realise that I sometimes felt more alone in my home city of Cardiff amongst friends or family than I did completely alone amongst strangers in a foreign country. It had been my dream trip, and every second was a dream.

Japan is a country that gives so much. Beyond the stereotypes it is fascinating. It is beautiful. It is where I will return.