Monday, 26 May 2014

Hokkaido Snowstorm

The Story Behind The Cover Photo
Back in March (2014), when my second book of short stories 'The Truth In The Lie' was published, I promised I would at some point tell the tale behind the striking cover photograph, which was taken by my good friend Fumiko Jin. Fortunately Fumiko speaks fluent English – and speaks it with the most endearing Liverpudlian accent too. She is one of the busiest people I know, but she has finally given in to my pressure and 'spilled the beans' in the following Guest Blog-post:

Guest Blog-post by: 

Fumiko Jin – Magazine Editor and Freelance Journalist
Based in Tokyo, Japan.
(Fumiko is on the left in the photo)

The photo was taken near Kushiro City in the eastern part of Hokkaido.
A magazine colleague and I had gone on a business trip to the far-eastern peninsula of Shiretoko, which is registered as a World Natural Heritage Site. There we hoped to make a business deal with the local fishing trade union. 

A day before our planned departure from Tokyo, the weather had turned a bit nasty, with snowstorms and strong winds, and the managing director of the union had warned us to reconsider the visit. Being somewhat determined women, we decided to take a risk so long as the flight did not get cancelled.

As it turned out, the plane took off with only a one hour delay and transported us to Nakashibetsu airport, this being the closest airport to the city of Rausu. Here we found one of the Japan's biggest and most successful fishing ports. The wealth here is evident from the number of currency exchange stands. But on the day we arrived, we disembarked from the plane, to see a blanket of dazzling white snow, with swirling gusts of heavy snow still falling. The savage wind cut into us, making us wish we had brought warmer clothing. 

"There is no way I could let you drive under these conditions," said the young man at the car rental counter. "Even the locals would not dare, really!" His voice was gentle but firm. There would be no persuading him, we realised, so we phoned the managing director of the union. Kindly he offered to come to pick us up in his car.

Back at his offices, we had a successful meeting with him and his team and the business was complete within 2 hours. Content with our day's work we checked into our hotel, only to discover later that we were snowed-in. The snow drifts were so bad we found ourselves unable to even step out of the building. Unable to do anything but stay put, we called our office and warned them we would be delayed. We tried to make the best of things and consoled ourselves with the idea that an extra night would give us the chance of a much needed rest. Due to a complete whiteout, however, our rest period lasted for another three frustrating days. Even had we have been able to get out of our hotel, all the roads were closed so no one in the town was able to move. "Hmm," we said to ourselves, "there are downsides to being determined and independent women."

Eventually, on the third day, the weather improved slightly, although the road to Nakashibetsu Airport remained closed. The managing director of the union was a resourceful man, however. Hearing of our plight, he offered to drive us to Kushiro Airport, which was a four-hour drive from Rausu. We were by now feeling very sorry for all the trouble that had been caused by our ignorance and stupidity, yet despite this it was an offer we could hardly refuse. 

As we got further away from Rausu and closer to Kushiro, the sky began to clear and eventually the snow subsided. Rounding a bend on the icy road we were suddenly confronted with the most amazing orange sunset. It is rare to be able to see such a clear and strong sunset in this area, our host explained. I smiled. Perhaps after all, I told myself, it was our destiny to come here through the worst conditions, in order to experience the absolute best.

What's In Hokkaido?
Hokkaido is the most northerly island of Japan. Its vast open land is blessed with stunning mountains, green fields, clear lakes and an unspoiled coastline. It is a major tourist destination for the Japanese at all times of the year and has more recently become popular with foreign tourists. According to the guidebook in our hotel room (which we had plenty of time to read), in Summer one can enjoy hiking, cycling, sky diving and wildlife observation, both on land and from the sea. Fields of brightly coloured flowers almost look unreal in their vibrancy. I can also confirm that the birdlife really is outstanding and whale watching is great here too. In Winter, skiing and hot springs are what most tourists come for, along with the world famous Ice Festival – which has to be seen to be believed. You may also have seen pictures of monkeys taking a dip and warming themselves in hot springs. Well those monkeys are Hokkaido monkeys! Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the freshest of fresh seafood along with some well established tourist resort areas for those wanting a bit of luxury. Plenty of variety.

Hokkaido is just as beautiful in summer as it is the rest of the year
Photo courtesy of

The annual ice festival in the capital, Sapporo, takes your breath away.
Photo courtesy of

Bathing Monkeys. Photo courtesy of

As you would expect, it snows a lot - including during the Ice Festival
Photo courtesy of

Onsen (hot spring) bathing is popular with humans too.
Photo courtesy of

For those wanting to travel on two wheels, take it from me, this large and relatively undeveloped island is a bit of a cyclist's and motorcyclist's dream. The roads are well paved and neatly maintained, allowing you to ride throughout the entire 78,000㎢ of the island. Off-road cycling is popular here too. For those seeking something really challenging, there are some serious up-hill climbs among Hokkaido's 590 mountains. If you are thinking of coming here to cycle or motorcycle, I would recommend the summer period between June and September as being the best season. I hope I've whetted your appetite.

Fumiko Jin.

Photo courtesy Visit their fantastic site!

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Saturday, 17 May 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Dara

I met Dara on a coach in Paris in the spring of 1979. I was 21. It was one of those Magic Bus-type coaches that used to ferry young people in search of adventure up and down Europe in those days. They had done so since the hippy era of the late 60's and early 70's, when some buses used to go all the way into Asia. I think the original Magic Bus company had gone out of business by the late 70's. The coach was fairly basic and had two swarthy foreign drivers who spoke almost no English, French or German. Our drivers were the usual Greek, Turkish or East European drivers, since most of the routes now ended in Athens, Budapest or Istanbul. Like the rest of us, they already looked dog tired and were utterly unhelpful if asked to stop other than at the limited highway stops decided by them.

We left London in the early hours before making our way down the M20 to Dover. It was a rough crossing and we docked late in Calais. When we arrived in Paris we were allowed to get off for half an hour. The driver held up a paper napkin with 30mins written on it in spidery biro. We all needed to stretch our legs so we had a wander about, filled water bottles and bought french bread, fruit and cheese before returning to the dreaded bus. Climbing into my seat I found a small dark haired girl sitting by the window. She had moved some of my stuff off the seat in order to sit there. I sighed in annoyance. Thus far I had at least been able to stretch out uncomfortably across the two seats.

"Allo. Er, pardon," she said, and pointed to the luggage rack where she had placed my jacket and book.
"No, it's no problem," I replied in a typically English apologetic manner.

What was I apologising for, I wondered? I sat down, realising she must have just joined the bus in Paris. She hadn't been on the bus before – I would have noticed. She had the most enchanting face, with bright, happy eyes and a sort of cheeky, good natured manner about her.
"My name's Mark," I said, "from England."
"Dara," she smiled, putting out her little hand to shake mine. She was about my age and didn't seem to speak much English.
"You are from France?" I asked.
"Er...Paris?" she replied with uncertainty. "Yugoslavia." She gesticulated roughly in the direction of Yugoslavia with a kind of chopping movement of her hand. She seemed rather forthright, I thought to myself.
"You are from Yugoslavia?" I asked (Yugoslavia was a unified country back then and Marshal Tito was still alive).
"Da, Yugoslavia," she said, touching her chest. "Montenegro."
Actually I remember feeling she had touched her heart, which told me far more. She had probably been studying in Paris, I told myself, or perhaps working as an au-pair and was now returning home with longing in her heart. Her eyes flickered irresistibly, wondering what I had understood, perhaps sensing it. She obviously so wished she could tell me more, ask me more, but her language already seemed to have reached its limits.
"Vous parles Fran├žais?" I asked, cautiously.
If she had said yes I would not have fared much better. I had already begun regretting not paying attention in French at school. She shook her head.
"Allemagne?" I asked.
She smiled and shook her head once more, blushing. I think this was the kind of encounter I used to dream about at that age. I smiled back and laughed quietly, overly concerned now not to come over as mocking. The bus had started to make its way through the back streets of Paris, heading out towards the Porte d'Italy. We both sat looking out of the window, making ooh and ah sounds and pointing things out, still both wishing we could say more. She giggled a lot and periodically looked up into my eyes, the way a child does when they are checking an adult's reaction to something – or perhaps that was wishful thinking. I suppose at the time I rather hoped she perceived me as older and wiser than her.

Soon we were on the autoroute and there was less to see. We sat for a while saying nothing, both smiling now and then. I'd guess we were probably both amused by the situation and were wondering what the other was thinking. I closed my eyes for a few minutes, hoping it might take any sense of pressure off her. After a while she began to rustle things in her bag. She tapped my arm cautiously and I opened my eyes. I was being offered a croissant with roughly cut pieces of camembert inside. We went through the usual politenesses of me graciously refusing, her insisting and me accepting, then me getting an apple out of my backpack, cleaning it on my shirt and cutting it with my penknife onto my small tin plate.
"Hvala," she said.
"No, thank you," I replied.
We laughed together. I saw the couple opposite smiling to each other, knowingly. We must have seemed childish to them I suppose. Or maybe they were remarking that we were getting on well together.

Time passed. At various points we could see other passengers going up to ask the drivers if we could stop for a toilet break. They were curtly told to go away. After an hour or so the number of sufferers had increased and people had become angry in their desperation. In response, the drivers had become more determined not to stop. Finally a vociferous young American woman crouched down in the stairwell by the door and began adjusting her clothing to take a leak right there. Incensed, the driver veered onto the grass verge at the side of the highway and skidded to a stop to let her out. Despite their trying to block the aisle, there was a mass exodus.

The two drivers waved fists at the American woman and remonstrated aggressively in Turkish as we all climbed back on. She in return let forth a tirade of her own threats regarding what they could go do with themselves. One of the drivers consulted a pocket notebook before standing in the aisle, pounding his chest and repeatedly shouting "I am driver!!"
The rest of us clapped. People began shouting "I am Spartacus!" which I don't think the drivers understood. But it further enraged them. Their authority had been challenged, their pride hurt. It did not bode well for future stops or the general quality of driving – although that could hardly have got much worse.

More language learning ensued after our entertaining interlude. Dara and I learned each other's words for quite a few general things before finally I dropped off to sleep. Now limited to one cramped seat I was far from comfortable, but I didn't mind. It was dark when I next awoke and found Dara curled up like a cat with her head resting in my lap. She was fast asleep. Somehow I found her look of secure contentment overwhelmingly flattering. I had known her but a few hours yet there was an undeniable closeness between us – a level of trust – as if we had been friends since childhood.
The language of love has no words.

Viator in Montenegro

And then it was morning. The sun was shining and Montenegro was unexpectedly beautiful. Everything was beautiful to me that morning. It seemed inexplicable that my heart should ache so much to leave her behind. But she was returning to her family and it did not seem right to intrude. She had offered. Somehow with minimal language she had suggested I come with her and meet her family, but it had seemed wrong to me. I think I worried it might seem too eager perhaps, yet as soon as the bus crossed into Greece I knew I should have gone with her. I couldn't get her angelic face out of my head – those sparkling eyes looking up at me as she waved and blew a kiss while the bus roared off. I heard the couple opposite sigh in disappointment. I still wonder about it now, how that decision might have changed my life.

In the late 60's / early 70's some buses went all the way to Afghanistan 

I often wonder where some of those buses are now (image courtesy of

I mourn the death of the Magic Bus era. 

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this and his collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc.

Please note, you can read an e-book without a Kindle or e-book reader. You can download the Kindle Reader App from Amazon for free, to your Computer, Laptop, Smartphone, tablet or i-Pad. Just google it.