Japan, Reflection

Off to Japan again?

It was 2019 when we last went to Japan. My wife, three boys and I were visiting my wife’s family – her parents and older sister – a trip we have tried to make more often but once every two or three years is about as regularly as we can manage. They live in a city called Kashima (鹿嶋市) which is in Ibaraki Prefecture (茨城県) on the Pacific coast, around a 45 minute drive from Narita International Airport. I spent a couple of years there teaching English at the end of the 1990s, through something called the JET Programme. This was when and where my wife and I met.

Kashima in many ways is a fairly typical mid-sized city situated in the Japanese countryside but at its heart, both geographically and spiritually, is a Shinto shrine called Kashima Jingu (鹿島神宮). Now I am not a religious person, at least not in the practising sense, but each time we go back to Japan I make a point of Kashima Jingu being one of the first places we visit. The forest around the shrine is immense – around 24 hectares or 30 football pitches. It is mainly Japanese cedar including some absolute gigantic trees around 50-60 metres tall and hundreds of years old. In Japan, and around Shinto shrines in particular, the trees themselves are considered to contain their own spirit and have ceremonial ropes hung around their trunks from which hang pieces of paper folded into lightning shapes, very much like the tail of the Pokemon character called Pikachu. As you stand at the base of any of these trees you cannot help but feel a spiritual power contained within them. Indeed, rather like a mobile phone in need of electricity, I swear I can feel my spiritual battery taking a rapid charge whenever I am in their presence.

For obvious reasons, it has been another three years since our last visit and it looks like we might be able to travel as planned this summer. Entry restrictions into Japan are still tight. Much has been made of the opening up of borders in recent weeks, although if you want to go as a tourist at the moment your only option is as part of an official tour group. Fortunately, as we are visiting relatives, I am able to get a visa for that purpose and my kids and wife will be travelling on their Japanese passports.

The trip this year is, unfortunately, tinged with sadness as we won’t be able to see all the usual family members and enjoy what is ordinarily a happy time of reunion. Tragically, my father-in-law passed away suddenly towards the end of last year. It was at the height of the Omicron variant wave of COVID-19 and although my wife was able to get back home, the journey for the rest of us was nigh on impossible with all the travel restrictions and quarantine requirements in place at the time. I don’t think that I have yet fully accepted his death and know that there are going to be some moments of sadness as the realisation that we will not be able to see him again, at least in the normal sense, sinks in. What I would give to enjoy one last visit to the local pub with him for a few drinks. However, there is a very special time of the year in Japan, a festival called Obon, when the spirits of the departed are said to visit the household alters. I am hopeful that us being in Japan around the time of Obon, especially this first one since he departed, will allow us to feel close to him as the gateways between the spirit world and our world open up for a brief moment of convergence.

I plan to write more about my experience in Japan. A meagre two years living there means that I am far from an expert but my time in Kashima has given me a insight into life in Japan quite different from that of those who have only experienced Tokyo or another of the major cities.

Until then, I hope that you enjoy the photos accompanying this blog post and that a little bit of the spiritual calmness rubs off on you.


How do people manage to blog every day?

When I set up this site a few years ago, I thought it was going to be the start of something special. My own platform to write about whatever I liked, whenever I liked. Not about building a brand or an online presence but just a place to capture and order my thoughts as I went about my life.

Roll forward four years and I have written so little here that I am beginning to question if it is worth renewing my domain and hosting subscription the next time it comes around. So why the writer’s block?

I am in awe of those whose lives are so busy or whose thoughts are so profound that they find the time and energy to write on a daily basis. It’s not that my head is empty; if anything, there are too many thoughts, too many emotions flying around in there (see Give your mind a break!) just that I lack that something that compels me to capture these in writing. Or, at least, to capture these in this form of writing.

Is it because I am fundamentally worried about writing something that reveals too much about me? I have pondered this a lot recently as a result of a leadership development programme I am on. Every time the focus of the particular session turns to talking about ourselves I get a familiar knot in my stomach. Ask me to talk about something or someone else, no problem, I would happily blather on for hours on end. Ask me to talk about me and I’m like a rabbit in the headlights. In fact, I wonder if the session earlier this week has given me the impetus to get something written down here today? It was about the power of story telling and using stories as a call to action, to get others to sign up to your cause and lend their support. By the time the facilitator had started to tell us her story, I started to feel very uncomfortable, knowing that my turn was coming soon, albeit talking with just one other person. As it turned out, the colleague I was assigned to in the break-out room did a great job of teasing out my thoughts and I came up with a story of a genuine life experience about supportive and timely access to services that indeed has shaped my values and driven me throughout my career.

Interestingly, I am drawn to telling stories through writing and those who have read my work tell me that the stories and characters in them reveal a lot about me, more so than I had thought when writing them. Is this the light bulb moment? That is, I don’t like to blog as the interaction between me and the reader is too direct? There is no filter of fiction and make believe to allow me to truly open up?

I will reflect on that and, who knows, I might be back again before too long.

Japan, Reflection


Today – 11th March 2021 – is the 10th Anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami.

The 9.1 Magnitude earthquake struck at 14:46 JST and was the most powerful earthquake recorded in Japan. Honshu, the main island, moved east by 2.4m and the earth shifted on its axis by 10-25cm. The tsunami that followed reached up to 40m in height and travelled at 700km/h.

The tsunami caused the meltdown of three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Over 150,000 residents within a 20km radius were evacuated. Many will be unable to ever return with estimates that it will be 40 years before radiation levels have fallen to safe levels again.

Over 120,000 buildings totally collapsed, over 280,000 partially collapsed and 700,000 buildings were damaged. 4.4 million households in northern Japan were left without electricity, 1.5 million households without water.

100,000 children were uprooted from their homes. 1,580 children in Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima Prefectures lost either one or both parents. 378 school students lost their lives, 158 disappeared without a trace.

15,899 people died. 2,525 people went missing and have still not been found.

Japanese TV has had a full schedule of programmes today from formal ceremonies taking place across the country through to individual tales of loss. Every life is precious but the stories of children who were literally swept away by the sea are heartbreaking and even a decade on the grieving process continues. As a parent myself, I cannot or more accurately do not want to dare to imagine the pain of mothers and fathers whose children’s lives were snatched prematurely on that fateful day. The hours of waiting before finding out if their son or daughter was safe must have been unbearable and for those who faced the unthinkable news, I am genuinely lost for words.

On this day each year, I make sure that I find the time to pause for a moment to reflect. This year, I have been thinking mostly about those poor children and hope that their physical lives, whilst short, were happy ones and that their spirits have found a peaceful place of rest.


Mindfulness, Motivation, Reflection, Relaxation, Wellbeing

Give your mind a break!

Have you ever thought about how we think?

Well, the science* will tell you that the human brain contains an estimated 100 billion neurons – or nerve cells – interconnected by trillions of connections, called synapses which act like chemical junction boxes. Electrical signals travel along threads, called axons, between the neurons. When the signal reaches the tip of the axon it causes the release of chemical neurotransmitters in the synapse which push the signal out to the target neurons. These target neurons respond with their own electrical signal which then spreads to other neurons. Within a few hundred milliseconds, the signal has spread to billions of neurons in dozens of interconnected areas of the brain.

Pretty exhausting stuff!

Since the beginning of 2021, I have been reflecting on how often my brain is in “thinking mode” and I came to the conclusion that my mind is whirring pretty much all of the time. Most of my waking hours (and sometime my sleeping ones) are spent thinking; and usually either reflecting on the past or concerning myself with the future.

Not one to rush into any New Year’s Resolutions, I decided around the middle of January to see if there was anything out there that I could engage with to start exploring my tendency to be anywhere but the present. I settled – perhaps as a result of my searches on this subject driving some targeted advertising – on Headspace which is a “guide to mindfulness for your everyday life.” I must have set up an account previously and was pleased to see that I could benefit from another free trial without even having to register a different email address!

And so it began.

On a daily basis, I have been popping in my earphones and working my way through the Basics course. Part of the meditation exercise – which is, by its nature, repetitive as it needs to be when learning something new – is to focus on just the breath and in doing so take a welcome break from thinking. Realising when one is thinking and just “noting” this fact before returning to the breath is still something that happens frequently to me during each session . I have a long way to go.

However, I am now 35 days and counting into this journey and have found that putting aside just 10 or 15 minutes each day to not think is reaping rewards. Not only am I able to better concentrate on what I am currently doing, I also feel more relaxed and am experiencing much better quality sleep. Most importantly, I feel more present when with those whom I love, enjoying the moment rather than being distracted with thought. I have signed up for a year so let’s see if I can keep this up!

It goes without saying that the sustained nature of the Covid pandemic has given us even more to think about than usual and so I wanted to share my experience with you in case you identify with anything I have written today and want to make a change.

Give your mind (and those neurons) a break!


*Thank you to Elizabeth Dougherty of MIT for putting this in simple enough language for me to understand! https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/what-are-thoughts-made-of/


Before and after

As I sit here on a pleasantly warm and sunny evening in June, I feel, for the first time in a long while, a compulsion to write. This is unusual as it’s typically an emotional event that prompts me to fire up the laptop and start typing; tonight, I feel contented.

But why? We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, life as we knew it has been turned on its head and looks like being severely disrupted for many months to come.

That’s not to say I haven’t been thinking a lot about everything going on around me, just that where we are right now has an eye-of-the-storm calmness about it. The immediate panic-stricken response seems long in the past – even though in reality it was just a few months ago – yet we are far from out of the woods. However, like a toddler walking for the first time, the country is continuing to make small and tentative steps towards restoring life to how it was before. Of course, it might not be like before and I’ve lost count of the number of times people refer to the “new normal” almost to the point it has become a single word.


I said I was calm tonight, but underneath I feel an underlying sense of unease. Despite the initial baby steps, the appetite is there to lift restrictions at an increasing pace. Once the flood gates have been opened, it’s going to take one hell of an effort to close them again.

Lots of the shops opened up again today and from the pictures online, it seems that thousands of people have been champing at the bit to engage in a bit of retail therapy beyond clicking on the ‘buy now’ button. Is it just herd mentality fuelled by targeted social media advertising or is there a sense of desperation out there from people to rediscover a little of what life was like before all this happened?

I wasn’t one of the thousands and not just because I was working (at home) today. If I’m entirely honest, there is a part of me that is thriving off life at present. Of course, I am devastated by the cost to human life that the world has experienced in the last six months. Easy to forget that every number is a person: a mother, a father, a daughter, a son, a friend, a lover and all those affected by death during these times will, no doubt, wish that none of this ever happened. In that sense, tonight’s words indeed should be taken in perspective and could be perceived as nothing more than some self-indulgent self-reflection. I beg forgiveness if this is how it comes across.

However, I want to tap into something bigger than my own feelings and I suppose I hope that by sharing, I can spark some thoughts in your own minds.

What was life like before?

Routine; busy; daily commute; traffic jams; swimming; face-to-face meetings; planes in the sky; family get-togethers; crowds at football matches; trips to town; rushing; school runs; plenty of pasta; cinema; beer in a pub; freedom to travel; life passing by; and traffic fumes.

The list could go on and these were some that popped into my head. You will see that some of these are aspects of life which I dearly miss but, equally, there are some elements of that life that I could do without experiencing ever again. I genuinely don’t miss the faster pace of life before; the tick tock of my natural metronome is more in step with the tick tock of life around me presently. And I like that.

That said, I do want (and need) to go swimming again and I long for a Sunday roast with all the family talking over each other at the dinner table rather than on a Zoom call. I want a beer in a pub even though a pint costs almost a fiver. I want to travel again. I want my kids to get back to school so they can see their friends and re-start learning in a classroom (or the playground).

Work is going to be an interesting one. Not just for where I work but for companies up and down the country and across the globe. Have we witnessed a seismic shift to virtual companies with almost no office estate? Will those of us who can work from home ever return to the office where we previously spent countless hours? How will we cope in a face-to-face meeting without being able to turn off the camera and microphone for an enormous yawn? Will people still need season tickets or has the daily commute by bus or train had its day?  

Time. I feel I have so much more of it than before. Time for family, time for oneself, time for reflection, time for hobbies, time to waste. Time is the commodity of greatest value that we all seem to have more of. Gone is the harsh 6.15am alarm – I haven’t set my alarm for months – and gone is my morning stomach ache from the mad rush corralling the kids so they are ready in time to leave for school. In fact, as I write this, gone is my cramping stomach altogether. Wow, that’s one I hadn’t clocked until now. The Buscopan will be going out of date!

Could some of this be the newnormal? Or is this merely a holiday from life before, with life after becoming much the same as before. Perhaps my eye-of-the-storm analogy is more fitting than I first thought and this is merely the calm in between before and after with not much changing after all?

I suppose what I want to say is that I hope some of this change is permanent; we should hold on desperately to what we currently have and value so dearly for there is every chance that it will be wrenched from our grasp before we know it and, over the years,  become nothing more than a distant memory. Remember when we baked all that bread? Remember when we went walking every afternoon? Remember all those films we watched as a family? If only we had time to do those things again…

Maybe this is why I have felt compelled to write this evening (it is still warm just a little darker); I want to capture this moment, revel in its calmness and hope that life before and life after are similar…but not the same.






The best thing about February is that it is short.

Each year, this dastardly month is upon us and drags me down with its general misery. You’re probably thinking how immensely unhealthy it is to make such strong connections between months of the year and feelings of well-being. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what I find myself doing…

Last week, I spoke with a few colleagues in the office about this (searching for some solace to be perfectly honest) and was surprised how even verbalising the different months provoked in me a strong emotional reaction. Without much thought at all, I was able to place them into the following categories:

Positive – April, May, June, July, September, October, December

Neutral – January, March, August, November

Negative – February

On reflection, the good news is that I have only placed one of the twelve in the negative category and even better news that there’s only a couple of weeks to go before it’s over.

In the meantime, I will just trudge on through the mire knowing that March is just around the corner and then I can start shifting up through the gears into the long stretch of positivity from April through to July – even writing these words is lifting my spirits!

There is one very happy day in February and that is Valentine’s Day. I’m certainly not buying into the commercial extravaganza but it was on this day 16 years ago that I asked my girlfriend at the time to marry me. Fortunately, she said “Yes” and the rest, as they say, is history.

Maybe this month is not so bad after all.

(Yes, it is).


Motivation, Reflection

Sew what!

As the days have got longer and with the weather kind, I have been spending more of my evenings in the garden cutting the lawn, tending to the plants or just sitting with a drink, relaxing.  Well, that’s my excuse for not writing in a while.

A couple of events earlier this week inspired me to pen something tonight.

The first was not so good. I happened to be at a desk that had lost its laminate edging strip along the part you would sit facing, thus exposing the rough chipboard underneath. In itself this wasn’t a problem as I have rarely found the quality of desk construction material to have a strong positive or negative correlation with my productivity. However, as I leaned across the desk to plug in the laptop, my shirt caught on this jagged surface and pulled a handful of threads leaving a series of tugged and uneven “tramlines” down the front.

Now I hate to spend money on work clothes – this shirt was a recent purchase and one of my smarter items of clothing. I was pissed off and let this nag at me all day. I even found myself absentmindedly picking at the lose threads in some of my meetings. Letting small things bother me is a recognised failing of mine but I couldn’t shake this and upon arriving home at the end of the day was still miffed, but at least I could now do something about it…

…so I got a very sharp pair of scissors and set to work trimming off the threads hanging from the front of my shirt, no doubt more prominent thanks to my fiddling. All was going well until I held the scissors away from the shirt to pull away the last offending piece of cotton when I felt the blade catch. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t have been a problem but this was no ordinary day and these were no ordinary scissors – they were made in Japan, the Land of the Razor-sharp. In an attempt to finesse the ever-so-slightly damaged shirt back to its original state, I ended up poking a dirty great hole in the garment. Many would not notice some irregular looking stitching, many would notice a hole. Needless to say, my mood did not improve.

The second, and more positive, thing that happened was that I started listening to a podcast recommended by a colleague called Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast . This involved Richard chatting with some other comedians, probably at the Leicester Square Theatre although I couldn’t verify this from the acoustics alone. I had a flick through the guests and settled on Katherine Ryan, a Canadian-Irish comedian who lives in the UK. Stating the obvious, the conversation was very funny and helped to wash away some of my frustrations. I had seen Katherine’s stand up before but what I really liked was her humility, honesty and terrific outlook. In her own words:

“You can walk through life and just not really pay attention to the things that don’t matter. You really can and then you can be happy all the time.”

When I heard this, my initial reaction was this sounded like somebody who had everything they could ever wish for – she is an extremely successful stand-up comedian – but in response to being asked such a question we hear that she learned to be like this when she had absolutely nothing. In other words, it was a conscious choice and she used this to build her life.

I really wasn’t expecting to pick up something that I could use to improve myself and my reaction to the challenges that life throws my way, both big and small. As I dropped off to sleep, I thought to myself, “it’s only a fucking shirt, sew up the hole and forget about it.”

We often can’t change the things that happen to us each day but we are in control of the way that we react to these external stimuli. Be aware of what matters and what doesn’t. I have even found myself questioning whether something I thought mattered really did. It’s worth challenging yourself on that point as the fewer things that do matter, the less you have to worry about. Not sure I can be happy all the time but being happy most of the time is a prize worth aiming for.

The next time you splash water down your front when washing up, drop a glass, experience internet outage, hear someone say something stupid, run out of milk, bite the inside of your cheek when eating or catch your clothing on a piece of furniture just stop to think about how you will react.

In many cases a simple “so what” will do.



While I was writing How short, this life? I found out that a dear friend of ours had passed away. Well, just about one month later, his funeral took place. Despite the sadness of having to finally say farewell, the service was also a happy one where his family and friends shared their memories and celebrated his life.

A week later, and I have been reflecting on those eulogies. In one of his finest songs, Imagine, John Lennon sang  “Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can.” Of course, nobody at the funeral talked about material things, the house where he lived, the type of car he drove, the clothes he wore. Rightly, they were about the person, his life, his achievements, his loved ones. When life comes to an end, the legacy will almost always be the intangibles or items with high sentimental value: a conversation; a chance meeting; camaraderie through work or volunteering; a cherished letter, picture or video. Most of us would give up everything we own to keep our loved ones with us on this earth. His brother summed up what he thought about his older sibling as “Splendid. He was a splendid chap.”

Hopefully, I have still got a long way to go before my final breath but I am clear on how I want to be remembered and would be very satisfied with the word “splendid” when people talk about me. We spend so much of our lives chasing the money and fretting about keeping up with the Joneses but how much easier would it be if you could recondition yourself to be satisfied with what you have got? This isn’t about shunning basic needs and for those unfortunate to have very little, what I am writing may come across as idealistic or the thoughts of someone with clearly not enough to worry about. What I am trying to say is once you have attained a reasonably comfortable standard of living with a roof over your head and food on the table, be thankful and try to avoid feeding an insatiable appetite for more and more.

In the Japanese animation Spirited Away there is a character called a Hoshigari (ほしがり) that gets its energy by satiating the appetites of the greedy who, in this case, keep asking for gold which it conjures up from its hands. In the end the Hoshigari turns on them and starts to eat up the very people it gave the gold nuggets to in the first place. It’s a poignant message in a film well worth watching if you haven’t seen it already.

I certainly don’t want to get eaten by a Hoshigari and so the next time I feel a hankering for something new I will channel my energy instead into imagining what I can do towards becoming a splendid chap.

That feels like a much better use of my time.