だらだら dara dara—idly

My name doesn’t have good connotations in Japanese. In one local dialect on the Sea of Japan coast, dara means “idiot”. (Perhaps fortunately, I have yet to visit that area.) It also features in the word 堕落 daraku, which refers to a moral lapse or descent into apostasy, corruption, sin or depravity. And in the word darake which refers to being completely covered in something (generally something bad, like mud or blood), or filled with mistakes.

And then there is this phrase dara dara, meaning slovenly, idly, slowly, lazily.


This biscuit tin features a very popular character called “Rilakkuma” (relax bear) looking characteristically relaxed, with the slogan (written in Roman letters) “kyou mo minna de daradara goron”, which means something like “today also, everyone idly idle about”. I bought the biscuits because I felt the word dara dara was being used in a nice, positive context.


dara dara is one of hundreds of gitaigo, so-called mimetic or onomatapoeic words in Japanese. For example:

  • They were seated bara bara (separately);
  • The stars were shining kira kira (glittering and sparkling);
  • She was laughing kusu kusu (giggling);
  • She was laughing gera gera (loudly and boisterously);
  • She was laughing hera hera (condescendingly);
  • He speaks English pera pera (fluently);
  • Rain can fall zutsu zutsu, shito shito, pota pota, potsu potsu, depending on the intensity.

This aspect of Japanese is really hard for the learner. Japanese is simply filled with these words: people sleep guu guu, they eat mogu mogu, they lick pero pero, crunch food gari gari, stare jiro jiro, get nervous doki doki or impatient ira ira

Even with flash cards and other learning aids, they just seem to defy memorisation. Part of the reason must be that, despite being known in English as onomatapoeia, they are mostly not in any meaningful sense mimetic, but rather seemingly arbitrary. Another possible reason is that these words somehow don’t “feel like” real, proper Japanese, but like some kind of add-on, possibly childish or slangy. (For example they are always written in kana, not kanji.) This feeling is incorrect; they absolutely are an integral part of the language, including the literary language, but it’s hard to shake it off.

Together with another type of adverb (of the form bikkuri, yukkuri, shittori, pittari, kussuri, ukkari…), countless hours of effort are spent trying to memorise these vocabulary items for the JLPT exams. Effort which is mostly wasted, since this kind of knowledge (lists of arbitrary items learned by rote memorisation) is only shallowly rooted in memory and is quickly forgotten once the exam is over.

It’s different, however, when you learn one of these words in “real life”; somehow hearing it used even once in the context of a conversation anchors it in reality and instantly makes it much more memorable. And once you use it yourself, it’s with you for life.


Taipei old and new

At 509 metres high, Taipei 101 is the tallest building in East Asia, and for a few years held the title of tallest in the world.


In an otherwise low-rise city, it stands in splendid isolation as the city’s premier landmark. Its vertical rhythm differentiates it from other tall buildings, and is intended to suggest the form of a bamboo plant.


While Taipei 101 has now fallen to number 3 in the world height rankings, it retains a number of records, including the world’s fastest elevator.


Travelling at a speed of over 1 km per minute, it whisked us to the 89th-floor observation deck in double-quick time. Although there was no real impression of speed inside the lift car, there was a helpful illuminated display to let us know how high we were and how fast we were going.


The 91st-floor outdoor observation deck was closed today (no explanation was given) so we viewed the city through the floor-to-ceiling glass of the indoor observation deck. Taipei tends to be very hazy, limiting the visibility of more distant areas, but there was a great view of the area of the city closer to the tower.


World Trade Center


Dr Sun Yat-Sen Memorial


The 2 General MacArthur bridges over the Keelung River, and Yang Ming Shan mountain in the background

At the heart of Taipei 101, a huge metal ball forms part of a tuned mass damper, protecting the building from excessive movement in high winds and earthquakes.


This ball is 5.5 metres in diameter and weighs hundreds of tonnes. It is the biggest of its kind in the world, and the only one open to view by the public.

The lower floors of Taipei 101 are given over to an upscale shopping mall. The exposed structural elements of this atrium seem to combine a 19th-century Industrial Revolution aesthetic with a science-fiction sensibility.



After visiting Taipei 101, we hopped on the metro for a visit to Astoria Café. Astoria was founded by a Russian exile in 1949, and was the first western-style bakery and café in Taiwan. The White Russians, who had formed a community in Shanghai having fled the Russian revolution, were forced to flee yet another Communist revolution in 1949 and found themselves in Taiwan.

When we arrived, we were asked if we wanted “lunch or café”. As it was a bit too early for lunch, we opted for café. The menu had an extensive range of coffees and teas. The prices were very high, especially by Taiwan standards ($180 for a cup of coffee, equivalent to around €4.50). I chose a Russian blend coffee and Yuko went for a cold longan tea. (Longan is a delicious local fruit, quite similar to lychee.)

The menu didn’t feature any cake, only drinks. We wondered if we were supposed to buy cakes from the bakery downstairs and bring them up. But we asked the waiter and he brought us a cake menu. The cakes were good value at $50 per slice (€1.25). Yuko had a millefeuille and I had a coffee cake.

The décor is charmingly old-fashioned, with various significant items on display including old photos, samovars and a collection of matryoshka dolls.



The old-world style of the Astoria stands in delicious contrast to the Temple of the City God on the other side of the narrow street. This was the view from the window seat as I sipped my Russian coffee and nibbled my cake.


台湾 Taiwan

In just a few short days, Taipei has become one of my favourite places. It’s a wonderfully manageable city and very easy to get around. This is largely thanks to the MRT metro system, which has a dense network of underground lines in the city centre and extends all the way to the distant suburbs. The service is very frequent and easy to use; we haven’t had to wait for more than a couple of minutes for a train. Fares are $20 to $30 (about €0.50 to €0.75) which is extremely reasonable.

When we arrived in Taipei on Monday, we each bought an EasyCard and loaded it up with $500 worth of value (approx €12.50). This can be used on buses, metro, suburban rail and the Maokong gondola (which is not a boat but a cable car).


The “Hello Kitty”-themed cabins fail to make the ride any less terrifying

The main advantage of the EasyCard is that it makes it much more convenient to hop on and off buses and metro, since you don’t have to buy a ticket each time. You buy it (and top it up) from a machine at any metro station, and then when it’s time to leave Taipei, we can return the EasyCard and they will give us back any money that we haven’t used.

The EasyCard can also be used to hire a bike from the “YouBike” service. This did not work for me, however, as the registration process requires a mobile phone number and it would not accept my Irish phone number. However I was able to hire a bike at the kiosk using my credit card.

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Cycling turns out to be a very enjoyable way to get around Taipei. The streets don’t have cycle lanes as such, but cyclists are well catered for, and there are dedicated cycle ways along all the city’s river banks. The one thing to be careful of is drivers (including taxi drivers) turning right without indicating.


One of the major sights in central Taipei is the Chiang Kai-Shek memorial, dedicated to the memory of the former president of the Republic of China.


In front of the central monument, which houses a huge statue of CKS at the top of a steep flight of steps, there is a paved area flanked by two impressive public buildings (a library and a museum) built in the form of temples. On a more human scale, there are also attractive gardens north and south, with trees, ponds and wildlife.


Another impressive building in Taipei is the Presidential Palace (formerly the Governor General’s office).


Ximending is an area of youth culture, and I stopped to watch this band rehearsing on an outdoor stage at the “red house”, an octagonal red-brick converted warehouse building in Ximen. Here’s a short video.


I got thirsty cycling around in the heat, so I bought a can of Hey Song Sarsaparilla from a vending machine. I was curious, because we don’t have sarsaparilla drinks in Ireland. I liked it. I also liked the fact that the drinks in the vending machine only cost $20 (€0.50).


通り抜け toorinuke—cherry blossom viewing at the Osaka mint

The Osaka mint dates back to the 1870s, a time when Japan was opening up to outside influence after centuries of self-imposed isolation. There is an Irish connection – some of the buildings were designed by an Irishman called Thomas Waters, including this elegant reception hall, the Senpuukan, which was built for the visit of the Meiji emperor, who came here in 1872.



The tradition of toorinuke (cherry-blossom viewing at the mint) dates back almost as far – for 140 years people have come here in mid-April to “pass through” the tunnel of cherry trees when they are in full bloom. This is called 通り抜け toorinuke (from a verb meaning to pass through).

The cherry-blossom route is around 500 metres long, and comprises hundreds of carefully-tended trees of over 100 different varieties. They are osoizakura—late-blossoming cherries; while the cherry trees in the various parks around Osaka reached their brief moment of glory 2 weeks ago and have since shed their flowers in a flurry of pinkish petals, at the mint the cherry trees are only now in full bloom.








Yuko suggested that we should get up early to beat the crowds, and she was right. Even at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, we were among hundreds making our way from the metro station to the entrance gate.


The toorinuke operates as a one-way system (south to north), with staff-members with megaphones constantly exhorting people to keep moving along the route and not to stop.


However, only the first 100 metres or so of the route was congested, after which it freed up a lot and it was possible to enjoy the experience in a more relaxed way.


Carved into a rock alongside the route is a short poem about the toorinuke:


大阪に 花の里あり 通り抜け

oosaka ni hana no sato ari toorinuke

In Osaka is found the home of flowers—toorinuke


During the toorinuke, the Mint museum and buildings are closed to the public. However I would like to come back here another time to visit them.

ラーメン ramen

I don’t really mind long flights. The packing, the travel to and from the airport, the check-in, the security checks, those are exhausting. But once on the plane, the fact of sitting quietly in a seat for 11 hours doesn’t bother me. If anything, it offers a rare opportunity to slow down, to read a book or watch a film, or just do nothing at all, while every so often people come and bring you food and drink.

Pro tip: I find a gin and tonic at the start of the flight is a very good way of getting into the right frame of mind.WP_20140410_001

Business class is a nicer experience, of course. But while you can usually get an economy class ticket for between €800 and €900 return, the business class fare is more like €2500. For two people, that amounts to an extra €3000, which would buy you an awful lot of comfort on the ground. As in, you could stay in a luxurious hotel for 2 weeks for that price. For that money, I will happily put up with the economy class experience for 11 hours. Hell, for that money I would spend the flight in a cage in the cargo hold with the animals. Or tied up face down on the floor with an hourly kicking from the cabin crew.

Anyway, when we arrived in Japan we went out to the supermarket to get something for lunch. I got sushi.



This sushi selection, freshly made this morning, cost 410 yen. That’s about €3. For a selection of 10 delicious nigiri-zushi.

For dinner, we decided to go to a local ramen place: Tiger and Dragon.WP_20140411_010

They do “Hakata-style” ramen noodles, with a fatty, almost silky broth made with pork bones.


The sign below says that you can help yourself to fiery-hot (chili) mustard greens, sesame mustard greens or benishouga (red pickled ginger). I had to look up the word for mustard greens: 高菜 takana, as I wasn’t able to read it. Or rather, I was able to read it but wasn’t sure how to pronounce it or what vegetable it referred to. If that makes any sense. Such are the vagaries of the Japanese writing system.


 Benishouga is a typical accompaniment to Hakata ramen. And by the way, the fiery-hot mustard greens really are.




到着 touchaku—we’ve arrived!

We arrived back in Japan this morning. We flew from Dublin to Amsterdam yesterday morning with KLM and then on to Kansai airport (Osaka).

As I was considered to be a returning resident, I was able to join a short “re-entry” line at immigration and was processed through quickly, which was welcome after the long flight.

There are a number of options for flying from Dublin to Kansai, the cheapest and shortest of which is usually KLM/Air France via Amsterdam or Paris. With a very tight transfer of 45 minutes in Amsterdam, you can do the whole journey in a little over 13 hours. (Our luggage didn’t make the transfer, but it will be delivered tomorrow, and on the good side we didn’t have to manage it on the train and the bus.)

It’s a journey I’ve made many times over the last 15 years or so, and this time something very unusual happened – we flew over North Korea.

The shortest route from western Europe to Japan follows a great circle routing that looks something like this:



(These photos are taken from the flight information screen of KLM’s in-flight entertainment system).

The initial heading is approximately north-easterly, typically overflying Denmark, southern Sweden and southern Finland or Estonia, before spending many hours (the majority of the flight) flying over the vast and mostly empty expanse of Russia.

But it’s the detail of what happens at the other end – the last few hours of flight – that has changed over the years. I don’t know why.

Until just a few years ago, the plane always took a more northerly heading, seemingly avoiding Chinese airspace until arriving at the Pacific coast, and then take a sharp right turn to fly south over Japan to Osaka.

Then, a few years ago for the first time, the planes started to take a more southerly (and more direct) route. This route cuts across Mongolia and the deserts of northern China, passing directly over Beijing before crossing South Korea en route to Osaka. It seemed, however, that North Korean airspace remained “off-limits” and was deliberately avoided. This added some time to the flight.

But this morning I looked at the flight information screen and saw this:



The plane had flown straight through North Korean airspace. Admittedly a remote north-eastern corner of North Korea, but definitively North Korea nonetheless. If I had been in a window seat I would have taken a peek out the window just out of curiosity, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have looked any different from neighbouring regions of Russia and China.

Of course, I didn’t spend the whole flight watching our progress on the flight map – I also passed the time watching films such as American Hustle and Gravity (which I’m sure wasn’t shown to best effect on a 7-inch screen). But it is fun to check in on the flight map every now and then, if only as a reminder of just how big the world really is.

Note on the word of the day:

When setting off on a journey, Japanese people will often cheerfully announce 出発だ shuppatsu da—we’re off! And then when they arrive at their destination, you will hear 到着 touchaku—we’ve arrived!