My top 10 films

I got nominated in a thing going around Facebook lately, of listing my top 10 films over 10 days. The idea was to simply post a picture from that day’s film but of course I went further and shared my thoughts/feelings about each one, the word count getting longer as the days went on. Anyway, I figured I may as well compile the posts and turn them into a blog post, so here we are…

Day 1

“I have been nominated by Marty Wawrzynczak to post 10 of my favourite films over 10 days. I must post one movie poster for each of my choices and nominate someone new each day to do the same.”

The original rules state that no explanation’s required but I’m gonna break that. My day 1 pick is ‘The Shining’, simply because I don’t think there’s another movie I’ve watched quite so many times. Few movies reward a repeat viewing like this Kubrick masterpiece does, and even once you think you’ve picked up on every last little detail, the foreboding alpine atmosphere of this horror classic never gets old.

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Day 2

Today’s movie came out at a perfect time: in 1999 my friends and I were in our angsty late teens, and Tyler spoke loud & clear to the angry young men inside us… Although these days we probably relate more to the perpetually sleep-deprived white-collar slave narrator. I think Fight Club’s enduring cult following comes from its prescient damnation of the ‘superficialization’ of our society, which has reached staggering heights over the course of this new century that even the twisted genius of Chuck Palahniuk could’ve barely anticipated… One can only imagine how Tyler would react to an age where Starbucks cups litter not only our bins but our Instagram feeds. In replacing ‘safe spaces’ with bloody basements, polished social media narcissism with existentialist self-destruction, and obsession with status and possessions with a lust for raw experience, Fight Club remains a necessary movie for our time: dark, forceful & sardonic, yet never losing its mischievous schoolboy sense of humour along the way.

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Day 3

When I was 12 I noticed ‘The Exorcist’ scheduled for a midnight broadcast in the Green Guide. Even though I knew next to nothing about it, the paranormal title & R rating convinced me to record it – I remember even having to learn how to program the VCR as I’d never bothered to do so for anything before. I watched the tape the next time I was home alone and, needless to say, it freaked the shit out of me. Yet I remained intrigued by what I’d seen and returned to the tape some time later, this time watching it the rest of the way through and becoming mildly obsessed (not possessed) with the film in my early teens. These days, ‘The Exorcist’ no longer warrants its ‘scariest movie ever’ tagline, but it remains an unnerving and timeless horror flick that taps into some very deep themes – of death, losing one’s faith, of puberty and the nature of evil – all brilliantly explored in William Blatty’s novel of which this is an adaptation. The fact that novel, in turn, was based on a true story (whether it really involved possession or not) makes this account of a young girl taken over by a demonic entity all the more compelling.

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Day 4

‘Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring’ was recommended to me by Attila Zeeman years ago. I d̶o̶w̶n̶l̶o̶a̶d̶e̶d̶ legally acquired it, prepared a plunger full of jasmine tea, and sat down to watch it with Kic late one night… And sure enough it was brilliant. This Korean movie follows a young boy who lives with his father (or some sort of guardian monk) in a traditional house in the middle of a remote lake. There’s very little dialogue throughout the film, which makes its striking cinematography, and its succession of simple scenes coalescing into a tale about growing up and growing old, all the more poignant and profound. The overall effect of watching ‘Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring’ is like absorbing a documentary, poem and sacred text all at once… Not a movie to watch over and over, but definitely a movie to watch at least once in your life.

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Day 5

Historical epics don’t get much better than this. Based on the first of a trilogy of novels whose place in Polish culture is akin to that of Shakespeare in English, ‘Ogniem i Mieczem’ – ‘With Fire and Sword’ – follows the exploits of a Polish lieutenant during the 17th-century Khmelnytsky Uprising, when the Polish Commonwealth came under attack by a coalition of Cossacks, Tatars and Ottomans. Part war movie, part love story, part historical drama, Ogniem i Mieczem thrusts you back into a long-lost world of winged cavalry, chivalry, witches and swordfights, when Poland lorded over eastern Europe but ethnic tensions were tearing deep and bloody fissures in the fabric of its multinational commonwealth.

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Day 6

Today, another historical epic most people would be much more familiar with: ‘Gangs of New York’. Focussing on a young lad taken under the wing of a mob boss – a classic Scorsese narrative – what fascinates me about ‘Gangs of New York’ is its hugely ambitious, dynamic, sprawling recreation of mid-1800s New York in all of its madness, violence and vice. Above all else, Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Bill the Butcher is hands-down the greatest character acting I’ve ever seen, bringing to life with extraordinary mastery a charismatic, brutal yet paternal gang leader who controls the ‘Five Points’ neighbourhood where the film’s set. So taken was I by the movie back in 2002 that I remember walking past the Dendy Brighton cinemas one night, realising it was about to start playing, and sneaking into the cinema to watch that incredible opening scene again, a gathering of rival gangs that culminates in a street brawl analogous to a medieval battle.

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Day 7

It’s a travesty more people don’t know ‘The Magician’ – so much so I can’t even tag it on Facebook. Combining the quintessential Aussieness of ‘The Castle’  with the violence and black humour of ‘Chopper’, ‘The Magician’ is a mockumentary about Ray Shoesmith, a Melbourne hitman who allows a film student to document his daily life on the agreement he can release the footage if Ray gets killed. And it really does feel that way – the movie was shot on a shoestring budget, the dialogue largely improvised, and the result: a lo-fi masterpiece brimming with grit, authenticity and the recognisable flavour of inner-city Melbourne. It also conveys a plausible sense of the unglamorous lower rungs of the underworld, where deals are made in pub corners and death is dispensed casually and abruptly by folks who could just as well be your local electrician or bottle-o attendant…

Yet it’s also funnier than most comedies I’ve seen, drawing on relatable everyday absurdities and nuances of character that a fly-on-the-wall approach affords. To my great surprise, in Googling the trailer to accompany this text (going for a trailer today since I know virtually no-one’s seen this film), I’ve stumbled upon a brand-new TV series – ‘Mr Inbetween’ – that resurrects Ray Shoesmith as a central character. Check it out!

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Day 8

Wanted to include a childhood favourite here and there are numerous contenders, including the weird & wonderful ‘The Dark Crystal’, the dark, gorgeously animated ‘The Secret of Nimh’, the intense (albeit highly fictionalized) ‘Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story’ – even ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Street Fighter – The Animated Movie’. But I’ll settle on this one: the original ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’. First, it was probably THE defining kids movie of the early 90s, bringing the half-shell heroes to the big screen in a script saturated with the buzzwords of the 80s as it evolved into the 90s (Gnarly, dude! Awe-some!) But there are two things in particular I like about the film, and I say that in the present tense having re-watched it as an adult a few years ago.

1) For all its apparent silliness (I mean, man-sized pizza-eating turtles running around with medieval Japanese weaponry) TMNT’s a pretty dark film atmospherically, set in a crime-ridden New York City where masked ninja thugs are potentially lurking around every corner. Shredder himself is presented with all the chilling ominousness of his similarly masked, sinister-sounding villain compatriot Darth Vader. But what earns this slapstick action blockbuster a place on my list is its distinct Buddhist undertones, personified in the wise, Yoda-like Splinter, who – at one point in the film, mentoring the angsty and troubled Raphael – speaks some of the most beautiful lines of dialogue I’ve ever heard in a movie:

‘My master Yoshi’s first rule was, “Possess the right thinking.” Only then can one receive the gifts of strength, knowledge, and peace. I have tried to channel your anger, Raphael, but more remains. Anger clouds the mind. Turned inward, it is an unconquerable enemy. You are unique among your brothers, for you choose to face this enemy alone. But as you face it, do not forget them, and do not forget me… I am here, my son.’

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Day 9

Goddamn, day 9 of my movie challenge and still so many to choose from. What about my favourite horror movie, ‘REC’? How can a Mateusz Buczko top 10 not feature a World War 2 film? The moment I thought about it in terms of something I’d like to watch one day with my kids, though, an answer immediately popped into my head: ‘Planes, Trains & Automobiles’.

I’m not big on American comedies but PTA is proper funny. As a kid the slapstick’s hilarious; as an adult you totally relate to Steve Martin’s gritted-teeth frustration and sarcastic outbursts as he deals with all the lemons life hurls at him over the course of three calamitous days. Two things really make this movie though: First, the dynamic between Steve Martin and John Candy – two comedic legends of the 80s & 90s – is perfect. But the fundamental magic ingredient is the movie’s big heart. There’s the ‘I like me’ speech Del (John Candy) gives Neale (Steve Martin) in the motel room. There’s Neale taking pity on Del despite everything the latter’s put him through, and sparing him spending the night in his car by inviting him up to share his hotel room again. Finally, there’s the absolute tear-jerker of an ending that you’d have to be stone-cold not to lose some saltwater over. PTA’s a rare comedy in that it delivers as many feels as it does laughs, and it serves up both in abundance. Nice job, John Hughes.

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Day 10

I left this movie til last coz at the end of the day, it’s probably my favourite. There’s so much to love about ‘Lost in Translation’. It’s got Bill Murray pretty much playing himself. Its opening shot is Scarlett Johansson’s bum in pink Bible-page-thin undies. It’s got an awesome soundtrack throughout, adding poignancy and tenderness to an already visually gorgeous, beautifully shot film. It’s set in Japan, a weird and wonderful world unto itself that manages to combine serene, timeless tradition with its own crazy, cutesy, high-octane version of hyper-modernity. But what really elevates this platonic love story of sorts into the ‘most memorable movies’ category is the unusual lead pairing and the relatable narrative, perfectly scripted and portrayed, that brings them together.

LoT is about two people – of different ages, genders, and at very different points in their lives – who nevertheless share the same affliction of feeling lost in life and disconnected from those around them; a situation exasperated in the immediate term by the plush but sterile hotel in which they find themselves spending long hours alone. Striking up a conversation at the hotel bar, the seeds are planted of a connection that blooms into something between a friendship and an unconsummated romance, as the two go on to share a series of adventures and intimate moments through which they end up finding themselves and making peace with their lives again. The film’s ending is the ultimate in bittersweet – I love how it has a ‘false end’ of sorts, before Bob grabs a fleeting second chance to deliver the proper goodbye they both crave – and his beaming grin at the end is intensely moving; the weary, sullen face we got to know at the start of the movie transformed into radiant joy. I should note that the film is also very much an ode to Japan – while some have accused Sophia Coppola of using the Japanese as mere comic relief, I completely disagree and believe her portrayal of the country in all of its whackiness, strange sensibilities and (at times, in stark contrast) Zen stillness comes from a place of great affection and familiarity, and indeed was a huge factor in motivating me to visit Japan for the first time back in 2008.

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Japan 2016 – Part 1

Tokyo is basically the world’s most immersive and expansive video game.

This thought occurred to me as I stood in the queue for train tickets at Narita Airport. Above me, a huge screen broadcast a cartoon depicting the dangers of selfie sticks (e.g. if they touch the overhead electrified train lines, you die). To the left, people bustled in a store that sold nothing but underwear in bizarre prints (popcorn, kitten faces etc). Over to the right, several cartoon characters wandered around clumsily, guided by very serious men in suits… which I realised is because the costumes have no eye-holes, so the grave-faced suit-men would whisper to the poor bastards inside when to stop and wave for photo ops with eager kids and amused tourists.

It has to be said, Japanese people love a queue. Whether for something as tedious as train tickets, or the latest wasabi-spiced Hello Kitty-endorsed rainbow-coloured sultanas (or whatever), they will happily line up for it… Not only that, but people are actually employed whose sole job it is to manage the line, ensuring it doesn’t take up the wrong bit of pavement or whatever.

Which is very Japanese in itself. If you’re familiar with their tea ceremonies, you’d know it’s deeply ingrained in Japanese culture to manage things down to the most granular movements and gestures – very politely, very gently, but also with utmost seriousness. Hence why here, you even line up for the train, instead of just crowding around the nearest door… Because in Japan, door finds you – you line up at the designated marker and voila, there it is right in front of you, sliding open with an elegant smoothness as if to say ‘welcome sir to my carriage’.

So what am I doing here in Tokyo? Basically, I’m part of a group that’s gathered here to celebrate my sister’s 30th in her all-time favourite country. And I do mean ‘all-time favourite’ – she and her boyfriend Shane have been here SIX TIMES since popping their cherry-blossom cherry some years ago. Me, this is my third time. For the other people in our group – and I’ll introduce the whole cast shortly – this is their virginal visit to the Land of the Rising Toilet Seat.

Now, back to Narita.

Our first action upon collecting our luggage was to make a beeline for Lawson’s. Lawson’s is basically a Japanese 7-Eleven but better. We were on a very specific mission: to locate a decidedly Western foodstuff with a Japanese twist. The twist comes in the form of special mayonnaise, known as kewpie, that must tap with great force & immediacy into the dopamine-pumpers of the brain, because god DAMN – one bite of this stuff and it’s like your taste buds are getting oral sex. The legendary snack I’m referring to is Egg Sandwiches – or as my sister likes to call them, with mock Japanese accent, egg sand-he-wicho.

I don’t know why purchasing egg sandwiches at Lawson’s merits a mention, but the truth is not a day went by during our time in Japan that we did not pay our daily pilgrimage to a conveni (convenience store) for this ever-tasty, ever-ready snack… that flavour-bomb mayonnaise encased between two of the lightest, fluffiest, whitest (and no doubt nutrition-freest) slices of bread you’ve ever held in your soft, trembling hands… All for a loose-change price tag of about 200 yen (~AU$1).

But enough about egg sandwiches. We need to press on.

Right now I’m on the train to Tokyo proper and feel, once again, like I’m in a video game. Every little development along this journey – train arrives at station; train doors open; train is now departing – is accompanied by a little chiptune ditty straight out of The Legend of Zelda. Whoever made those top-loader washing machines that play a sea shanty once they’ve finished – that person was surely Japanese, coz they live and breathe that kinda stuff. And I’ve just noticed – to make things even more interesting – that there’s actually a different ditty for every station. My sister tells me this is so that Japanese salarymen who use their commute to sleep – so ~90% of them – train their brains to recognise & wake up to their station’s particular melody.

Ahhh, the Japanese. Are they actually a race of cyborgs, powered by gluteinous rice? Perhaps they are.

I should probably introduce you now to this gang of five I’m travelling with. Like I said, I’m here with my sister Matylda, her boyfriend Shane, another couple – Stef and Nicki (keep in mind Stef’s a dude – this initially threw me too) – and James, or ‘The James/TJ Bones’ as my sister refers to him with a mixture of amusement and affection.

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I quickly learned why. James is a heart-of-gold kind of guy who has a refreshingly undeveloped self-consciousness – one of those characters who’ll happily say whatever pops into his head, appropriateness filter be damned. It’d only be a few more hours until I was acquainted with his left testicle, which he popped out of his jim-jams for a giggle… But what really defined TJ on this trip though was his addiction to food. I’m not saying this guy’s a foodie, coz that’s half of Melbourne these days… I’m saying he has a mental disorder; the gastronomic equivalent of a crack addiction. On more than one occasion The James put us in real threat of missing a train, coz he’d gotten a whiff of something on the way and just had to stop and try it… Usually catching up with us at the last second, clutching a paper tray of octopus balls or whatever, half-apologising, half-eating, and mostly not giving a fuck coz he got the food and that’s all that really matters. James isn’t fat by the way – just standard-issue post-30-year-old dadbod – which makes this all the more extraordinary.

To be honest though you can’t blame him. Cheap, quick, delicious food is abundant in Nippon. Pokey little ramen bars with a curtain for the front door, emanating tantilising smells and noise… Little katsu don eateries, ‘katsu’ being (as far as I can tell) some form of meat on rice (inagi, or eel, being my favourite)… And even littler sushi outlets without a single seat, coz frankly the sushi is so fucking amazing you WILL be happy to stand while you eat it, the immaculately fresh, tender morsels melting in your mouth like butter. You eventually leave not so much coz you’ve had enough, but only to be fair to the inevitable gaggle of people gathered outside, awaiting their turn to intake some of this shiny, briny mouth heroin.

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These things are never mixed, mind you. The Melbourne thing of selling sushi and hot food at the same place, for example, is a big no-no in Japan. Every type of food – ramen, katsu, sushi, teppenyaki – is an art and you specialise in one only. There’s a place near where I live called ‘Wong’s Café’ that sells sushi rolls and Chinese food. To a Jap, that’s basically like having a combined brothel/ library – madness. And I tend to agree.

I should mention that the alcohol here is likewise top-notch. Most of the mainstream brews are made by Suntory – that’s the same Suntory that Bill Murray/Bob Harris advertises for in Lost in Translation – and it’s probably the best beer I’ve had outside of Poland and the Czech Republic. Now that I think about it, it’s weird we don’t get Suntory beers in Aus given Asahi’s so prominent… Asahi’s not bad by any standard, but it’s really just a Japanese Crown Lager. Suntory’s brews, on the other hand, are deliciously smooth, even slightly creamy in the way that Polish beers are… and, like Polish beers, they’re dirt cheap.

Japanese whiskey – again, dominated by the omnipresent Suntory label – is also top notch. Later in the trip I bought a fine-looking bottle of rum at a bottle shop which I thought was authentically South American, given it had a Spanish name and palm trees on the label, with no sign of that quintessential Asian tendency to misconstrue any culture outside of their own… Only to realise later it was produced in Japan. It was the best rum I’ve had to date.

The only alcohol category that the Japs fail at is vodka. There’s only one Japanese vodka label – basically an acknowledgement that they suck in this area – and instead of at least giving it a pseudo-Slavic name (like the pseudo-Spanish name for the rum), they just call it ‘Gibley’s’, as if vodka originated in fucking Wales or something. With its text-only white-and-navy label, it’s definitely no Belvedere – but this didn’t stop me and my sister from mixing generous quantities with fruit juice & downing it with Polish gusto on several occasions… For the vitamin C content, of course.

Wow. I’ve written extensively about egg sandwiches and liquor and haven’t even made it off the train to Tokyo yet. So yes, indeed – we’re all sitting in these big Gold Class-style seats whizzing at high speed through a semi-rural landscape – and speaking of alcohol, we’re all happily sipping cans of booze nestled on our fold-out trays. I’ve got a can of frothy Yebisu beer – another excellent & popular brand here – and my sister’s enthusiastically tucking into a can of ‘Strong’, a lemon-gin premix that lives up to its name in both flavour and potency. In Melbourne, of course, we’d all be issued $200+ fines and muscled off at the next station for doing this, but in Japan – completely acceptable. And they give you your change back like it’s a piece of the True Cross.

There’s actually an entire blog entry one could write about that fact – why DO we have such fascist drinking laws in Australia, and why, admittedly, are we so bad as a collective at drinking? Because don’t get me wrong: the Japanese get smashed. There’s a whole Facebook page dedicated to the phenomenon of uber-pissed Japanese salarymen passed out on in public places and transport – I saw it first-hand on a previous trip; a group of middle-aged men in impeccable business suits, faces flushed, laughing all with their ties inexplicably tied around their heads. The difference is they didn’t cause anyone any trouble. My sister told me a story, also from a previous trip, of a businessman so drunk that he had no choice but to puke… So what did he do? Opened up his suitcase and vomited all over his work papers. Not one globule of half-digested rice made it onto the floor of the train.

Whereas Down Under, getting drunk too often means acting like a moron – trying to draw as much attention as possible to you and your mates; hitting on women who don’t want a bar of you; and, depending on how the night pans out, perhaps starting a fight or destroying some property depending on what’s around. “This is why we can’t have nice things”, as the saying goes… While here in Japan, women literally walk up and down the train carriages with a cart offering you half a bar’s worth of liquor.

Yet it’s funny that here we are, all Aussies, all drinking yet behaving with utmost civility and self-control. Maybe the Japs have sent off all their fuckwit drunks to hard labour in Okinawan quarries or something, and left the rest of their citizens alone… Which, if true, I couldn’t applaud more. We should do the same instead of punishing everyone – coz who doesn’t feel like a bit of a drinky on a long, boring commute?

Anyway. Our first proper taste of Tokyo came with a stop in Shibuya. Shibuya is what probably comes to most people’s minds when they think ‘Tokyo’: it’s the district with that massive Times Square-esque intersection where, in Lost In Translation, Charlotte is lost in a sea of colourful umbrellas and looks up to see a huge projection of a brontosaurus saunter by. Me, I saw a bunch of men in suits ice-skating in ridiculous formations, for what seemed to be an ad for fruit juice. Who knows. At first you laugh, then you try to figure it out, then you give up trying to figure it out and just enjoy the surrealism. This is a country that, I think, knows it’s weird by other people’s standards and revels in it. The bizarre ads; the anthropomorphised ambulances with cat and dog faces; the eyebrow-raising Jinglish (everywhere I saw an ad featuring nothing but a woman and the words “Moist Diane” – again, who knows)… Collectively it says something pretty clear: This is Japan, and ordinary notions of ‘normal’ do not apply or matter. Reverence and irreverence, what’s important and what isn’t, is very different in the brilliant, quirky land that gave us samurai, sake and Sonic the Hedgehog.

One example that randomly comes to mind is how in Melbourne, you’ll grab a $2 sushi roll from any old joint (usually Chinese-owned) but you’d spend that lunch break catching up with someone, running errands or hitting the gym – being ‘productive’. In Japan, an adult might waste an entire lunch break reading semi-pornographic comics at a 7-Eleven or sleeping in a car, but the sushi consumption would be undertaken with the sort of thoughtfulness you’d reserve for a trip to the art gallery – careful consideration of the menu followed by full, devoted attention on the flavours in play. Sushi is not something you shove into a plastic box with a tiny plastic fish of soy sauce and scoff down at your desk while reading clickbait news on the web. It’s serious business.

And takeaway sushi is exactly what we had in Shibuya. We decided to ‘camp’ for a while at a statue of a dog that, no joke, has a photograph taken of it probably every 10 seconds during daylight hours. The dog, called Hachikō, used to leave home and make its way to Shibuya station every day to wait for the arrival of his owner, a uni professor. One day the professor died and never came home, but the dog continued the ritual every single day for almost 10 years until his own death – a moving example of dogs’ unrelenting loyalty to their master. It’s no surprise that the Japanese were impressed by this and in the words of the Wikipedia page I just brought up, to remind myself of the dog’s name –  “Hachikō’s legendary faithfulness became a national symbol of loyalty, particularly to the person and institution of the Emperor.”

After our own obligatory group shot, complete with peace signs, the girls went off to a sushi outlet we’d seen on the way out of the station, while us guys guarded the luggage, observing the insane level of public excitement at this otherwise unexceptional bit of bronze, while tentatively sipping on cans of beer/Strong. I say ‘tentatively’ coz at this point, it still seemed weird to be able to drink anything alcoholic in public. The Great Southern Nanny State had indoctrinated us deeply.

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Anyway, at one point I attempted to balance a pile of sushi and soy sauce on one of the backpacks and it promptly fell over, leaving a massive dark-brown stain on the hallowed ground surrounding Hachikō’s likeness… So we decided this was our cue to leave.  We each grabbed our respective luggage and once again, began dragging it noisily along the concrete and bitumen onto another train, and finally – after some assistance from a traffic controller, spiffily dressed in what looked like a crisp Navy uniform – made it to our flat.

The problems started as soon as we stepped through the door. The flat, an AirBnB owned by some expat Yank, was tiny. There were two very small bedrooms – one of which smelled bad, due (we surmised) to an uncleaned tatami mat – and five of us. After much deliberation and back-of-head scratching , the pieces settled thus: Stef & Nicki in the stale-smelling room; me, Matylda & Shane in the other room (I had a mattress on the floor – #luxury); and TJ on the couch in a ‘room’ that was just a cramped walkway between the kitchen and balcony. Not quite the Sofitel Deluxe Suites, and there was a serious lack of bedding to boot – at least justifying my decision to bring my own pillow, as I’m rather fussy in the evening headrest area.

The room/bed allocation process had gotten us all a bit tense, so we did what anyone would do in that situation – step out onto the balcony and have a smoke and beer. By the time we were done, with malty breath and tar-infused jackets, watching cherry blossoms flutter off a tree like pink confetti, we felt much better. Hey, we were in Japan. Everything’s gonna be cool.

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Me & Matylda at the cherry blossom tree on our street. Part 2 will come eventually – in the meantime check out my Instagram for more Japan pics!