June | Tokyo, Japan
So far all my 2014 trips had been work-related – business, not pleasure. But in June came an actual holiday, kindly funded by my parents – officially to celebrate my birthday, and really to give our family an excuse to get together for a week of bonding in a country we all adore: Japan.
To describe even a short stint in Japan would require a blog entry all of its own. As anyone who’s been there knows, it’s a nation of contrasts: tradition, conservatism and reverence co-existing in complete harmony with outrageous whackiness and an obsession with automation and technology. I wrote a fair bit here during my first vacation in Japan, this being my second – second also for my parents and a whopping fifth for my sister. Like I said, a Japan-loving family.
To get straight to the point, the memory that sticks with me most from this trip is nomi hodai, which is Japanese for “all you can drink”. Far from being a crazy night out on the piss though (fun and memorable as such nights can be, alcohol-induced amnesia notwithstanding), this was, in fact, one of the most cultured things I’ve done all year… Because this nomi hodai took place on the 50-somethingth floor of the Tokyo Hilton, the same plush hotel where Charlotte and Bob strike up their friendship in the brilliant Lost In Translation. It’s every bit as elegant and aesthetic as it appears in the film, and better yet, if you order nomi hodai, you don’t even have to pay for your vodka tonic or Santory whiskey as they’re served up: you simply fork out the equivalent of $40 at the start and not only can you drink to your heart’s content for two hours or until 9pm (whichever comes first), you can also help yourself to as many freshly-made gourmet canapes as the on-hand chef dishes out: smoked salmon with cream cheese and capers, minced beef in bolognaise sauce on miniature crispbreads, roasted mushrooms and fried cheese balls and all sorts of other tantilising goodness…
Of course, we’re talking about a five-star hotel here, so to rock up and proceed to guzzle as much food and booze as possible would require decidedly low levels of shame, and possibly get you kicked out (or rather, in more Japanese fashion, politely and hesitantly informed the ‘service is no longer available’ or something). So when I went with my sister and then a second time with our parents, we tried to stagger our consumption… But even so, it wasn’t long before plates had piled up and glasses were going from full to empty and replaced with full ones at a hefty Polish pace.
The value for money’s just one part of it though – ’cause let’s not forget that under ordinary circumstances this would cost at least a hundred bucks a head. It’s the extraordinary ambience of the place that keeps this experience in my mind; probably the closest I’ve ever come to feeling like James Bond or something, coolly living it up in some opulent foreign hotel… The bar itself is called the Peak Lounge, and while it’s very spacious with a tremendously high ceiling it still manages to feel cosy thanks to dim amber lighting, soft chillout music and a table-based layout, with the drinks, chef and canapé bar in the centre. What gives this place its magic though is the far wall, made entirely of glass so it’s actually a giant window – presenting you with a panorama of Tokyo that’s so captivating it’s difficult to look away. On both nights that we went there was a post-rain fog, giving the scene a distinct Blade Runner feel:
I’ve always been a socialistic sort of person – not one to consider getting rich a particularly meaningful goal in life, or even much of an achievement. But nomi hodai at the Hilton, with all its unpretentious sophistication and luxury, made me realise – as stupid as it may sound – that there’s nothing wrong with a high-class lifestyle provided it’s lived with style and grace and tempered with humility – traits the Japanese exemplify, and which the Peak Lounge experience brings together in perfect measure. You keep your stomach lined with mouth-watering nibbles, and sip til your head’s floating in a cranial bath of pleasant sparkly tipsiness, but you never go overboard, and never feel any compulsion to. A classy venue inspires classy conduct, and while I’ve been to posher, more expensive and more decadent functions, it’s like they say: Money can’t buy class, and genuine class is what the Peak exudes like steam off a sun-baked pavement after rain… With its dreamy lounge music and mood lighting and, right outside, that immense sea of tiny red lights, blinking peacefully, some in unison, some not, as if they’re transmitting poetry into space in some kind of slow-motion code. It’s a sight that you’ve only ever seen before in CGI, astonishingly futuristic and, to me, deeply utopic in a way that brings Lobe’s Placebo to mind… And as you finally bring your attention back to the drink in front of you, you can’t help but think, as you raise the glass clinking with ice-cubes to your lips, “Man, this is the life.”
“I can only say why I wanted to make the movie: to convey what I love about Tokyo and visiting the city. It’s about moments in life that are great but don’t last. They don’t go on, but you always have the memory and they have an effect on you.”
– Sofia Coppola, director of Lost In Translation
November | Sydney, Australia
Remember how earlier I was going on about strolling down King St Wharf at night, pining for my girlfriend’s company, strangely inspired by my aloneness (‘loneliness’ isn’t quite the right word) as it painted pictures in my mind’s eye of a Sydney trip where she was there with me?
Well, it happened, sort of. And it sort of didn’t.
A day or two after I got home from Tokyo, my girlfriend’s friend dropped by to give me her birthday presents to me (she was in Colombia at the time). The highlight was tickets to see Cirque du Soleil in Sydney, together with flights to Sydney for both of us. I was just halfway through 2014, had already done four trips and now another was literally handed to me. I was thrilled.
Sydney Round 2 wasn’t til November though, so several months after the first four. During this period work started to do my head in and, sadly, hairline cracks in our relationship began to split open into festering wounds. In September we even broke up for a while, meaning I didn’t get to join her for the Grampians retreat I’d bought her for her own birthday in August. We made up some time later and all was back on course for Sydney, but the stress of life at that time – much of it generated by our relationship, and so bad I had to get medication for anxiety for a while – inevitably affected our capacity to realise that vision I had back in May, when the year was more fresh and energized, when our three-month-long separation made us crave each other physically and emotionally. Now, six months on, reality was about to bite.
Don’t get me wrong, Sydney 2 was a decent trip and a great way to spend a long weekend. Cirque du Soleil itself was fantastic; a soul-stirring performance and a wonderful present. We visited a couple of nearby beaches, although the weather was so cold the first time we had to use our beach towels as blankets – huddled in little cocoons on the sand, so ridiculous-looking a nearby Asian proceeded to take photos of us. On Halloween we dressed up and partied at a nightclub, and the next day ate at a five-star Italian restaurant near Circular Quay. We made friends with a cat on our street and from then on she’d meow at our bedroom window every night, insisting on being let in to sleep with us. My favourite moments though were the modest but nice little meals we had around Newport where we were staying, taking in the eclectic vibe of the area while chatting and sipping beers…
We never did go down King St Wharf; I haven’t set foot there since my solo wanderings in May. The night of the Halloween party we went for a spontaneous 2am walk to the Opera House (still decked out in capes and fake blood, which must’ve been interesting for the lone security man milling about)… But although this isn’t the time or place to talk about relationship issues, parts of the trip were also tarnished by sulks and long silences, including our final night, the only one we had to ourselves in a hotel as opposed to a fold-out bed in some crazy stoner’s house… Unhappy signs that we weren’t quite the lovebirds we’d been a few months ago, though at other times our love still shone through.
Although I wished it were otherwise, I couldn’t help sharing that sentiment Leo di Caprio articulated in The Beach:
”You hope, and you dream. But you never believe that something’s gonna happen for you. Not like it does in the movies. And when it actually does, you want it to feel different, more visceral, more real.”
Sometimes, I guess, things don’t turn out quite how you imagined. Circumstances shift, people and the dynamics between them change, fantasies doesn’t always match up with reality. And that’s just the way it is.
December | Alice Springs, Australia
Even though I’d kind of intuitively felt, in the lead-up to Sydney, that it might not be that great, I was still convinced this trip – the highlight of the year, something I’d been looking forward to for months – would be 100% awesome. Back when I was in Sydney in May, my girlfriend emailed me a pretty sweet Jetstar deal and we discussed potential holiday options over email – Bangkok, Bali, Gold Coast etc – only for the deal to expire well ahead of its stated deadline. Even so, I was inspired to keep looking for flight deals for some sort of getaway and finally came across a beauty: $400 return flights with Qantas to Alice Springs, an outpost town in the middle of the Australian Outback, a place I’d wanted to go to my entire life (I’d skirted it in 2012 with a Darwin holiday with a couple of mates, but we never got anywhere near the Red Centre).
My girlfriend agreed – “Yes yes yes! This is going to be pure awesomeness!” – so I promptly purchased return flights, a ‘Darwin to Uluru’ travel guide and, later on, a tent. I was excited. She was excited. This was exactly the kind of trip I’d been wanting us to do for ages, to re-consummate our love and celebrate an entire year together: part romantic getaway, part existentialist road trip where humanity is scarce and sun, space and serenity are in copious abundance… Touch down in Alice, stock up at an old-school General Store, hire a 4WD and motor out into the mysterious scorching-hot core of Terra Australis, armed with several days’ worth of water, petrol and road songs… Climb up amazing rock formations the colour of rust and dried blood, drenched in sweat and the exultation of achievement; then after sundown, camp out with only my love and a million stars, like glitter and fairy dust splashed over an ink-black canvas, for company. This was gonna make all the preceding trips look like mere appetisers.
Well, it never happened. Not for me anyway.
My girlfriend and I broke up again, this time with an ugly and bitter finality. For reasons of her own, she went ahead with the trip, hung out with a bunch of people in town and even made the trek out to Uluru with them. In a gesture of goodwill I took care of her cat while she was away – at least, until we had another argument over the phone and she insisted someone else carry out that responsibility. I realised, when I visited her place one last time to drop off her key and, with it, all of her stuff plus a couple of gifts to say ‘no hard feelings’, that sometimes dreams don’t come true. Sometimes they blow up in your face and turn to ash before your eyes and there’s nothing you can do about it… Except accept what’s happened and try to turn the lemons into lemonade somehow.
Which is exactly what I did. I cancelled my own flights and used the credit to book flights a few weeks later to spend Chistmas in WA with my parents. And having just got back from eight days of parental pampering in one of the most picturesque parts of Australia, I couldn’t be more content and relaxed.
December | Margaret River, Australia
Margaret River’s a popular tourist spot about three hours’ drive south of Perth. Here, eucalypt forest meets winery country meets ocean beach, the dry WA heat offset by cool sea breezes. The last full week of the year I’ve essentially spent lounging in various things: a hammock, a spa, a couch on the rear verandah facing the bushland out back of the house. It was classic Aussie idyll: gumnut trees rustling in the wind, flecks of sunlight beaming through the canopies (an effect the Japanese call ‘komorebi’), cicadas chirping and every now and again, a kookaburra cackling… A few metres away on the grass, Lola, my parents’ dog, would be chewing gnarled branches that either me or my dad had been throwing (or playing tug-o’-war with her) earlier.
I listened to podcasts, read books, drank beer, gathered firewood, played chef at the barbeque, played Scrabble with my mum, shot the shit with my dad, went out for lunch and dinner a few times, caught up with a girl from work and her boyfriend at the local pub… And it was exactly what the doctor ordered. After weeks of pressure on the work front and navigating storms on the relationship front, only to crash disastrously and sink, I needed some serious Rest and Recovery – so it felt good, for the first time in a very long time, not to have a care in the world, have nothing to worry about, and no expectations to meet.
”Sometimes the most productive thing you can do is relax.” – Mark Black
As much as I would’ve liked to have visited the Outback, I’m glad I did Margaret River with the folks instead. Road-tripping ’round the Northern Territory will happen when the time and company are right. As I said above, sometimes things don’t go according to plan, no matter how good the plan or extensive the planning. Shit happens.
But when it does, there are those people in your life who you can always fall back on, the ones who have always been there and always will be when things go wrong, when you need to fall back and recover yourself and remember what’s important. When I announced my first break-up on Facebook, an old friend posted this:
He’s spot on.
So my final lesson from my final trip for 2014 is never to forget these foundations. For all of our ups and downs over the years, this year included, it’s been great to spend a week with my parents, with Tim (the middle guy in the Goodfellas-inspired photo above; that’s Hakon on the left) looking after my cat while I was gone.
I’ve made a concerted effort these past few weeks to catch up with the many friends I lost touch with over the year, having dedicated my weekends and whatever weeknights I could spare to doing stuff either with or for my girlfriend. It’s been a joy to catch up with them – to be around people who know me well, like me exactly as I am, and greet me every time I see ’em with big grins and slaps on the back.
So to my friends and family, I say thank you. I know I drifted away this year but as I’ve detailed above, I had places to go and lessons to learn. And I wouldn’t change that. But I’m glad that when I returned to the old moorings, weary and somewhat disoriented, you were still there.
“I still believe in paradise. But now at least I know it’s not some place you can look for. Because it’s not where you go. It’s how you feel for a moment in your life when you’re a part of something. And if you find that moment… It lasts forever.”
That’s another quote from The Beach. It’s a bit full-on in this context but looking back on 2014 I do kind of feel that way. Whether it was enjoying a Friday-night barbeque with a bunch of miners also far from home; reflecting with my sister on our childhood while smoking cigs and watching the rain fall over Tokyo; kissing and taking photos on the pier with my girlfriend as we waited for the ferry back to Circular Quay; or sitting as I was just a couple of nights ago, jazz from my dad’s laptop mingling with late-afternoon birdsong and the crackle of a hearty urn fire… I look back on everything, and everyone involved, with great fondness and warmth. I’ve ingested the negative into lessons learned, and hold onto the positives as memories to treasure… And as the sun sets for the last time on 2014, like Lester Burnham at the end of American Beauty, ”I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.”