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Travel

Dunedin – the city where men come first

I’m not that into getting haircuts at the best of times. So take me to a new city in a foreign land and it’ll be even further down my list of priorities of things I want to do. But the time had come, before I developed a mullet or went back to the ‘90s curtains look, when I probably did need to bump it up my priority list.

I googled “barber in Dunedin”, and even in a small city I was hit with a bewildering array of results to choose from. Smartphone in hand, we headed out into the city to scope out some of these places, to see who would be getting my business. First off we walked past ‘Michael Shanks – Hair Design for Men’, which doubled as a convenience store at the front. I imagine it’d be like walking into a Co-op for your bread & milk, then once you were at the checkout deciding to get your haircut too (Would you like a hair cut with that, or just a 5p bag?). The Google rating was less than 4 stars and I didn’t need any groceries for now, so I decided to give this one a miss and continued to see what other hairdressers Dunedin had to offer me.

Next up was a fancy joint called ‘Schaartje | Barber’, it literally translates to ‘a barbershop that is a little bit fancy’ and checking on their website I saw that they were also on facebook, instagram and spotify. If you ask me this is way more online media than the kind of humble barbershop that I’d be looking for. A full blown audit of barbershops might seem a bit over the top, but back home it’s an easy decision.

Back in the UK I’d just go with the Turkish Barbers in Egham, where they’ll cut your hair, trim your nose hair and eyebrows (whether you need it or not), place a flamethrower to yours ears (again last time I checked my ears weren’t that hairy) AND throw in a cup of tea, all for less than the price of a round of drinks. Oh and they smother your face with a scalding hot towel at the end to freshen you up and suffocate you slightly (steaming your face without burning your balls). Quite a bargain if you ask me.

Then I came across ‘Bloke barber – where men come first’, now this one sounded a bit rough and ready for me and I had visions of coming out of there with a grade 1 all round and possibly even a tattoo. Helena was getting a little restless and said “You men have it so easy with haircuts, you just rock up and get one. Women have to book an appointment way in advance.”

A problem that I can’t really do much about, anyway I was trying to focus on the problem in hand of selecting the finest barber in all of the South Island. “Will you just hurry up and pick one?!” she said, clearly not wanting to spend the whole day in Dunedin just perusing various barbershops. Really I was looking for something in between Bloke and Schaartje, but Helena was probably right I just needed to pick one, we didn’t come 18,000km round the world just to get a haircut for me.

I decided to go with Bloke barbers and entered the front door, ready to take on my new Maori tattoo or whatever they were going to hit me with. There was a coffee shop at the front, which I aimed to walk past and headed straight to where people were sat having their hair cut, before a woman in the coffee shop asked “Are you here for a haircut?” I then saw that the coffee and barbers are one and the same.

“Yes I am” I say

“Do you have a reservation?”

“No” 

“OK it’s going to be a bit of wait.”

It’s clearly a thing in New Zealand to combine multiple outlets in one unit. If the next shop I went into to buy Fish & Chips had also offered to do my dry cleaning in the back, I swear I would not have batted an eyelid. And what was that about men not needing an appointment? I agreed to wait.

Amongst the people already having their haircut, one of the Maori staff was talking with a customer about the rugby on TV last night. Helena offered her support with the rugby chat if I needed it, to which I responded that I knew what rugby was, I just chose not to follow it. Maybe she could just stand there and talk to the guy while he cut my hair, it would at least save the small talk about where I was going on holiday next. As it happens I was more talkative than my barber, just a short conversation about our tour around NZ, with no mention of rucks, mauls and hakas.

At the end the barber showed me the back of my head from three different angles and like any British person does I just nodded and said “Yes that’s good…..mhmm…..yep fine.” Like I’m going to say anything else when he’s already chopped and shaved most of my hair off the back of my head. I settled up, went outside the shop and got a photo with the sign, sure in the knowledge that I was a man and I came first (apart from those men who had booked appointments in front of me).


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Travel

It’s a dangerous world out there #stayathome

We are all now aware of the dangers of coronavirus and what we should be doing (or not doing) to beat it, but on this trip (and in my life to date) I’ve come across other dangers, which I’ll go into here.

In Japan, Helena developed carpal tunnel syndrome, she’d been overusing her right wrist, most likely from using her ski poles to push herself along. It’s a conundrum – do you be a snowboarder with no poles who fears the flat sections or do you be a skier with a set of poles for propulsion and risk injury? It’s probably safer just working in an office and getting a mild case of RSI from using your mouse all day. The carpal tunnel syndrome woke her up in the middle of the night with a feeling of pins and needles, sometimes she had to stand up several times and shake it off – did Taylor Swift suffer from the same medical affliction I wonder. Helena googled her symptoms and diagnosed herself with carpal tunnel syndrome (as any good Doctor would recommend you do), the best treatment for which is rest and keeping it straight in a splint. We created a makeshift splint for her out of a long wooden spoon and electrical tape. It seemed to keep her wrist stationery and straight, but I wondered if I’d just cut off the circulation to her hand and it was only going to add to her list of ailments. 

Towards the end of February we were out ski touring one day, aiming to complete our first successful ski tour together when Helena got a nose bleed. I said “We can just head back to the mountain centre,” but no, Helena is a determined human and wanted to carry on. Besides, we’d gone through a fair amount of faffing just to get to this point in the day, getting all our ski equipment together and setting it up. I offered her my Buff neck warmer to stem the flow of bleeding and after saying “I couldn’t possibly take that”, she took it. I was getting brownie points for this I thought.

20 years ago on a ski holiday with family and friends and I got carried away on the first night out and had one too many beers. I put it down to the effect of the altitude on my body and the fact I was a lightweight. The following morning on the bus ride up to the ski resort and I was feeling ropey to say the least. It was a windy road and a packed out bus, full of heavily clothed humans radiating heat. I staved off the thoughts for as long as I could before announcing “I’m going to be sick,” after which followed a moment of panic when the people around me realised there wasn’t a sick bag and they were about to get rained on by the projectile vomiter. My Mum standing nearby did what Mums do best, offered her love in the form of a ski hat from on top of her head, thrusting it into my hands. It acted much like a sieve, but beggars can’t be choosers and it did manage to save those around me from full blown disaster. So in a sense, me offering up my piece of ski clothing to help Helena, I feel in some way reprieved from the shame of  this historical episode. 

The person in charge of sign writing at Kiroro Tribute resort liked to write in first person; English was probably not their first language, but it could be amusing nonetheless. Signs by the swimming pool displayed “I hope I do not run”. I hope he didn’t run either, but as for me making my way to the outside pool in the snow, I might have picked up the pace to a jog. The last time I ran by a pool was in Turkey in the Summer, when I was mock running to join the aqua aerobics class and my foot smashed through a plastic drain cover. I dropped to my knees but managed to climb out alive and make the aqua aerobics for a laugh.

Also there are signs on the walkway outside saying “Your feet are slippery” – it’s almost like this person had written the signs all the time thinking of me. He was absolutely right, my feet are slippery, especially when they have ice underneath them. Back at Hopi Hills we had a spell of warm weather in mid-February, where the snow melted and then froze again overnight. We walked across the car park in the morning on the way to our house keeping shift and Helena was shuffling her feet 1cm at a time, arms splayed horizontally for balance. I’m laughing at her inability to walk anything like normal in her snow boots when I seem to be managing just fine in my trainers. Five minutes later and I was approaching the Hopi Hills cafe when I stumbled upon a section of ice, and just like a cartoon clip of someone standing on a banana skin, I took off, momentarily my whole body leaving the Earth, feeling like I’d paused in mid-air and subsequently falling to the ground on my side with a big thud. Tessa happened to be nearby, always one to see the funny side of things (no I haven’t just broken my wrist, but thanks for your concern) said with a massive smile on her face “Wait till I tell Helena about this!”

We didn’t have many guests in towards the end of the season, so instead of cooking breakfast I was put on chain sawing duty. I don’t know if it’s a man thing, but there is something about taking a saw to wood and the sound that comes from a petrol-powered chain saw, it’s all a little bit exciting. But obviously also incredibly dangerous if you’re not careful with it. I felled several trees, some up to 50ft in height, while getting the tree to fall the way you planned feels like quite an achievement. Chanele asks if we are to do any more “see sawing” that day in her French accent, mixing up a motorised cutting tool with a long plank of wood that children swing up and down on. She has a good sense of humour and she too sees the funny side of mixing up her words. We talk about words in English that are different but sound very similar; letting her know that “Going to the beach” and “Going to the bitch” are two very different things. The next 24hrs include Chanele walking round the lounge saying “beach….bitch….sheep….ship….sheet….shit…hmmm this is difficult”. Something that an native English speaker takes for granted and may seem obvious, but when we try to say “Gerard Depardieu” with the correct pronunciation we just get laughed at, falling way short on getting the correct amount of rasp into the “ar” of “Gerard” and enough pout with the “dieu” of “Depardieu”. English is hard, so is French, and then Japanese is on another level.

At the pizza shop we were working with an oven that is 500 degrees centigrade; the pizzas take less than 2 minutes to cook in that heat, leave them a few seconds too long and they’ll be cremated and even the human dustbin (moi) will turn his nose up at them. Occasionally I’d touch the searing pizza trays by accident and like any self-respecting chef ended up with a few minor burn marks to my hands. These were not the worst burns I’ve had in my life though. That accolade still rests with the episode of me pouring a bowl of steaming water onto my crotch. I’d like to say this episode happened when I was a mere teenager, but in fact it was a few years after that (late 20s I seem to recall).

I was sitting on the sofa at home with a big bowl of steaming water on my lap, fresh from the kettle. I had a few spots on my face, and the idea was for the steam rising from the bowl to clear up my skin. I steamed my face for a few seconds, head under a tea towel and as I came up for air the whole thing tipped forward, and the entire boiling hot contents of the round bowl spilled onto my lap. It took a second for my mind to register what was happening, then I ran to the bathroom, desperately trying to get off my soaking wet tracksuit bottoms. Before too long my nether regions were under the shower in an attempt to cool the burn. 

Next thing I was in A&E talking to the nurse in triage “I’ve burned my balls,” is essentially what I needed to say. I got seen by the nurse pretty quickly, so I guess they thought it serious enough for me to jump the queue of people. “We’ll have to shave you down there,” says the nurse, Bic razor in hand.

“OK,” I said, now willing her to just get on with it and I looked the other way. My next recollection was waking up in a strange place with people running around me. I soon came around and realised what had happened as I was lying half-naked on the hospital floor, with medical staff running all around me.

After several of the medical staff had left the room and following a second more successful shaving session from the nurse, a gauze dressing was applied to the second-degree burn. “Next time, try going to a steam room,” the nurse said to me. “Also you don’t have many spots, I don’t think you need to be steaming your face”. She was probably right, but I’d heard about this idea and I had just wanted to test it out (the face steaming, not the ball burning). Next time you see on the internet “That one weird trick that fixes so and so”, you must ignore it, there’s a reason it’s weird. The only repercussion from that episode was the piece of gauze dropping out of my trousers and being lost somewhere in the Tesco supermarket near Royal Surrey Hospital that day, my apologies to the cleaner on shift. Everything else is in good working order, I can report.

Stay safe people. Stay at home.

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Travel

Slam your body down and wind it all around

Shingo (one of the Japanese staff at Hopi Hills) is very much looking forward to showing us a good time at a Japanese karaoke bar. Helena is driving us there and she makes it clear she wants us all awake on the drive home so that she doesn’t nod off. Despite my best efforts to get out of it, we arrive at the bar, 8 of us ready to sing some songs in our private karaoke booth. We take a seat in the bar area and after a few minutes of Tessa attempting to order a whisky and coke, I keep it simple and order a bilu (beer). The place is really smoky and it’s almost like we’ve gone back in time to how pubs and bars used to be before the smoking ban.

A microphone and a kind of karaoke tablet turn up at our table, and we soon realise we’re not having our own private booth. Any singing will have to be done in front of all the Japanese people already here, all enjoying a nice quiet drink out at their local. This is my first experience of karaoke, I guess as an introvert it’s just not an activity on the bucket list and it’s something I’ve managed to avoid for 37 years. 

After Tessa kicks us off with an opener, then Helena selects to sing “Pray” by Take That. She is horrified to hear that most people in our group have never even heard of Take That. She is going to educate them on that.

I’m not much of a movie buff as I said, and I’m not much of a music buff either. I float an idea with Helena that I’ll sing some Adele. “Strong choice,” she says, “good luck with that!” Aware of all of the pseudo X-Factor judges sitting around me, for my first gig I opt instead for “Hakuna Matata” from the Lion King. At least I can put on funny voices for Timon and Pumba and I have an excuse if it’s then terrible. The song is the original version, but I somehow manage to throw in some extra words from the Disney animation ad lib “Hey Pumba, not in front of the kids…. Hakuna Matata! What a wonderful phrase…”

I promise I did sing

As our friend Doirreann once said “Simon is like an extrovert trying to get out of an introvert’s body.” Now whether or not that is true, after the event I do feel quite good and I think about doing another song. Meanwhile the two extroverts team up to deliver the next song. Helena and Tessa give us a rendition of Spice Girls – “Wanna Be”. Helena knows all the moves and all of the words come to think of it. At the end of the song the video screen shows you the amount of calories that you’ve burnt through singing. I don’t think this takes into account Helena’s extra dancing – “slam your body down and wind it all around, slam your body down and wind it all around” is delivered with true gusto. Despite my newfound Spice Girls education, I still don’t have a clue what a “zigazig ah” is.

Tessa and Helena “Slam your body down and wind it all around”

We each add our song requests to the tablet and they get added to a queue. We alternate songs in the bar between our group and the local Japanese men who are also drinking here. It turns out they haven’t all just come here for a quiet drink. The Japanese men love to sing a ballad and they belt it out like their life depended on it. One man is sitting at the bar singing, the pained expression on his face is something to behold.

Whatever Japanese people do, they seem to do it with passion. Take the guy in the staff canteen blowing his nose directly into the sink that was designed (I assumed) for handwashing. Several good snorts later and he seems to be happy with his freed up nasal situation. I think if there was any coronavirus in him, it’ll now be somewhere in the plumbing system of the building. I catch the eye of someone else in the room and we are just laughing. Clearly and thankfully this public nose clearing is not a custom in Japan. Whether it’s nose blowing or karaoke, they give it their all.

In the bar it’s all you can drink for 20,000 yen, so the bilu keeps on flowing. I order a sake, and it comes in a massive glass, far bigger than any spirit you would get back home. I sip away at it painfully and as I near the end of it, Joe, one of the staff says “Another pint of sake mate?”. “Maybe just a half pint” I say, I’m joking of course, I’ve had enough Japanese rice wine for one night.

One of the French volunteers, Chanelle, takes the microphone and sings along. Except this time the song is in Japanese. This kind of blows us away as we hadn’t realized her Japanese was this good! As she finishes, the locals in the bar break into rapturous applause, with a few bowed heads thrown in for good measure. My rendition of Hakuna Matata did not receive a standing ovation like this. Sad times.

As the karaoke draws to a close, Shingo takes us to a bar nearby. Pretty much all the people in here appear to be young Australian men, barely out of high school. One of the girls points out that all the guys have moustaches and that they look the same. We’re not in November so they haven’t even grown the taches for charity. Earlier in the day I had shaved my beard, leaving just the moustache to see how it looked. For some reason this did make me look a bit Australian; perhaps it was just posing with a shovel on my shoulder that gave me that rugged Aussie look. After introducing myself to one of the European guests staying at Hopi Hills, from my accent they did not believe that I was from the UK and that I must be Australian. Crikey I thought! My moustache had to go, for fear of Immigration not letting me back in to Blighty.

Crikey! Chip off the old block

On the drive home, Helena has her wish granted and everyone is very much awake all the way home. Somebody starts a game “There were two on the back seat of the bus…”, eventually this song builds up to six people on the back seat of the bus. It’s all turned a bit raucous and while Helena keeps her steely attention on the road, I think she wishes everyone was asleep now. We get back to Hopi Hills way past our bedtime and we’re glad to be scheduled for a day off. The French staff have to be up at the crack of dawn to clean out the ducks. C’est la vie.

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Travel

Naked Bath

Helena and I take all of our clothes off and we’re ready for action. We are at the onsen in separate changing rooms, it’s not that kind of blog. An onsen is a Japanese hot spring communal bathing facility; Japan being a volcanically active country has thousands of them. Think Roman Baths, without the Romans. I walk through the changing room into the single sex onsen and sit down on the little stool to shower and wash myself before entering the onsen baths. Following protocol, I give myself a good scrubbing, using the shampoo, conditioner and body wash that is provided.

After a good rinsing, I make my way to the first bath that looks like a jacuzzi and I quickly notice that everyone has modesty towels with them, apart from me. I’m walking around butt naked and wondering if I’m doing it all wrong. I get in the first bath and the two people already in it get out, just a coincidence let’s hope.

There are signs everywhere saying “Cameras and filming equipment are prohibited”. I wonder, if they didn’t have these signs would people be walking around taking selfies and filming others. Maybe the signs had to be installed after an overzealous instagrammer had paid a visit.

My fingers are starting to resemble a prune in the warm water, so I move to the natural hot spring bath outside and join three others in the pool. This time they don’t get out, so maybe I’m not committing such a faux pas. The snow is falling heavily now and steam is rising from the circular pool.

There’s a sign above the hot spring showing a long list of ailments that the hot spring water treats, of which here are few:

  • Sensitivity to cold – if sensitivity to heat is your thing, this probably isn’t the place for you, as we get slowly boiled alive
  • Cuts, menstrual disorders, gastroenteritis – the water is pretty murky, but I keep telling myself this must be good for me
  • Chronic female disorders – unfortunate if you’re a male and your health is in a bad way
  • Sickly child – not sure if this is for children who are currently sick or for those adults who were sick as a child. I once told another kid at school that I played golf (very middle class ha!), and he asked ‘What is your handicap?’. I replied ‘I have asthma.’ I’m all well now, thanks for your concern and to the golf handicap question, I now respond with a number between 1 and 36

A Japanese man climbs into the pool and loses his footing; I have a vision of him falling and landing in the lap of the man opposite. That would be awkward and something I’d expect from a Gaijin (non-Asian person) rather than a Japanese onsen master. He manages to recover himself and takes a seat, he then places the modesty towel on top of his head before relaxing into the bath. It’s bad etiquette to get the modesty towel in the pool. At least I don’t have that problem to worry about. I’m starting to feel that I might be relaxed, but I haven’t quite decided yet. All the while I’m unsure, I probably could be more at ease.

My Dad played rugby in his 20s during which time he met my Mum; some of his best friends are still the people he played with back then. Mum once said that the thing he enjoyed most about it was the team bath afterwards and I presume the banter that came with it. Well Dad you should get yourself out here. Not sure what the Japanese banter is like, but team baths are all the rage across the country.

I walk into a final pool, which is freezing cold and well appreciated by this point. I then decide I’ve had enough hot and cold water shock therapy and make my way back to the changing room. As I’m getting changed, a female cleaner comes walking through the changing room with her mop. She whispers “sumimasen” (excuse me) as she navigates the room of men in varying states of nakedness. One of the perks of the job I guess, depending on your point of view.

I say to Helena ‘How was it for you?’ as we meet at the massage chairs in the unisex area, now fully clothed.

‘Interesting’ she says, ‘blimey you’re red!’ I think all the heat in my body moved to my head as I sat in the final cold bath. She continues ‘I got undressed and almost went into the pool area, before quickly realising the onsen was upstairs.’ Whoops.

We’re back at Hopi Hills in the evening discussing our first onsen trip. A lot of the other workers are seasoned onsen bathers already. When they discover that Helena has been sitting on the onsen bucket, that one should use to wash themselves, it amuses them quite a lot. ‘The stool that they give you is tiny!!’ Helena comes back with. She is breaking thousands of years of tradition, but maybe it’s the consultant in her that sees the process could be changed.

We have lost our onsen virginity and maybe the next time we go will be less of an experience and more of a relaxing endeavour as it is intended to be. Maybe

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Travel

The Egg Man

We have moved bedrooms and had a bit of an upgrade. We now have bunk beds and we seem to be sharing the room with fewer kamemushi (aka stinkbugs) than in our previous room. These little blighters, the size of a fly, are common in Japan and pretty harmless, but do release a stink if bothered. Helena elects to take the top bunk which has no sides to it. ‘It’s a long way down if you fall’ I say, ‘yeah’ she says ‘I want lots of sympathy if I fall’. ‘To be honest’ I say, ‘I think you’ll be dead if you fall from that height’. She’s not so keen for the top bunk anymore, and so I take one for the team and make the top bunk my new home. One morning, Helena says she thought there was another earthquake in the night, but actually it was me just turning over in bed. We’re eating a lot of pizza over here, so maybe it’s hit my waistline more than I realized.

We are now on breakfast duty 3 or 4 mornings in the week. One of Aussie guests says to me one morning ‘Are you the egg man?’. I say ‘yes I think so, would you like me to get you some more?’. He continues ‘No more, but they are delicious!’ One of the staff here also commented ‘Those eggs are the bomb!!’ Guys, I’m literally just making scrambled eggs, but hey I lap up the praise. I confess I have watched a video on YouTube with Gordon Ramsay showing how to professionally make scrambled eggs and also how to professionally swear. While Delia Smith once got a pasting in the news when she brought out a book teaching us how to cook eggs, I do pick up a couple of pointers from Gordon and I’ve not wasted 3 minutes of my life. Add butter, together with un-whisked eggs to the pan and cook those eggs f*cking slowly are the key points I took away.

We’re cooking on gas!

I’m pleased that the Aussie guests like the eggs. The other day I cleared away what I thought was all rubbish outside of their room. ‘Helena’ I said ‘we’ve hit the jackpot here, they’ve left coke, snickers, milky ways and loads of booze for us!’ That evening the owner asks us if we’ve seen all the food and drink the guests left outside of their room.The penny drops, “what a muppet” I think to myself, they’d left it outside their room to keep cool and they hadn’t checked out. We return all of the food and booze minus a couple of sugary items. I feel like I’ve redeemed myself somewhat, cooking them a tasty breakfast everyday since. A week later when the Aussie guests are actually checking out they say ‘Keep cooking those delicious eggs mate!’ I feel like I had a fairly good handle on Scrambled Eggs before I came to Hopi Hills but perhaps I’ve now found my calling in life, CEO at Hopi Hills (Chief Egg Officer).

In the restaurant kitchen I seek out the ingredients I need from the walk-in fridge. Some things are more clearly labelled than others. The Japanese language doesn’t have the equivalent of the English letter “l” according to Google. So the box labelled “Rettuce” contains a green, leafy vegetable that is used in salads and you will know well. All those customers at the pizza joint that I turned away asking for a “meat rover pizza”, I apologise, please come back and I’ll serve you up a delicious salami and sausage covered pizza. For the record my Japanese is pitiful (despite my LinkedIn profile at one point saying that I could speak 6 languages), and asking Japanese people to order from me in English in Japan does at times feel a little embarrassing and awkward.

Big box of lettuce

The last time we ate out for sushi was in Tokyo, near the old Tsujiki fish market. We opted for one of the smaller sushi set meals on the menu. I warned Helena about the sea urchin, from the time I’d had it previously, ‘the texture is like eating a soft squidy light brown dog poo (I imagine)’. Helena has the urchin and actually totally agrees with me. Washed down with some miso soup and that’s a couple less sea urchins to stand on in the sea and skewer your foot on. The rest of the sushi was delicious.

One day we ski in Rusutsu and Helena sees there is a sushi restaurant on the mountain ‘That’ll be expensive’ I say, to which she responds that I always say that. My counter argument is that when you’re up a mountain and away from the sea, perhaps fresh fish should not be the first choice of meal. Instead we opt for a Beef Ramen at the gondola base station; the restaurant has one of those vending machines that you put money into, push a button and it spits out your meal tickets. It’s sort of exciting because you’re never 100% sure what you’re ordering, all of the buttons are in Japanese and I’m matching the prices to pictures on the wall in a kind of Uno type food game, hoping I’m going to enjoy my food lucky dip. Just please don’t let it be sea urchin again. Thankfully I get a tasty Beef Ramen with udon noodles. It’s customary over here to slurp the noodles loudly if you’re enjoying them and while it feels very un-British, I give it good go and slurp away.

Helena pre sea urchin

The evening meals here at Hopi Hills are traditional Japanese, but the breakfasts I would describe as Western. For the two of us this usually consists of three courses, toast & jam, porridge & fruit and a bit of fried breakfast. The French girls seem pretty astounded at the amount of food us Brits can put away for breakfast; they have their orange juice and one slice of toast, while we are wolfing down the calories. Should one get lost in the backcountry, those extra calories will be very welcome. Helena affectionately refers to me as “The Human Dustbin”, due to my eating abilities; I’m sorry but a measly pain au chocolat and a jus d’orange is just not going to cut it for me.

Helena greets the customers in the morning and makes coffees. Despite her never drinking tea or coffee, she’s doing a good job and even practicing her coffee art. The Aussies here seem pretty obsessed about the process of making good coffee; the Australian coffee culture is one of the most refined in the world apparently. If anywhere has a refined Diet Coke culture, I reckon Helena could compete at a high level (soz H but you do call me a dustbin).

I’m working a pizza shift with Marion and we’re talking about food we both enjoy making. She tells me she likes to make pattiserie. When she asks me what I like to cook and I respond with ‘I actually like British cuisine’ ooh la la, she seems astounded that two words can actually be linked together. I guess Jamie Oliver and Tom Kerridge are not topping the cookery book charts in France just yet. With Marion’s bit of je ne sais quoi on the doughs and my pizza toppings, we manage to keep the customers happy.

The staff food here at Hopi Hills is actually pretty good. One of the favourites is okonomyaki, which is a Japanese pancake made of batter and cabbage. Okonomi means “what you like” and yaki means “cooked”. We get a whole selection of things that we can add to it, including vegetables, seafood and meats. One of the best things about it is just saying the name ok-on-om-i-yaki, it just feels quite good to say and you feel a tiny bit Japanese; saying “cabbage pancake” just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

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Travel

The GOAT

I manage to persuade Helena to come ski touring again; in fact she didn’t need much persuading. Today we are skiing with some guests staying at Hopi Hills, Jamie & Sebi, the “Swiss Boys”. They are repeat customers for the Kiroro backcountry and the famous light “Hokkaido powder”.

We travel to the resort in their car and Sebi wheelspins out of the car park with heavy rock music filling the car. If this is how the day starts, then it’s going to be an adrenaline fuelled one I think to myself. At Kiroro resort I register our climbing route with the Mountain Club, who work alongside the ski patrol. Joe from Sheffield working on the desk, ‘You’re not going to end up in Otaru again are you?’ he says smiling . ‘You heard about that?’ I say. Clearly the news of our little adventure has travelled. 

Jamie explains the plan for the day; the four of us will hike up the mountain as a group. They have a plane to catch this evening, so they’ll need to return earlier than usual. ‘Once we all get to the top, Sebi and I will ski down and you two can have some smoochie smoochie before heading down yourselves.’ Jamie is a joker and this is the Swiss banter we can expect, we both quite like it. Don’t make the mistake of saying these guys speak German (I did); it is Swiss-German they speak. They are both very polite, always addressing us by our first name. ‘Helena take one large step forward… Simon keep your weight on your wheels (I presume he means heels)… Helena do a big kick on your turn.’

Sebi is breaking the track for us in the fresh powder and we follow the channels that his skis make. Jamie says ‘Look at the goat go!’ looking up at Sebi sliding along gracefully. I ask if he is referring to Sebi as the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time). ‘Simon, be more like a mountain goat!’ he says, willing me on to keep up with Sebi. We then have a discussion about whether Roger Federer is the GOAT. Being Swiss, unsurprisingly Jamie is a big fan and believes Federer might well be the GOAT ‘He’s a nice guy too’ he says. Helena is not such a fan and says she thinks Rog is just a bit smug. Since we’re somewhat putting our lives in the hands of the Swiss Boys today, I suggest she lets it go.

Helena being a mountain goat

We’ve now been hiking mostly uphill for 1 ½ hours and Jamie points out it would take the two of them just 50 mins to get to the top on their own. ‘Helena you are with the Swiss men with Strong legs’ he says. I glance back to check no smoochie smoochie is happening. We continue climbing higher and due to the avalanche risk, we’re now moving through the trees rather than across the open snow face. The gradient is now quite steep and it can be tricky to kick turn in amongst the trees. ‘This slope is a tough motherfucker!’ Jamie says. ‘What’s that in Swiss German?’ I say. ‘We would say tough motherfucker’ he says. I’m glad we’ve cleared that up. I think what he’s trying to say is the fact that we’re still fairly new to touring, we’re doing OK. ‘We haven’t fallen over once today’ I say to Helena. This is a vast improvement on our first ski tour, when negotiating our way up the mountain and learning to kick turn at times we resembled Bambi on Ice. ‘Why did you say that?!’ Helena says, as she almost falls over doing a kick turn, but manages in the end to salvage it. ‘Oh Simon is skiing switch!’ Jamie says, as I’m sliding backwards down an icy steep section, trying but failing to get my skins gripping the snow. He has quite a good way of telling people what they’re doing wrong, but being funny at the same time.

Helena approaching the summit

We reach the summit and prepare our kit for the descent, which is a bit of a faff. I’m sure that pros can do this pretty quickly. I unclip from my bindings and stand in the snow, at which point I sink in it up to my waist; this bodes well for the ski down. The skins get peeled off the skis and thrown into our bags. We switch the boots from hike to ski mode and setup our bindings. Last thing is goggles on and we’re good to go. I ask Helena if it’s now time for the “smoochie smoochie”, ‘not now’ she says, I think Jamie is a bit disappointed, but she is now in the zone and ready to rip. We thank the Swiss Boys and say our farewells, they hang a left to ski the spine of AK face and we’re going to ski the trees until we reach the valley.

Jamie, Helena, me, Sebi

We ski down several turns in the deep untracked powder, as I turn I can feel the snow hitting my chest and face, it feels like a cloud. I stop and at the next line of trees and say to Helena ‘I think this is the first time that we’ve actually enjoyed ski touring’ and she was going to say exactly the same thing.

JaPOW!!!

As we reach the bottom of the valley, we realise that we’ve gone too far and will have to hike back up to get back on route. This feels like a pain, but this is ski touring and it comes with the territory. We cross the river running through the valley and I don’t fall in this time. Result. The path ahead is uphill so it’s time to get our skins attached to our skis. One of Helena’s skins has too much snow on it and will not glue to the ski and therefore won’t work. No skins, no going uphill. I suggest she tries moving with just one skin attached. It’s now snowing heavily and we’re tired and ready to be back home. Sensible skiers would probably now be enjoying their afternoon tea and cake, with their feet up back at their catered chalet. Not us though, we are up shit creek without a skin. I should mention at this point, that Helena skied into a tree the other day and fractured a rib, so she’s still in a lot of pain from that. Take a rest day you say? Have you met Helena?

When you ski in California they have signs that say “CAUTION TREES DON’T MOVE”, which seem ridiculous and funny at the time, but one or two here in Hokkaido would not have gone a miss.

Helpful sign in Lake Tahoe, but missing in Japan

I tell Helena to take my skis and I will take hers and try climbing with only one skin. I just need to clip in at the front, so that should work. I manage to make headway on Helena’s skis, with one ski gripping and the other slipping, looking like I am limping up the mountain on crutches. I take a shallower line up the slope and take a fresh line through the powder which gives me more grip on the snow. It’s still difficult though and I’m working hard to keep up with Helena. The enjoyment level by now has dropped somewhat, especially compared to the point of us claiming our love for ski touring, just one hour ago. ‘You’re my hero’ she says, as she’s standing on top of a hill, looking back at me in her new fatter skis. This is normally something she might say in jest, but I actually think she might mean it this time.

We are slowly coming round to the idea of hiking up the mountain to “earn our turns”. It’s a long way up for a few turns down, but those few turns down are pretty sweet. To the Swiss Boys, we owe you a beer.

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Travel

When ski touring goes bad

We register our backcountry ski plan with the ski patrol at 9am. So that it looks like we know what we’re doing we don’t ask any questions about the route. Then we set off for a couple of warm up runs at 9:30am; it has snowed overnight so the powder is pretty good even on the piste.

At the top of the chair lift we exit the resort through the backcountry gate. We attach our skins to our skis and off we begin to walk through the winter wonderland. I’m thinking how picturesque it looks with the new snowfall. Three guys are ahead of us, so the fact that we’re following another group’s tracks in the backcountry bodes well.

The plan is to ski a bit, put skins on, walk up a bit and repeat. This should be a fairly relaxed tour compared to the falling in the river inaugural touring day. The pitch of the slope is quite steep, but the snow is really deep so this will slow us down as we turn. We make a few turns in the powder and start to navigate our way through the bushes and trees that stand in our way.

Almost two hours after we’ve left the resort we’ve come quite a long way down and any tracks that we were following have since disappeared. Our hope that the tracks would return to the resort have not materialised and we are now lost and a long way from home. We put our skins back on and try to walk up the hill, but in parts it is too steep and there are too many trees. This is not going to work, the only way is to continue on down. 

Helena is exhausted and all the time I’m considering what we should do. Inside I am worried, but I keep moving as I know that is the only way we’ll get out of this situation. Even if we sit and hope ski patrol would find us, what would we do then?

‘I’m never touring again’ Helena says, not for the first time this trip, I think she might mean it this time. I now feel like we’ve gone too far down the mountain to hike back up. ‘We have three options’ I say, ‘the first is to try walking up back up this hill. The second is to continue along this river and hope that it takes us out into resort or onto the road. The third is that we call ski patrol.’ I am really hoping it is not the third option; firstly it would be highly embarrassing, and secondly I struggle to see how they could get us out of this valley.

‘I’ll be really annoyed if I haven’t burnt a million calories after this’ Helena says. ‘To be honest, I’ll be happy if we get out of this alive’ and I’m sure Helena senses the seriousness in my voice.

We continue skiing alongside a creek and crossing it every so often when the route becomes impassable on one side. In places the snow has built up enough to create a powdery bridge that makes for a precarious crossing. I say ‘Watch that hole there and the river there’, the last thing we want is one of us falling in and getting wet now.

We come across a cliff section that’s too steep to ski down, so I slide down on my back and manage to make it down, not gracefully, but I dust myself off and stand up. Helena has chosen a different route down and the next time I look there’s a tangled mess of skis, body and bamboo. ‘I can’t move Helena says’, her skis are stuck in the snow, ‘I can’t get out of here’, she’s said this before and this is starting to become a bit like the boy who cried wolf. ‘When you’ve finished larking about there’ I say, ‘it looks like there is a path here and it looks promising’. Thankfully she laughs, and I know that she’s not quite at breaking point.

Helena “larking about”

At about 12pm we start walking along this path; the snow is untouched and each step we take sinks into the deep snow. We figure this must be some kind of hiking trail or road in the summer. Our morale has risen since we found this track and we expect to hit a road pretty soon. ‘I can’t tell you when, but I am sure this path will lead to a road’ I say.

‘Just when I think we can’t get any lower, we do’ says Helena. ‘Are you talking mentally or topographically?’ I ask, ‘All roads lead to the sea as they say’. She is talking topographically.

Given our predicament, we are in surprisingly good spirits with good banter. ‘Is this the most adventurous and possibly most stupid thing we’ve ever done?’ I say. ‘Yes and I’m quite happy for it  to continue to be the most adventurous thing we’ve ever done’ Helena says. I think we are agreed on that.

As we walk along the snow-covered path, no other human has left a trace. In fact there are barely any animals either; fingers crossed no bears come out of hibernation early.

We come across a mirror with a sign beneath it, and to raise the spirits I say ‘do you know what that Japanese sign says?’, Helena says ‘No’ and I say ‘It says mirror.’ Helena actually seems to find this quite amusing and so we get a photo for the daily instagram. We’re actually looking a lot more content than we feel at the time.

It says mirror (actually it doesn’t)

I am so hot and sweaty from hiking, so I stop for a minute and take of my fleece and jacket and put them in my backpack. Suddenly I feel very cold and I have the realisation that when the sun goes down and we stop, we would get dangerously cold. We continue on. I am genuinely looking around the environment thinking “what would Bear Grylls do?”. He’d probably check into a local hotel via helicopter, but that’s beside the point. I think we would either make a shelter from the bamboo or continue walking through the night to stay warm enough.

Finally after about two and a half hours of walking, we reach a main road coming from Sapporo ski resort. Helena waves frantically at the first car that passes us and the Japanese lady simply smiles and waves back cheerily before driving off. I remind Helena that the correct method to hitch a ride is to stick out your thumb, so we both do this. Another car comes shortly after, sees us and pulls over. I ask him if he speaks English and he shakes his head saying no. Bollocks. He then sees all of our ski kit and bags and I sense he’s considering whether or not to just desert us. Helena says ‘Kiroro’ and the guy looks visibly shocked and shakes his head ‘Kiroro?’; it’s understandable as this is more than an hour’s drive from here. He then utters Otaru station and we nod our heads and say ‘Arigato gosai masu!’. He opens the boot and his car is pristine, with a pair of skis that looked like they’ve never seen snow in their lifetime. I get into the front of the car, a sweaty wreck, feeling embarrassed about our predicament and the fact we can’t speak more Japanese to explain our situation.

We get to Otaru station and our driver says ‘chotto matte’ and runs into the bus station to ask about onward travel for us. We’re left with the car, seemingly in the middle of a taxi rank with taxi drivers giving us stern looks and waving their hands. I’m told that the Japanese love it when you say sorry, so all I do is raise my hands and this seems to ease the problem. We unload all of our ski kit and I offer our driver money, which he point blank refuses. He seems worried that he hasn’t fully arranged our itinerary to return to Hopi Hills. Apparently Japan is one of the best countries to hitch-hike in and now I can see why. Again we say thank you very much, I put my hands together with a small bow and the good samaritan is off on his way.

Yes we made it out alive, but we both agree this was reckless and not a situation we should repeat in future. We were lucky to reach that road and not just end up in a valley. This was the backcountry. This shit was real. Lesson learned.

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Travel

When I grow up I want to be a Farmer

It’s true! I did want to be a Farmer when I was younger. I remember it clearly now, when I was seven years old and I was asked the timeless question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I answered ‘I either want to be a Farmer or a Senior Commercial Analyst.’ Well half of that is true. Anyway, so far it has been enjoyable doing some physical work on the farm here at Hopi Hills.

Also I get to play with the snowmobile. This thing is much heavier than I expected and the speedo goes up to 120 mph, it has some serious power to put down. I take Helena for a ride on the back. I say ‘hold on to me tightly’ and as I pull away slowly she lets out a yelp. Wait until I open up the throttle I think. I open up the throttle of course, and sure enough Helena lets out a full blown scream. I am loving this, but I think she is less so. We go round a corner and sink into the deep snow (do we need a snowmobile with fatter skis Helena?) and we both fall off in slow motion. Helena decides that’s enough fun for one day and gets off.

Liam (the owner) tells me to stick to the track, so in the beginning I do, then I realise I can go off-piste and let rip. Sorry Liam if you’re reading this, but your snow toy is back in the barn in one piece. One of the volunteers is filming me from a drone for a promotional video, so how can I give less than 100% for the performance? I squeeze the throttle on the handlebar to give full power and the snowmobile flies across the field of powder while the drone shoots over my head in the opposite direction. I feel a bit like I’m in a James Bond film. Boys will be boys.

One of the volunteers, Suha, is on a Hopi Hills housework shift with Helena. He tells Helena somewhat abruptly that she’s crap at making beds and asks how does she do it at home. Helena informs him that she has a cleaner who does it for her. He tells her that he’s worked with me and that I’m really good at making beds, and putting on the sheets in the correct fashion. He also commended my technique for cleaning the animal pens and picking up goat poo. This guy is just singing my praises. I don’t think Helena is offended too much being told she can’t make the bed. Helena is a bit miffed that my habit of picking things up quickly doesn’t seem to have halted.

Suha tells us about the animals we have on the farm; boy goats, ponies, alpacas, lady goats, an ostrich, boy rabbits and lady rabbits. This makes us laugh and think of home. Once my Mum told us about her pilot friend “the lady Captain”. Apparently the lady prefix was needed, because the vast majority of pilots (and Captains) are men, so perhaps it’s needed to reiterate the point that women can indeed fly aircraft. Maybe the lady goats have a special skill too beyond just eating hay; so far I have not seen it.

If any of the animals have anything close to a superpower it’s probably the alpacas. They can spit at you from 3 metres and hit you directly in the face. Helena has had this pleasure from both of the deceptively cute creatures. I tell her it’s just a power game and if you stare at them in the eyes, they’ll back down. I tell her this because it did indeed work for me on my first shift. The next day I get spat at in the face and I no longer claim to be an expert in alpaca behaviours.

The animal you probably want to be most worried about here is the ostrich. I’ll admit that even I am a little scared to approach the ostrich, so for someone who has a bird phobia (no names mentioned), this must be terrifying! Helena is on the animal feeding shift in the afternoon and she comes to find me and say ‘Will you be the best boyfriend ever?’. All I have to do is change the ostrich’s water to achieve this accolade, so I agree to the request. She says ‘I did feed it already and I did manage to get the ducks into their house, are you proud of me?. I feel very proud. I google how dangerous ostriches are and it turns out their kicks can kill a human or a potential predator like a lion.

I go and change the water for the big bird, with a little trepidation on my part and I manage to resurface unscathed.

Doing my Duke of Edinburgh Silver award at school I elected to do duck keeping as my skill. I think that some people saw this as a bit of a copout, because we already had ducks at home. So all I had to do was keep them alive and I was one step closer to getting my kudos from Prince Philip. 20 years on and I am putting those duck keeping skills to use again! One thing I can tell you is Japanese ducks are easy to put to bed, unlike their British counterparts. I recall hours spent running round the pond back home with my Dad, waving around garden canes to encourage them into their duck house and not unlike unruly children with a hesitant babysitter, they would just not go to bed. In the end this was to the fox’s benefit, but that’s another story. Forget herding cats, try herding (British) ducks. Once the Japanese ducks here are fed, it’s just a wave of the hand and they are in the duck house ready to lay an egg or two for breakfast…

Today we take the horses out for a ride. I take Ringa, and Helena’s steed is Tyro. There’s a third horse, Moose, who’s sole aim is to get in the way and bite us while we’re trying to tack up. I think about the Western horse riding I’ve done in the past and try to employ some horse whisperer techniques. I approach my horse the right way, I play mind games with Ringa, getting him to believe he’s calling the shots, but actually getting him to do what I want. I have the horses walking to me and I think I’ve nailed this natural horsemanship. Then I take the bridle and try to get the metal bit into the horse’s mouth. Ringa’s teeth are gritted and no matter how much are try, it’s not working. I speak to Liam and he slips on the bridle and bit into Ringa’s mouth in a few seconds. Maybe I won’t be the next horse whisperer in Japan just yet.

Helena is threatening to write a counter blog to mine, where she can take the piss out of me in her own blog. I think this a false threat and I don’t think she’s going to carry it out. She does have some potential comedy material on me though, so I’m watching my step.

Categories
Travel

I fell in a river

We made it to Kiroro, a small ski resort on Japan’s North island, Hokkaido. Not far from the larger and more famous resort, Niseko. We are staying at Hopi Hills for two months as workaway volunteers.

Despite the huge amounts of snow they get here, the roads still aren’t gritted. Two of the French workaway volunteers discovered this the hard way. Driving to the nearest town they managed to crash the work van and tip it over. Not wanting to stereotype, but as the vehicle was sliding off the road, they did both admit to saying ‘ooh la la!’ as they tipped over onto their side. Note to self, don’t say anything like “whoopsie daysie” if I manage to turn a vehicle over here, for fear of ribbing from the French girls.

We are working five days a week, making pizza, doing housework, making breakfast for the customers and the workers, moving snow and feeding the farm animals (who I will introduce in another blog). Jack of all trades, master of none – this is right up my street. The work hours are dotted around though, so we get to go skiing in between work.

Our staff accommodation is basic. As we have opted for the double room, we have to walk through the owner’s room and up a few steps to get to our room. So far on this trip we have survived a magnitude 5.0 earthquake, driven alongside lorries at 75km/h in a go-kart, been spat at by alpacas and I have fallen into an icy river on the mountain. But despite these things the one that has put me out of action is spraining my ankle from walking down these few steps trying to be quiet! Thankfully the ankle is fully on the mend, there’s enough snow around here to keep it on ice.

I think Helena is a bit worried about my affection for the Kiroro resident St Bernard dogs #sugarandhoku. I have reassured her that she is no. 1, but I think there might still be some jealousy there. I remember seeing Beethoven the film as a kid and telling my Mum on the way home it was the best film I’d ever seen. I never have been much of a film buff. The dogs seem to only bark at snowboarders, so that’s another reason to like them.

Pictures and Cuddles are OK with Sugar and Hoku #sugarandhoku

So we go skiing, probably the main reason that we’ve actually come here. We get on a four-man chair lift with a Japanese lady sat on the far left. We lower the bar and place our skis on the rests and the lady starts yelling “Odo odo!”. We shrug our shoulders and mumble ‘sorry we are English’, but she keeps going on about this ‘Odo’ and I don’t know what or who ‘Odo’ is. Finally the penny drops and we realise that the chair lift bar and bubble come down automatically in Japan, as we’re trying to yank it down, our Japanese friend is telling us it’s ‘Auto’.

Given the technology we’ve seen in Japan, we should not have been surprised by the automatic ski lifts. Take the toilets for example, with their permanently heated seats and water jets able to fire at different orifices if that is your thing (personally I’m sticking with the tried and tested toilet paper). One toilet in Tokyo even had a wand sanitizer; even from my days as a Harry Potter extra I have no clue what this does.

Toilet functions. Take your pick.

We go on our first ski tour. Once we figure out which way round our skins stick on to our skis (think “all the gear no idea”) and check our avalanche beacons, we set off.  Ten minutes in and we get to a river, where the way to cross it is along a fallen log, six feet above the ice cold water, the width of which is not much more than a ski boot’s length. We successfully manage to navigate our way across the log, shuffling inch by inch, trying not to think about falling in.

We hike up the hill, the toe of our boots attached to the binding, with the heel free to move and we learn to kick turn with some success and some falling over. We reach the summit of the ridge and prepare to ski by removing our skins and getting our kit ready for the descent. We set off from the top and approach a sea of powder, with the way in being a drop in off a snowy ledge. Tessa our resident guide jumps off the ledge and into the pillows of snow, and completes several turns whooping all the way down the slope. Helena is looking worried and tells me that she cannot do it. My response is somewhere in between telling her that she can do it and telling her that she has to do it and there’s no other option! Whatever I say must have worked, because she is off floating through the deep stuff before I know it. I follow up the rear wondering who’s going to save me in an avalanche. Snooze you lose I guess! Yes this is the Japow that I’d first heard about twenty years ago, seriously deep snow that hits your face as you carve your turns through it.

Coming down the mountain takes a fraction of the time it takes to go up (basic physics) and finally we return to that river crossing with the tree trunk. I’m waiting at the back of the group to cross the river and the next thing I know the ground is giving way beneath my right foot and I fall onto my knees in the river and the water goes up to my thighs. I feel the ice cold water rush over me and through my boots and Helena asks ‘Is it cold?’ I resist the urge to say ‘What the f*** do you think? It’s a mountain river!’, but actually I stay calm and eventually get myself up and out of the icy water. It’s been quite a challenging day all round with someone saying that she is never ski touring again.

I fell in a river #allthegearnoidea

Back at the ranch, Helena questions why she has fat skis and yet she still sinks in the snow. I tell her that she’ll sink on any ski and unsurprisingly this doesn’t go down too well. What I’m really trying to say is that anyone would sink into the snow, no matter how big the ski, it’s that basic physics again, but I can’t take back what I’ve already said.

Helena is worried I’m turning into a hipster/ski bum, as I haven’t shaved and I tried rolling up my hat so it’s not covering my ears (as all the cool kids seem to do out here). After half an hour (indoors) I get cold and start wearing my hat properly so it covers my ears, I don’t think I’m cut out to be a hipster. Despite what you have just read, we have enjoyed our first two weeks in Japan and adjusting to a new and very different way of life!

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Travel

Definitely Not Mario Kart

We set off on the go-karts from Shinagawa, me as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and Helena as Tigger. Our tour guide pulls away, followed by 4 young guys in our group dubbed “Team Korea”. “Team London” (the two of us), follow up the rear. All is going well until 400 yards in, Helena’s kart is flagging and she pulls over to the side of the road. I stop just ahead and wait at the pedestrian crossing, my engine idling, feeling like a bit of a plonker sat in a go-kart on a main road in Japan dressed as a cartoon character, with onlookers and their prying eyes. 

Tigger is sat at the side of the road with her hazard lights on, in the hope they give her toy car some clout with a Tokyo bus now sitting behind her and expecting her to do something. Just before the bus driver loses it, she gets it into gear and trundles along to join me and we pull up to the next T-junction, bus crisis averted.

Helena starts to panic. “The group has left us” she says, “what are we going to do?”. Being the calm one, I coolly reassure her “well the group are just going to come back for us”. “But what if they don’t?” she says. Before Raphael and Tigger descend into a meltdown, our guide comes jogging round the bend dressed as Pikachu to ask if we are ok. And so we rejoin the group and our seven go-karts snake along the street, with engines screaming into the night.

We move into a busy part of Tokyo, with the Tokyo tower lit up and looming in the distance, like a poor man’s Eiffel Tower. It’s actually still quite impressive, but my mind is now more focused on the lorry driver right up behind me blowing his horn. Pikachu has not been quick to pull away at the lights and this guy clearly doesn’t have any patience for people having fun. I give him a cursory glance; if this turns into full blown road rage, I just haven’t covered that section in Japanese for Beginners yet. 

Before the tour started we were given a brief by the guides about what to do in different driving situations, delivered in a serious tone, while we all sat in our ridiculous onsie costumes. If we get overtaken, we should not try to race with the BMW, rather our guide will pull over and we will then just rejoin the group. We are told to keep the group together by leaving just one kart’s distance between each of us. We are also told not to beep our horns too much or use full-beam lights, “we don’t want to wake the cops” we’re told. Before booking this tour I googled it and saw that a Taiwanese customer had been involved in a hit and run while on a tour and the police had charged him. Note to self, if I hit someone or something don’t just drive off without stopping, this isn’t a video game where you can hit the restart button.

30 minutes into the tour we take a comfort break and have a quick drink at a rooftop bar seeing the Toyosu Fish Market and Disneyland Tokyo in the distance (Helena definitely wishes she was there rather than here). Pikachu informs us that we’ll now be heading onto Rainbow Bridge. As we get to the bridge it starts with a long upward slope sweeping round and everyone must have their accelerator flat to the floor, as we are all buzzing along at 40km/h. Unlike the Rainbow Road course in Super Mario Kart, this road does at least have sides to it, so there’s not much danger of us barreling over the edge into oblivion should we misjudge a corner or get shunted by another vehicle. 

Now it’s possible that this tour could be a great way to see the city, looking out from the bridge to the Tokyo skyline, except that I’m keeping my concentration on the road because there is a 40-tonne lorry overtaking me on my right and even though the potholes are not large, they cause the small go-kart to twitch left and right on the road.

Onto the second half of the bridge and we all still have our right foot flat to the floor, my speed dial is now in the red, with Helena 30 yards in front. I see our leader in the distance on the road sweeping down and around, with the first of Team Korea just a kart’s length behind him, both going 75 km/h+. Bit of a disaster waiting to happen if you ask me! Tipping is not customary in Japan, but in our briefing we are told that our guides do accept tips, so I think that our guide might be travelling at double the speed limit aiming to fulfill Team Korea’s boyhood dreams in the hope of getting several thousand yen in return.

We pull up at the traffic lights at Shibuya crossing, Tokyo’s iconic intersection where up to 1000 people can cross at a time. Our guide tells us to high five, so cringing slightly H and I carry out a really lame high five that can be caught on Pikachu’s camera. Again Pikachu is working for tips and taking photos of us all almost every time we stop at traffic lights.

We’re sat there, all of our engines idling at the crossing, and I can just feel my lungs filling with the exhaust fumes. Team Korea are all wearing the white face masks that seem to have taken off in Asia much more than back home. Now is the first time in my life where I think I could do with one right now. Team Korea ask Pikachu if we can take another pitstop and so after a few minutes we stop at a convenient place for us, but pretty inconvenient for the traffic trying to pass us. Scooby Doo then rushes off to the toilet in a bar, followed by Sesame Street’s Elmo (I think). Clearly all this excitement has got to them and their bladders have been overworked.

We pull up alongside a section of road construction. The Foreman doesn’t look all that happy, he’s probably just started his shift and has a long night ahead. He looks at the seven of us various cartoon characters and I expect him to detest us, except that he just lets out a little laugh and smiles. Whether the sight of us muppets cheered up his night a little, laughing with us or at us, who knows! Helena reminds me of the tourists who cycle around London on the mobile bar drinking beer, holding up the traffic and generally being raucous and annoying anyone going about their daily business. We might just be those annoying people.

Eventually all seven of us pull up at Shinagawa, pretty exhausted after 2 hours of driving, all happy to have survived the trip. I understand the company has been in a legal case with Nintendo over a copyright issue. The company was originally marketed as Maricar and customers drove around dressed as Mario and Luigi; I mean that sounds nothing like Mario Kart if you ask me… Given the danger involved I can see why Nintendo wouldn’t want anything to do with it!

Post go-karting we head home via a gyoza spot, after working out that we need to put money in the vending machine to get served, then the gyoza and rice are delivered to the table. Amazing.