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.


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.


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