Tag Archives: travel

Japan Journal #4 – Space & pace

In my home city of Melbourne the population density is estimated at 430 people per square kilometre. In Tokyo the figure is 6000 people per square kilometre.

Japan has an overall population density of approximately 350 people per square kilometre. In Australia you’re looking at roughly three people per square kilometre*. That’s right, three.

That’s ample room to swing a cat, even of the sabre-tooth variety. If you’re antisocial by nature you could stroll around your square kilometre and feel fairly confident you wouldn’t bump into a single soul.

OK, much of Australia’s red, ‘dead’ heart is desert and unsuitable for high density habitation. This is why we sunburnt Aussies stick to the coastlines where it is wetter and greener. It’s also why the density numbers for Melbourne and Sydney are so much higher than the national average — and why traffic and public transport issues are top of mind for so many people.

For all our huffing and puffing, Melbourne’s 430 people / km2 hardly compares with Tokyo’s 6000. We could learn a lot from the Japanese mega-city.


My sense of Tokyo is that for all the crowding it doesn’t feel cluttered. The populace live side-by-side politely, patiently and efficiently. Space, the commodity many Australians have in abundance, is rarely wasted.

Living in Tokyo made me conscious of how we can make do with less. Why build big houses full of single-purpose rooms that are empty most of the day when you can stow your bedding each morning and turn sleeping space into living areas?

If you absolutely must own a motor vehicle, why not opt for a petite machine purpose-built for the tight parking spaces available.

A gap between buildings could fit one car-parking space — or six if you build an elevator that enables cars to be stored on top of each other. A steep, narrow sliver of land that’s probably no good for anything else could be perfectly fine for a cemetery.

Japanese garden design also reflects this capacity to optimise surroundings. Entire gardens are designed around what does NOT fit in a property. You simply ‘borrow’ scenery in the background, such as a hillside or a neighbour’s tree, by framing it with plants in your own garden.


Paths in Japanese gardens meander. The wisdom of a winding path, apart from being an excellent metaphor, is that each change of angle provides a different view. The gardener can craft several scenes from one. With this in mind they deliberately slow our progress, encouraging meditation and appreciation, rather than impatience and bustle.

The other place where this cultural prescription to slow down was obvious was in the public baths. We stayed a week in the mountains where the plumbing was often frozen solid. This didn’t matter as bathing took place at one of several local ‘onsen’.

Part of the reason I’m posting this so long after our trip is that I have been musing over the things I liked best about Japanese customs. Ten months down the track, I have to say I miss the public baths.

The onsen routine involved stripping down, scrubbing forensically in an open showering area, then moving to hot/very hot/cold indoor or outdoor pools to soak. I suspect public (segregated) bathing probably lessens hang-ups about body image but the ritual certainly had other benefits.

The onsen deliberately takes the pace off your life. It cleanses not just the outer layer but the inner, soaking up accumulated stress. As a full stop to a 24-hour period, it’s a very smart piece of punctuation.

I reckon I could use an onsen in my ‘hood.

Slow down. One step at a time.
Slow down. One step at a time.

(*I note that population data does not include those held in refugee incarceration facilities. My point is not that this would alter population density; the statistical impact is likely to be insignificant in an Australian context. It’s more a realisation that once you’re a stateless person, you’re apparently also a non-person. You don’t count in the country where you are seeking refuge.)

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 #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