Semmit is Scots for vest or undershirt as some people say. In one of these the Clootie Dumpling was traditionally cooked.
When I was a boy, my Auntie Janet would cook dumpling and we all loved it. It was not a dessert but a main meal.When unwrapped from the semmit, it would steam gloriously. A good dumpling was always coated with a thin skin of pure white fat.
What joy to get a wonderful Xmas present from my sister Rosy. It is a recipe for dumpling written by my Mother, which somehow Rosy had printed onto a tea towel. It is now on my bedroom wall.
My Mother’s handwriting is beautiful and for me instantly recognizable. How many letters when I was at boarding school.
The recipe is not traditional. Microwaves were unimaginable in 1960’s Scotland. A dumpling was steamed for 4 hours in a semmit.
Anyway this is an introduction to the fact that I finally made it back to Okinawa. My God, what a trip.
A new state of emergency was announced the day after I got here, basically stay at home.
I recently put my iPhone through a 90 minute washing machine cycle and killed it.
3 days later I hear it ringing from my bag! It was a bit scary. Miracles usually are.
Is God trying to tell me something ?
The beginning of self isolation was quite fun. Bright eyed and bushy tailed, I explored the neighborhood and reveled in the newness of of it all. I cooked extravagant meals and drank fine wine.
The last few days have been awful. For 2 weeks, I have not spoken to anyone face to face, excepting shop assistants, limited exchange of views, and the young man who rescued me when I locked myself out. I have thoroughly stomped around streets around me. Apart from Asakusa, they have not yielded much of interest. There are various little parks, but to be fair, it is the middle of winter and they are drab. I am so bored, cabined, cribbed, confined.
I get up late, I can’t be bothered to shave, I go to the Combini to buy food.
The positive side of this dullness is that I have learned to appreciate the wonderfullness of Japanese Combini. It has taken 10 years.
I had a colleague at OIST who could not drive. This is not uncommon as it is a pain to get a driving license in Japan and if you live in a big city you do not need one anyway. I asked where she got her food from. “The Combini, of course.” I regret to say that she fell in my estimation as I imagined this very senior person lived on pot noodles and onigiri.
Wrong! My stay in isolation has revealed that these places offer a fantastic range of fresh meals, soups and especially salads.
So, all things being even, I return to Okinawa tomorrow. It has been a long trip back from San Francisco.
As I spend my days locked down in Tokyo, I am only allowed two outdoor activities. The first is shopping, which means I eat and drink too much. The second is recreational walks, which means I spend a couple of hours dallying around the streets in some proximity to the apartment.
I have not spoken to a human face to face for 10 days, apart from shop assistants, limited exchange of views, and the young man who let me back into my apartment.
My excursions nearly always take me in the direction of Asakusa, a wonderful place. Not only does it have beautiful temples but more interestingly for me, lots of shops that devote themselves to only one product; a knife shop, a hat shop, a brush shop, a belt shot, a kimono shop, a fan shop, a sandal shop etc, etc. In this Amazon age it is a pleasure to bumble around such places.
The only drawback to a visit to Asakusa, er, no longer exists. Previously the place was packed, really packed, with tourists thrusting video cameras into everyone’s faces and being generally loud. Japan has allowed zero tourists into the country since March last year. This means I am the only one thrusting a video camera into people’s faces. I get to see Asakusa with few visitors. All of them are Japanese. It is a very different experience. Lucky me.
So clean, so calm, so quiet, so happy, in the middle of the world’s most populous city.
Here is another movie that is very similar to the one I posted a few days ago. I remind dear readers that this blog is a personal diary to allow me to recall what I did with my life. I make no excuses for repetition.
I have been in bed all day not feeling well at all. I have a stomach upset brought about by too many clams maybe. I have to stay very close to a toilet.
At about 4:30 I decide to pop out to the Family Mart to get some food. It is 1 minute from the front door of my building. I do not lock the apartment nor take my key.
In Okinawa I have developed this very bad habit of not locking my apartment door if I am just nipping out. It is Japan – no crime.
I get my stuff at the combini and shuffle back home. I soon realize I am in big trouble. To access the building you need your key to open the front doors. I am locked out.
It is getting dark, it is very cold, I have rampaging diarrhea, I am in a city of 40 million, I do not speak the language, I have no phone, I am alone.
I notice that there is the phone number of the housing agency that is renting me the apartment stuck onto the letterboxes. I stop a very confused man in the street and mime my predicament. He lets me use his phone.
What chances of someone picking up an office phone late on a Sunday afternoon? Someone picks up and he speaks English. “No problem Neil san, I will be there in about one hour.” Incredible!
I have over an hour to kill in the freezing cold with imminent bowel disaster. I am not wearing a coat nor socks. Do I shiver, crouched in the building lobby?
The only answer is a restaurant. This is against the state of emergency rules but I really have no choice. It is the first time I have sat down in a restaurant for about 6 weeks. All Californian food places are take away only. The restaurant is warm and has a toilet. I drink a beer, the first for about 3 months because of my no carb diet. I eat a fabulous, beef, tomato and potato stew. These are first potatoes I have eaten fo 3 months – diet.
It is a wild evening!
Well-filled, I traipse back to the apartment where a very well dressed young man awaits me. He lets me in.
Tokyo is a big place. The population of greater Tokyo is about 40 million. The population of Scotland is 5 million. San Francisco is less than a million.
I am here spending 14 days of self isolation in a tiny apartment. The Prime Minister, Suga san, announced a state of emergency yesterday. Essentially he says stay at home.
I don’t really understand this but apparently the Japanese Government cannot force citizens to do anything. They can only recommend. Well, I am recommended to stay at home except for food shopping, medical emergency, and recreation. I am recommended not to use to use public transport, metro, taxis, buses.
Anyway, where I am is in the middle of a maze of frankly ugly back streets.
Notwithstanding, I go for treks to exercise myself. The first is to the Sumida Hokusai Museum, which is close to my place. The weather is perfect, blue, crisp. Great walk during which I discover a shabby shop lurking under a railway viaduct that has excellent fish and wine. Can I go into the Museum? Inside is Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.” This is one of the best known graphics in the world.
I get lost walking home. I spend 20 minutes walking around my building without recognizing it. The Museum is only 10 minutes away.
Today I head off for Asakusa. This is about 25 minutes walk away. Will I ever find my way home?
Asakusa is wonderful. I go to the public toilet. I cannot remember being so happy.
There are lots of people. Stay at home? Maybe they are all, like me, claiming the exercise loophole.
Here is a film.
There are many beautiful young women wearing kimonos. Maybe it is a Saturday tradition to come to Asakusa to be photographed.
Amazingly I found my way home.
At home, I strip off and throw all my clothes in the washing machine. I scrupulously remove all coins, guns, knives etc from my trousers. These trousers are new and have a special pocket to house the Iphone. I forgot about this and remove it not. I put the phone through a 90 minute wash, which killed it.
I think I have all the necessary attestations asked for by Japan but the situation is fluid with rumors of Tokyo introducing a state of emergency. Will they let me in when I get there?
Life is full of surprises. I am given a First Class ticket. First Class on ANA is heaven. I am surprised that it is not depicted in medieval paintings of paradise.
My flight leaves at midnight. James takes me to SFO early. I intend to sprawl in the First Class Lounge until I am carried onto the plane. Check in is very long; so many health papers to process. No way onto the flight unless all Covid tests have been documented. When finished I hungrily ask about lounges. “We apologize sir, but all lounges are closed due to COVID-19.” ,
The central theme of traveling internationally in these times of pestilence is emptiness. SFO is empty, the flight is empty, Haneda, when I get there, is empty.
Here is a movie about the trip.
What makes ANA better than all airlines I know is the staff. They are funny, relaxed, super efficient.
I get a separate bedroom and nice, new pyjamas. I sleep for 9 hours and am issued off the plane on arrival by Immigration Officers.
First Class vainglory starts as I am taken off first. I go through several different stations each of which has a certain bureaucratic task. I am terrified that there will be something wrong with my paperwork but I successfully arrive in a booth where I have to salivate into a little plastic tube. The sailva is tested for COVID-19.
From there I am directed to a waiting area to er await the results.
Everything has gone swimmingly but now the tide turns. I mean I travelled First Class. I have been at the front of every queue. In fact there are no queues but I am full of pomp and vainglory. In the waiting room, everyone’s number is called before mine. I am #20. In the 40’s I start to worry that everything has gone wrong. I am positive, I have the wrong paperwork. Since school days I have been naturally guilty.
What joy when my number 20 lights up on the screen!
I am afraid I cannot remember the number of posts I went through before I finally got my passport stamped and burst into baggage collection. There were a lot. They were all staffed by young Japanese, nearly all women. I don’t think any of them were over 30. They were smiling, welcoming, super efficient and spoke great English. I think they must have been trained up in anticipation of the 2020 Olympics. COVID-19 has made use of their skills. Thanks to you all.
I am driven to a bland apartment block somewhere in Tokyo.
I have not been to downtown San Francisco before today. It was a shock. Out here by the Panhandle, life has certainly changed because of COVID-19 but you know not super extravagantly. Out there, where the Snow Goose roams, life goes on more or less the same. I wonder what the geese think.
Downtown is different. It is unrecognizable; principally because it is deserted.
Union Square, once an epicentre of world consumerism is deserted apart from a nice lady giving away free food.
All the stores are closed, even the Apple Store! Powell St, famed for its street cars, runs alongside the square. You could have a picnic in the centre of the road now. Well, you would have move occasionally to let a street car rattle by. The two I see are both empty! Empty street cars – hard to believe!
I am downtown to get a COVID-19 test. I soon return to Japan and a prerequisite for entry is a negative covid test less than 72 hours old.
The test is not really painful but odd. I cannot remember the last time someone stuck a Q tip right up my nose. I get my results tomorrow – wish me luck!
Here are some birds to make you happy.
Happy New Year everyone! Let’s hope for an improvement.
Slough is a city in the South of England that no-one seems to like much.
“Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough! It isn’t fit for humans now,” John Betjeman
It is pronounced like the sound you make when you cut off your finger. John Bunyan’s Slough of Despond in Pilgrim’s Progress does not sound very nice – wetland bog, sludge, mire, slime.
It is this meaning that has been exported to the U.S. Here it is pronounced slough as in slew. “But as he was ambitious I slew him.”
Anyway, James and I go for a Boxing day ramble to Elkhorn Slough. We break out the Zodiac and electric motor that have been maturing in the store room.
So much wildlife! Sea Otters, Sea Lions, Harbor Seals, so many birds that I am too idle to list.
A wonderful day. We are weary and chilled. As we head out in the late afternoon, James checks, on his phone, Hamburger Restaurants further on down the road. He phones in our order, which we pick up 10 minutes later. This kind of stuff is a revelation to me.
I get a Cheeseburger with Bacon. We eat as we charge over the coastal mountains towards 280. It is the best thing I have ever eaten!
I came over to San Francisco because the landlord is selling the building that our apartment finds itself in. This is an opportunity for the new owner to kick us out. I really do not want to be kicked out. I consult with a lawyer. Because of my advanced age and the fact I have lived there for more than 10 years, it appears unlikely that they can send in the bailiffs. Good.
Covid is rampant in the city and the latest lockdown rules forbid social interaction between others than immediate household members. This means I cannot visit friends, another reason for the trip from Japan. Long trips are discouraged, ruling out new camper adventures. There is not much to do.
I can go on recreational walks, so I do a lot of this. San Francisco and the weather are beautiful so I wallow in both.
I ramble around Haight Ashbury and NOPA. The houses were spared the 1906 earthquake and fire. Some of the most beautiful Victorians are here.
Signs of Covid are everywhere.
I meet the Grateful Dead on Haight.
I traipse around the Mission.
I amble around Alamo Square.
Mostly, I snuggle in my very cosy room.
Not the wildest Xmas but I guiltily quite like having an excuse to sit in front of my fire worrying about getting gout.
Swooping down the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada on I 80, I have not a care in the world. The scenery is dramatic, the novel playing from the car sound system is excellent, I am cosy, 3 maybe 4 hours back to San Francisco..
I accelerate to overtake someone who is going even slower than me. No obvious change in speed but I hear the frantic howling of a high revving engine. I look behind and sure enough there is tuned up Japanese sports machine howling past. I am reassured. I accelerate again and back comes the high rev howl. I look at the rev counter – 6,000rpm! I don’t think the engine has been much above 3,000 rpm all her life. The noise is coming from my truck, I am over revving her. There is no acceleration. My engine has become a detached element from the drive chain. Essentially my clutch has busted.
Ouch, bad, bad news!
Lucky as always, this does not happen in one of the remote snow filled canyons where I have lately spent my time, indeed I roll to a stop on the hard shoulder just in front of the Exit 121 sign. I am able to walk off the freeway into the crazy landscape of cheap motels, gas stations, run down malls, liquor stores, fast food restaurants that line the freeway. I get the number for a tow truck from a motel reception and an hour later my truck has been offloaded outside an Auto Shop.
It is 4:00pm Saturday. “Closed for the weekend,” says the tow truck driver, “No idea if it will be open on Monday, nearly all repair shops have closed because of the virus.”
“What can I do in Auburn?”
“Not much to do around here .” He replies ominously.
I check in at a Super 6 motel.
All museums are closed, restaurants only serve food to go. It is pouring with rain. I go to a store, stock up on food and drink and go back to hibernate in my hotel room. I make a bear nest on the bed and snuggle. Saturday afternoon and Sunday pass almost unnoticed as I doze, shower, sleep, eat, drink, read, watch lots of US TV. I thoroughly enjoy myself.
9:00 Monday morning, I am outside Jeff’s Auto Repair. It is open! I explain what happened and Jeff says ”It’s the clutch”
I know it is the clutch and want to engage Jeff on the hydraulic system that pushes the clutch plates, the clutch springs, and maybe a worn plate. He looks a bit confused and reassures me that he can put in a new clutch and seeing as I am stuck he will start right away. I am confronted with US car mechanics. Rather than repair, they just bolt on a new unit. So I am to get a new clutch.
How to spend another day in Auburn waiting for the call announcing the truck is fixed?
There is nowhere to go. There is nowhere to sit down. I have a whole day ahead of me. I wander around the waste land of restaurants, motels, gas stations, clutching a plastic bag. I am a vagrant. The cops move me on. I finally find a bench in a scruffy little mall. I am so pleased. It has stopped raining and I sit on my bench and write this in the sun.
How much longer will I be here? Will I get picked up for being homeless?
Across the scruffy plaza I spot a table and chair outside a bagel place. I wander over and am greeted by Jasmin who says, “Let me look after you.” She thinks I am homeless. She is the best person.
I sit at the table, Jasmin gives me the wifi password. It is cold. Over the next few hours she makes me a perfect beef sandwich, an Americano with an extra shot, home made potato soup and a big smoothie. Paradise.
I finally stumble back to Jeff’s auto shop around 4:30, it is getting dark. The truck is fixed! The old clutch plate is worn down to the metal!
Jeff and Dominic also replace a shot universal joint and re rig my exhaust pipe support. Good guys. I finally make it back home at 8:00. Great adventures and the truck now has a new clutch. I find this very reassuring.