Tag Archives: holidays

Japan Journal #3: Comical car names

I sometimes wonder whether wine labels are the product of random word generators. Or hallucinogens. How else could a single grape product offer lingering impressions of liquorice, tobacco, Old Spice, gumboot rubber and Scandinavian sauna timbers?

Product names can also seem somewhat arbitrary. Car names, for example. Mitsubishi’s Pajero model remains in circulation here despite an under-researched Spanish translation that rhymes with banker.

Toyota once released a short-lived wagon in Australia that was branded the Tercel but the public was clueless as to whether it was pronounced Turk-ell, Terse-ell or another way. Ultimately, the phonetics didn’t matter as it was nick-named the Turkey.

Arriving in Tokyo, my first impression of the cars was that they were boxy and tiny – built to fit cramped parking spaces in narrow suburban streets. I was also impressed by the extent to which Japanese manufacturers tailor vehicles to populations. The big Japanese cars we see in Australia were few and far between on roads in their country of origin.

But back to names. I thought locally made cars might be labelled with Japanese characters that I wouldn’t be able to read. Nope. English prevailed – although I’m unsure how fluent the marketing teams were, based on the models I observed over the course of a six-hour bus ride. Please buckle up for the quirkiest car models I spotted – and some possible interpretations.


  • Cocoa (Small, brown and never as warm as you’d hope?)
  • Latte (Small, brown and able to jump start its driver in the morning?)


  • Fit (Only drives you to gym and back?)
  • Freed (Only for ex-convicts?)
  • N Box (Lets you check your email while driving?)
  • N One (The car you have when you’re not having a car?)
  • Spike (For Buffy fans or for when you need to puncture a traffic snarl?)
  • Stepwgn (Suitable only for blended families?)
  • Vamos (For when you want to vamoose?)


Axela (Built for choreographed spinning on icy roads?)


  • Clipper (For sea captains, barbers or hit-run drivers … or those who park by touch?)
  • March (For those who prefer to walk?)
  • Note (For forgetful drivers? Or secretaries?)
  • Stagea (Hmm. For those who love the limelight?)


SEdition (My personal favourite. Clearly for the rebel in the family?)


  • Allion (For the king of the urban jungle?)
  • Alphard (Mountainous roads best avoided?)
  • Fielder (Toyota teammate to the Batter and Pitcher?)
  • Isis Platana (I’m stumped by this one. A fertility boosting, dreadlocked green machine?)
  • Noah (Strictly for bearded drivers transporting species two by two?)
  • Ractis (Golly. A medical issue?)
  • Spade (For when you need to dig yourself out of snow?)
  • Vellfire (Because Hellfire sounded too satanic?)
  • Vitz (Pill-shaped and designed to put the pep back into your life?)
  • Voxy (Petite, opinionated and possibly diseased?)
  • Wish (As in you wish you had an Aston Martin?)

As a proud owner of a Japanese car, my translations are totally tongue in cheek. Then again, perhaps my future is in consulting to the car industry on model names. Or concocting wine labels…

Your Wish is granted.
Your Wish is granted.
The Vellfire - for motoring through Hades? Or on a velodrome?
The Vellfire – for motoring through Hades? Or on a velodrome?
The randomly named Ractis.
The randomly named Ractis.

Japan Journal #2: Christmas

Soon after our marriage, my wife was posted to New York for four months. I joined her after two and we had a bitterly cold, if not white, Christmas in the Big Apple.

New York is massively multicultural but Christmas was everywhere. A capella carollers in subways; crowds around the Macy’s window displays; the Empire State building lit up in green and red; the bell-ringing Santa Claus outside stores raising money for charity; the Rockefeller Centre Christmas tree; ice-skating in Central Park. Back in our apartment we put on a CD of Australian artists singing yuletide songs and, as Paul Kelly’s brilliant How to Make Gravy spoke of isolation and wishes, the homesickness kicked in and tears rolled down my cheeks.

Don’t get me wrong, it was a Christmas I loved and will never forget. We spent the day doing a bicycle tour of Central Park, guided by an off-duty New York fireman. Dinner was shared with visiting family and friends and we made the most of the fact that Manhattan doesn’t slip into an overfed slumber, like many Aussie cities, on December 25.

In 2013 we spent Christmas day in Tokyo. The Christmas story I embrace centres on family and kindness and a reason to believe in good things. I was confident those ingredients would travel with us whatever we were doing, wherever we found ourselves. Needless to say, Tokyo still managed to surprise me.

In Tokyo, Christmas was very much an anomalous, Santa-centric celebration, mainly promoted by retailers. On Christmas Eve I trudged over to our local supermarket (dubbed the ‘Happy Carrot’ by the Little Monkey) and was hugely amused to find the staff removing all traces of Christmas decorations before the day had even arrived. They were replacing them with New Year wreaths and gifts ready for Japan’s main holiday – a three-day break when when shrines and temples around the nation overflow with people making wishes for the future and setting things right with the past. The cranky Happy Carrot manager could clearly do without Santa in such proximity to January 1.

Inner Tokyo shines with pulsating neon the colours of the Great Barrier Reef. Major retail superstores were bedecked with Christmas decorations but the off-beat English captions and concepts kept us grinning like loons. At one of the prestigious Shinjuku stores, the proud window display theme was, ‘Have a heart of Santa Claus!’ Mmmm, chewy.

Santa hats were everywhere. Indeed, we were inspired to collect photos of the weirdest items we could find in a Santa costume. I give you Santa Darth Vader, Santa sumo, Santa Hello Kitty, Santa Buzz Lightyear, Santa aliens, Santa duck, Santa penguin, Santa Totoro and a fibreglass golden retriever wearing a Christmas tree helmet. My personal favourite was a white Christmas tree decorated with blue baubles, tinsel and … fibreglass rashers of bacon.

Posses of giggling Harajuku girls shivered in Santa inspired mini-dresses throughout the city. Perfumed store touts in knee-high faux-fur boots and Santa skirts beckoned us into their fluorescent lairs. Christmas muzak played anywhere a loudspeaker was available. (When we ventured outside Tokyo to a ski resort toboggan run, chipmunky versions of Jingle Bells and Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer were on a permanent looping mix tape with Happy Birthday, Frere Jacques and various nursery rhymes. Globalisation squeaked large.)

Knowing that a Japanese Christmas was unlikely to feel particularly Christmassy, we’d taken steps to make the day memorable. We pre-booked tickets to the Studio Ghibli Museum that is the spiritual home of the work of master animator Hayao Miyazaki and his team. Two subway trains and a decent walk and we were greeted by Totoro in a ticket booth (and some extra officious security staff.)

One of the pitfalls of being a tourist on a tight budget and taut calendar is the tendency to tick boxes – seen it, seen it, what’s next? I plead guilty to approaching the museum this way, at least for the first hour. We stood in line for an exclusive short film screening, a delectable love story about a spider and a water strider. I rushed to see the rooftop robot from Laputa – Castle in the Sky (pictured in my previous post) and the cat bus from My Friend Totoro. I found the museum crowded, cluttered and difficult to navigate. Passageways and rooms had an Escher-like quality; I couldn’t retrace my steps anywhere easily.

Then I slowed down. I started to understand this was a place not to tick boxes or time-slot like Tokyo Disney. Getting lost and then drifting like a forest spirit was the whole idea. I found rooms I had bustled by unseeing, including a reproduction of Mr Miyazaki’s excellent studio. I discovered nooks and details designed to slow the heart rate and revive the goshness in small things. Like claymation animators, we were supposed to see the space between movements, the blink and the wonder.

We ended up staying until well after dark, drinking hot ginger beer in the Straw Hat cafe. The kids were somewhat underwhelmed, visiting the day after traversing acres of Disneyland. I wasn’t. The Studio Ghibli method and message still resonate. I can’t think of a better place to spend a Tokyo Christmas.

Totoro greets guests at the Studio Ghibli Museum.
Totoro greets guests at the Studio Ghibli Museum.
Add flavour to your Christmas decorations!
Add flavour to your Christmas decorations!

Japan Journal #1

I’ve a long-held fascination with Japan. I studied Japanese for three years in secondary school where I was fortunate to be taught by a brilliant teacher. Mr Scott, thank you. Domo arigatoo gozaimasu.

I had to change schools for VCE due to a family move south and, unfortunately, Japanese wasn’t on the curriculum. I resumed my study of Japanese in first year university and was spectacularly unsuccessful, perhaps due to the two year hiatus, perhaps due to my initial tertiary education culture shock.

My first visit to Japan was a six-day sprint with a mate who had a stopover on the way to the US. We used the bullet trains and visited three cities in rapid-fire fashion. I loved it. It was also mighty surprising how much of Mr Scott’s teachings came back after twenty years in hibernation. And a beverage or two.

My family booked tickets to travel to Japan in 2011 but, after the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear catastrophe, being tourists in a devastated nation didn’t seem like a good thing. Our household’s love of Japanese culture (manga, Studio Ghibli and more) continued to grow though. When we received an invitation to spend Christmas 2013 with friends in Japan, we didn’t have to ponder over our answer for long.

We departed a week before Christmas and were away three weeks. I planned to post my impressions while we were away but issues with wifi stymied that. Instead I took notes for the novel I am currently working on (part set in Japan,) and even managed to write a few thousand words.

I’m now sitting with a view down my favourite coastline, about to stroll to the beach. The Japanese winter seems a distant memory. Work and the daily grind is approaching quicker than I’d prefer. What does this mean? It means I need to blog my Japanese impressions while they’re reasonably fresh. Please fasten your seatbelts for a series of Japanese posts over the next few weeks.

Happy new year to all my readers!


Ghosts and angels

Travel inspires and recharges me. New places and faces contain a wealth of lessons and ideas. After a week in the Top End of Australia my head is buzzing like a wasps’ nest.

Here are some initial thoughts on Darwin and surrounds, with apologies for a mind somewhat addled by lack of sleep:

1. A cohort of the indigenous Territorians wander like ghosts. They avoid eye contact and are ignored or unseen by much of the non-indigenous population. (That said, I saw local retailers treat them with contempt and/or prey on these lost souls.)

2. Indigenous communities relied on their elders to pass on learning, law, respect and traditions. Many of the elders were stripped of their lands, families, choices and dignity. Many were rendered impotent and unable to pass on their knowledge. Crippled. The ghosts are the result of generations of grief, loss and confusion. Think of the faces of the Japanese people after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear contamination and multiply that shock and pain by four or five generations.

3. Just as many indigenous communities have lost their leaders and elders I wonder if something similar is happening to us non-indigenous Australians. How so? As I tend to do when travelling, I spent time chatting to fellow adventurers, particularly the so-called grey nomads with their caravans. I was struck by how several of these older Australians missed their children and grand-children, how lonely they seemed to be on the road.

I spoke to one couple who came to a water-slide park to watch children having fun because they missed their 15 grandkids. Another couple spoke of the tribulations of watching a child’s life turn sour and how helpless they felt at a distance. Their holiday was great but what waited for them at home?

Is this what our white ‘Balanda’ culture demands? That we work and raise kids for 40 years or so until retirement? Then, having earned the right to a rest, we disappear out of sight, out of mind, taking our stories with us? What comes after the grand nomadic adventure? The retirement villa? Palliative care?

I’m not opposed to travel after retirement. All power to those who can afford to do it. Bring it on. But I can’t help thinking we have things arse about. We shouldn’t have to defer the grand adventures until we’re 60.

And we should listen to the knowledge and stories of our local elders in their natural habitats, not just over shared benches and laundry troughs in caravan parks. Our urban and rural communities need leadership and gentle guidance from elders just as many indigenous people do. Otherwise we risk generations of ghost children, too.

4. I needed help during this holiday after our hire car unexpectedly ran out of fuel. Turns out the first half tank of petrol and the second weren’t exactly even. Anyway, I stuck out my thumb and the third vehicle to approach pulled over, took my whole family on board, ferried us to a petrol station and then detoured back to deposit us at our car. That was a round trip of 60km and almost an hour’s extra driving – even though our rescuer was on the way to the airport herself.

I found myself wondering if she would have stopped and been as generous if I was one of the ghosts. The answer is an emphatic yes. She was an absolute angel, a health worker in a remote indigenous community and an inspiration. Her attitude was, “I would hope someone would do the same for me. It’s the right thing to do.” It’s people like this who give me hope we can turn around generations of trauma and despair. It’s great to know there are truly good people standing against the tide.

5. The Kakadu wetlands are perhaps the most tranquil and beautiful place I have ever seen. I’m privileged to have seen a sunset and a sunrise and spent four hours in this gobsmackingly gorgeous setting. I hope I can return there in my mind when life isn’t so serene.

Kakadu sunset