Friday, 13 December 2013

Home

If Eastbourne is the place old people go to die, Wimbledon is the place middle class people go to breed. Like my parents. And my friend S*** (two children) who I met earlier this week.

Unfortunately because of the booming baby population she has to move to Epsom because they can't get their kids into either of the schools just around the corner, both C of E church schools, because they aren't religious. I think that's dreadful. Apparently church schools are now all powerful and demand that people attend church and do volunteering if their children are to get in. I suppose the going to church bit is fair enough, except that they get 50% state funding and there's no school place for my mate's child.

I am amazed how I am back and immediately step into the old ways. I potter around, visiting the same people, shopping in the same shops. Of course there are changes. Wimbledon seems to be getting posher each time I come back, as though the village is seeping down the hill.

I go to the theatre and in the daytimes I meet up with friends. I am able to do this because they (almost) all have small children. (The DFP can't come because of work, but this is not a schedule that the DFP would enjoy so it's just as well I'm travelling solo.)

On Sunday I went to the soft play centre in Raynes Park (the horror) with A***** (two children) who thought she had escaped from Wimbledon but has been sucked back in.

On Tuesday I went round to S***'s (two children) house and we talked non stop for four hours. Soon I will meet up with P*** (five children), J**** (two children – twins) and hopefully with G***** (two children). I probably won't be able to make it down to Warwickshire to see M*** (one child) but I am going up to see my brother in Scotland (three children) and my old friends H**** (three children) and M***** (three children) will come and meet me there.

A few years ago they would all have been at work during the day, so this does well for my holiday plans. Though some are starting to go back to work, which won't work well for my holidays at all. The arty types (largely no children, yet) I have to see in the evenings because they are busy working during the days.

I've had a wonderful run of theatre. I can recommend 'The Curious Incident of the dog in the Night-time', 'Jumpers for Goalposts' and 'The Elephantom' and, if you haven't seen a Punchdrunk show before and are feeling flush, 'The Drowned Man' is worth a visit.

I find it very emotional being back. Seeing people I love and miss, hearing the big things which don't travel well, and small things which don't either.

I realise I miss the quality of the light. The variations you don't get in Singapore. Life here altogether seems more piquant, in good ways and bad. Walking home from the theatre on Tuesday night I looked down onto Villiars street from the walkway onto the Hungerford footbridge. Police cars lined the street and a man with a bloodied nose was being held in a doorway by two police, garbling about not wanting to fight anyone. When I reached Waterloo it was swaying with festive drunkards.

Now I'm on the train to Scotland with the countryside tumbling beautifully past the window and plenty of layers packed. It's hard to put into words what these trips mean for me. Suffice to say they are too infrequent and very important for my well-being.

The new job, which I am a couple of months into and loving, means I will be in Singapore for at least another couple of years. But the years slip by quickly in seasonless Singapore. In the meantime I must make sure that I come back often.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Counting down...

The other day I asked the DFP whether he wanted a cup of tea and because he was doing something on the computer, he didn't answer. Without thinking about it I started counting down from 5. (Surefire way to hurry along a 3-5 year old.) Fortunately he didn't notice. I have definitely been teaching small children too long.

I am currently negotiating the terms for a new job. This is a lovely, lovely job. Almost a dream job. A real game changer for me. But what it also means is that I will be here in Singapore for, at the very least, another two years. And that is quite a thing. It gives me a funny feeling in my stomach when I think about that.

Another dear friend got married this weekend, and I wasn't there. She put the video on facebook and I wept a little weep to be so far away from my dear ones. It doesn't get easier being so far away. But then I look at this amazing job, which I would never, ever have got in the UK and think, this really is the land of opportunity.

I am sitting on the roof terrace writing this. In half an hour I will be directing another dear, but far flung friend who is preparing a one woman turn for a variety night. She is in America. I am in Singapore. We are so far away but in our isolated-farawayness we are connecting and reconnecting more often than we did when I was surrounded by friends in the UK. There is something wonderful about that.

When I say alone, of course, that's not true. I do have lovely people around me who are becoming firmer friends. But friendship takes time and here I have been out of my creative circle. I miss those people particularly. I hope this job will change that.

I am counting down the days until I start. Fingers crossed.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Butchering a chicken

One thing I think I will never get used to is having to cut the head and feet off a chicken. In Singapore chicken's feet are a delicacy so the standard shopper would be most put out to find the best bit missing on buying a whole bird.

The chicken you want is, of course, a kampong chicken. Kampong is Malay for village. To buy the closest possible thing to free range, you go for Kampong ayam (chicken). Both at the wet market and in the supermarket chickens come with head and feet attached. They tuck the feet into the the chicken's bottom so before attacking you have to pull them out.

I am not averse to making a stock using the head and feet but I really dislike the way the feet curl around your hand as you chop them off, the way you have to hack a few times to get through the leg bone, the sickening thud as you chop through the neck. My days of vegetarianism are long behind me. Making casserole has become a whole new experience.

I have, unsurprisingly, been on holiday since I last wrote. Hari Raya, the end of Ramadan, was the day before National Day giving us Thursday, Friday and Saturday off. We went to a resort called Rimba on a small Malaysian island called Sibu. It was heavenly. There was very little to do except eat, drink, read and snorkel and then do them all again. With all the decisions taken away from us there was nothing to squabble about at all.




Not a great picture, but this is a baby wild boar. Fortunately the DFP wasn't fast enough to catch and eat it.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Sunday morning

While I often complain vociferously about working on a Sunday there are some things I like about it.

I like being slightly out of step with the rest of the working world. I like having a day off during the working week. I like that when I cycle into work on a Sunday morning the roads are quiet. I like the things I see.

I get up and, still half asleep, before I've even had my coffee, get on my bike to cycle into work. This is what I saw this morning on my way.

As I cycled up grimy Geylang road I saw the tail ends of last night. Sometimes I'll catch sight of a lady or notlady making a deal, people still drunk falling across the road. The numerous food stalls are already peopled.

Sitting along a pavement, cheek by jowl, was a row of construction workers, Chinese and Indian, waiting to be collected by one of the open backed trucks and taken to one of Singapore's never ending building sites. I'm not the only one who has to work today.

The next part of my route, past Kallang, through Lavender is motorway. I cross over the river and see people running alongside it, before the sun is fully up and the heat sets in. Marathons here start at night. I snake away from the motorway and come up into Bugis, past the golden onion domed mosque. During the week I'll sometimes catch sight of children on their way to the Madrasah the boys wearing small white caps, the girls in mini hijab and niqab.

The further I cycle away from Geylang the cleaner and brighter Singapore gets. I pass the famous Batman building. I used to think that this was the oldest sky scraper in Singapore, an original 1930's office block. It isn't. It was built in the 80's or 90's, a vanity project owned by a rich Malaysian business man, but still impressive.

The Batman building
I leave Bugis and cycle past Raffles hotel, past Chimes, once a church now a complex of (what else in Singapore) restaurants. I turn up towards the lush greenery of Fort Canning park passing beautiful old colonial buildings currently being gutted, turning into yet another mall leaving, only their beautiful fa├žades as a memory of the past.

Out of the tunnel I pass Dhoby Ghat, more malls, and Singapore is getting shinier and shinier with each push of the pedal. Up Somerset, the backside of Orchard, malls on either side of me. Past Grange Road and another breath of the past, a row of old Chinese shophouses, spruced into desirable residences. 

Up Orchard Boulevard and a surprising slice of greenery tucked away from the malls and condominiums that make up orchard, a canopy of green.

And I'm there. I lock up my bike and go and find a coffee to wake me up while I write my diary and prepare for my day.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

India again. Mumbai, Varanasi and Delhi.

Skyping with my Mum before we left for India she asked, hesitantly

'And how are you planning to get around? Will you be using public transport? Will you be going on.... ' (I could hear the intake of breath) 'buses?'

I assured her I would not.

She wasn't the only one. When I told people where I was going the most frequent reaction was 'be careful' rather than 'how exciting' as it was two years ago. I have to admit, I had a moment of hesitation at the thought of travelling around alone while the DFP was working. A hesitation I didn't even momentarily have the last time I visited. I wandered around completely at ease.

Since the Delhi rape last year it seems as though another horrific rape story comes from India every few weeks. I can't help but think that this must be because they are being reported more and given greater exposure than that there is a greater instance. That alone has made me re-think how I behave as a female traveller in Asia.

I was much more careful in my packing. I made sure to take clothes which covered my chest and upper arms. I wore knee-length leggings underneath dresses. I wore a wedding ring. Nothing says, 'fuck off' like a wedding ring.

It may all sound a bit extreme but it's easy to forget how different the cultural norms are in Asia and how unthinkingly westerners can create a damning reputation for themselves, a reputation which for women can also be dangerous.

When I met the DFP at the airport and gave him a kiss he warned me that it isn't at all done in India. Even holding hands is not normal for a man and a woman. Of course it's completely fine for two men to wander around hand in hand, or one arm drapped around the other, but for a man and a woman to do that? No way.

So I was careful and I was fine. We started our trip in Mumbai. The rains had come early this year and in force. Earlier and wetter than usual we were told.

My ancestors were part of the British colonial empire and one of them has a memorial in St Thomas' cathedral in Mumbai. Here it is.














Rather grand eh? His poor wife doesn't get much of a look in though, does she.

The cathedral itself is pure colonialism, recently re-ordered (that's refurbished in church talk to all you heretics) so the walls were bright with fresh, white paint. The overhead fans spinning smoothly. It felt airy and peaceful. A piano tuner who looked like he'd dropped straight from Fulham Broadway was tuning the piano as I wandered around. One of the glass globe light shades had fallen and was lying, almost perfect but with a crack in it's shell like a boiled egg by one of the pillars.

I sat at the back to soak up the atmosphere and check the guide book. (Always walk as though you know where you are going even if you don't, but ideally know where you are going.) As I was sitting there a piece of plaster fell from the perfectly smooth white ceiling directly above me and landed on my head. It was a very surreal.

But this is what happens because India is rife with corruption. The money gets spent bribing whoever is hiring leaving insufficient funds for the actual project. Newly laid roads wash away in the first monsoon rains. Famously the facilities for the recent commonwealth games were shoddy and unfinished and plaster falls from the ceiling of the newly re-ordered church.



From Mumbai we flew to Varansi (three days by train, two hours by plane). It's the Hindu equivalent of Mecca, to be visited at least once in a lifetime by a good Hindu. It huddles on the sides of the river Ganges, rows of higgledy piggledy temples or ghats.









A couple of the ghats are burning ghats. People bring the bodies of their relatives to be burned, purifying them. A man, who assured us with a laugh that he wasn't a guide, (and then asked us for money for the 'up keep of the temple') explained that there are a few types of bodies which don't need purification by burning as they are already considered pure. These are tied to a stone and thrown in the Ganges. The already pure are those under ten, the pregnant, priests and those who have died from leprosy or smallpox. It's also very holy and purifying to swim in the Ganges. Just hold your breath and hope no one has died of leprosy recently.

The guidebook recommended a fort a long rickshaw ride away from where we were staying. On the approach the jumbled streets were lined with buildings which, once upon a time, would have been lofty and beautiful. Now they were crumbling into the hub bub.

The fort itself was rather a let down. Or as the DFP succinctly put it, 'why did you bring me here?' Why indeed? The 'museum' was a random collection of stuff the British couldn't fit in their hand luggage before they left which hadn't been dusted since then either. I particularly enjoyed the labelling. A sword was labelled 'a very big sword'. Thanks for that. Again it had the eerie, dusty ex-splendour of a building slowly rotting into dust.

It was quite busy with Indian tourists. I didn't see that many Western tourists wherever we were. The monsoon had washed them away. Perhaps  that's what made the DFP and I seem exotic.

We were sitting on a wall at the fort consulting the unreliable guide book when a large group of Indians came up. They asked us where we were from, shook the DFP's hand and namasted me (note, there is no physical contact assumed with a woman you don't know). There was lots of smiling from both groups. Then they asked if they could take our photo. We were surprised but agreed. They got us to shuffle up so there was a space between us, sat their elderly mother down in the space, took a photo and thanked us profusely. More smiling and namasteing. But that wasn't the end. Another person sat down between us and a photo was taken. And another. And another. And another.

By the time they had finished about eight different people had been photographed with us as though we were an unusually pliant and uncamera shy Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. In fact this must be like what it feels like to be super famous because that wasn't the end of the photo taking.

From Varansi we flew to Delhi where I took a day trip to the Taj Mahal, (which is just as good as it's cracked up to be). As I was wandering around I was approached again and again to have my photo taken. Quite a long way into the day I decided that I would take a photo of everyone who had their photo taken with me. It became a lovely exchange and I now have a lot of photos of random Indian people and here they are.





Yes, they did get me to hold the baby.
I'm not going to bang on about the Taj Mahal. It's fab. You should definitely go.




I also went to the mini Taj as it's nicknamed. Tomb to someone else. Smaller, less people. In fact lots of locals seemed to be just hanging out there, passing the time of day. A kind of incredibly old, amazingly beautiful behind the bike-shed for locals and their kids.

While I was trying to take photos of the amazing inlaid tiles three small girls kept sidling into my pictures. Initially I tried moving the camera so they weren't in shot. But they continued to move into frame. So I just gave up and took photos of them which made them squeal with delight when I showed them on the digital displayer and demand more, which I took, because I am a big softy. This started a mini avalanche of small and medium sized children demanding to be photographed and delighting in the results.

Photo-bombing.

Let your eyes adjust. If you look very, very careful amongst the brightly coloured tiles you might just be able to see a small child. Got her? Well done.

Balanced on a precarious ledge. Her sister thought it was hilarious that I was so  nervous for her and wanted her to be taken down.




A lot of the time in India an interaction which seems genuine, like the guy who assured us he wasn't a guide and then asked for money, ends up with someone asking you for money. They have endless time and very little money. The opposite of us. It's understandable, but sometimes feels a bit sad. What was so lovely about all the reciprocal photography around the Taj was that no one at any time asked for money. Just a photo and occasionally a little chat. (Where are you from? You're very beautiful. I like your watch.) While in some ways I don't mind the money, I understand the differences in our finances, but it dehumanises you. You are only a walking money bag. It's lovely that this time it wasn't the case.

I left early for the (five hour) drive to Agra where the Taj Mahal is. A couple of hours in I looked up blearily as we slowed to pass a truck, it's back open, a crowd of men opposite watching. I glimpsed a body, one side ripped open and bloody, blue grey organs bulging out, being lifted into it.

People often say 'life is cheap' in India. Perhaps it's true. You learn to harden your heart to beggars, the children who come and ask for money, because you know they probably won't get it and it exacerbates a problem. We were walking along the road behind a man and a little girl. When the man noticed us he gestured to the girl and then moved away from her. She came up to us and started making kissing noises and holding her hand out to us. If we had given her any money I am sure she wouldn't have got any of it.

But when you see little ones lying on the ground, half dressed, it's almost more than I can do not to go up and  scoop them up and hug them and hug them. My heart tears open and I feel so angry and helpless that there's nothing I can do, not even give a little guilt money.

Life is cheap? Perhaps.

We were talking to someone who said her husband works a lot in India but doesn't like it. He had good reason. He had been in the back of a car when the driver hit a family on a scooter. The family were all killed. The driver ran. In India people are dragged from cars and beaten to death in instances like this. A crowd gathered, beating at the car. He and a colleague were in the back. They locked the doors and windows. They didn't know what to do. Luckily another colleague was in a car behind and was able to calm the situation. But their fears were not misplaced. So life is cheap, but valuable too.

This is part of the conundrum of travelling in Asia. Do you shut your eyes? Harden your heart? Do you give money to ease your conscience but which may ultimately do more harm than good? I haven't found a good solution yet, but I feel more and more strongly than ever that I need to find one.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Smog in Singapore

The view from our balcony this morning. Admire our red sun.


Novels set in Victorian London describe the beautiful sunsets caused by the smog of pollution. It was a massive problem. There are still rules which mean you can't burn coal in houses in London today.

Singapore is aping Victorian London at the moment. We have our very own smog problem.

Each year farmers in Sumatra, Indonesia clear land by starting forest fires. There are mummers that some could be larger palm oil producers burning illegally. But this year the haze is the worst it has ever been.

The psi (pollutant standards index) measures acceptable levels of air pollution, rather an oxymoron. Levels of 100- 200 psi are considered unhealthy, 200-300 psi very unhealthy and 300-400 hazardous. Above 400 could be life threatening. Today at noon Singapore reached 401 psi.

People are leaving the country. Several friends with small children have gone back to their native country. The DFP is going to Cambodia for work a day early. The most worrying aspect is that reports say this could go on for several weeks. It makes Beijing look like the Swiss Alps.

We have closed all the windows and put the air con on. (Unheard of in the daytime!) I am feeling tired and headachey, sleeping in late and waking up tired. My throat burns as though I'm back on 20 a day. The air smells like bombfire night and everything is hazy. 

It's beautiful. Dangerous but beautiful.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

The Indian Visa Office

An Indian visa for someone from the UK now costs $S250. Yes folks, stop blinking and rubbing your eyes. You read that right. $S250.

This is because the UK have put their visa cost for Indian nationals visiting the UK up to £80. The Indian prime minister has accused the Brits of racism and in retaliation put their visa up (for Brits only) to roughly the same. Which translates to $S250. Sigh.

My school holidays are approaching fast, but because of a series of confusions, poor communication and bad planning I am not taking a big holiday.

The DFP can't take holiday at the end of the quarter because of his work. All my holidays are at the end of the quarter and I can't take holiday in term time. So he can't go anywhere in June.

Last year in the June hols I went home to the UK alone. This year I thought we would be going back together at Christmas time for the DFP's brother's wedding. So my mum booked a holiday which spans the June holidays.

Then the wedding shifted to October (my term time) which is, of course, both a bit sad and completely fine. I am slowly learning to accept that I have to miss the weddings of those I love. But I thought I would feel sad to go home and hardly see my parents so decided to stick to plan A and come back in December.

So for most of June I'll be writing/house hunting. Oh yes. Didn't I mention this? We have to move out of our flat. Someone bought it. The DFP said, 'Oh, they won't want to live in it'. Then I saw their current address, up somewhere in Punggol, in the same street as a school I teach in. And I thought 'they will definitely want to live here'. And they do.

So why the visa? Well, the DFP has to be go India for work and I am tagging along. Just like when I was still a Tai Tai (Chinese colloquial term for a wealthy married woman who does not work. I love that word!) before I started work here.

So off I went to get my visa and was told it cost $S250 instead of the $S45 listed on the website (for Singaporeans.) Yes. S$250 instead of S$45. Grrr. If I hadn't already bought my tickets....

Anyway, I had already bought my tickets. The official looked at my completed forms.

Him         Are you married?

Me          No.

Him         How old are you?

Looks at my age.

Him        Ouf! '76! So long and not married.

Then he underlined his name on my receipt. Turned it over and wrote his phone number on the back. So old and so unmarried. Clearly I would love a date with anyone at all, particularly someone with such a handsome moustache.

The shock of being 'so old' and without a husband or children is regular and palpable. Taxi drivers regularly admonish the DFP for not making an honest woman of me. People don't ask whether I have children, but how many.

My colleagues ask me outright why I'm not married? When am I planning on having children? And I'm planning neither of these things. And it feels odder and odder the older I get, the more of my contemporaries marry and get pregnant. Each week someone from home seems to announce an engagement or a pregnancy and being expat exacerbates the difference between those who do and those who don't.

Older, longer friendships survive the advent of children better than new ones. Friendships here, while not necessarily shallow, don't have deep roots. They can't. At this age we don't have so much time for getting drunk together and experiencing things. People are busy with jobs (and children.)

I really like a lot of people here. We have a lot of couple friendships, which I've never had in my life before. Couple friendships don't have the intensity or the closeness of one on one friendship. The conversation never goes deep. It slides around on the surface of superficial happenings. You like people, but you never really know them. Their hearts and minds. You know where they went on holiday and how much longer they're thinking of staying in Singapore.

And as a woman in her late 30's who isn't planning on having children I feel more and more like a unicorn. An outsider. I question my resolution. I question my relationship. Surely there must be something wrong with me or with it that I don't want to loose my life to children?

But I don't. I find children gorgeous and funny. I adore my niblings (nieces and nephews) but I don't have that primal pull to produce my own. And I really think you need that. You need to really, really want them before your life is ripped apart, changed forever by them.

I think that change can be a good and wonderful thing for those who choose to have them. But I also think you should only do the deed if you're absolutely certain that this is what you want. No room for ambivalence when you're existing on two hours of sleep a night for six+ months, your body at someone else's command. And that's just the beginning.

So having made/making that choice what do you do instead? How do you justify your existence? That's quite a hard thing, even with children, but if you have children you can pass the buck on a bit. Not a famous scientist, musician, author or economist? Don't worry your child could be.

I have already failed as an actor. I'm really glad I had a go, but let's be honest here. I failed to make a viable career in my chosen profession. I genuinely love teaching and the chance to pass on my passion for theatre, (or in this job public speaking and speech and drama - I think this is why I am a bit stymied in it sometimes.)

I think this is why I am writing or trying to write. To live a little bit larger. To prove my existence is worth something. To continue to create.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Haw Par Villa

The Tiger Balm kings Aw Boon Haw (gentle tiger)  and Aw Boon Par (gentle leopard) moved their Tiger Balm business from Burma to Singapore in 1926. The balm itself had been created by their father, a Chinese herbalist working in Rangoon in the late 1870s.

If  you've lived or travelled in Asia you will have come across tiger balm. Or if you've been into a health food shop in the UK. It's a bit like deep heat if deep heat were herbal. It's made from a mixture of menthol, cloves, cassia, camphor and mint. There's a red version and a white one.

So they made a fortune. And what does one do with so much money? What else but build a theme park in the garden of your house teaching traditional Chinese values through the medium of garish statues?

A few of my colleagues remember being taken there as children, before it was restored, and scared witless by the ten courts of hell. Apparently you used to go through by boat, but that was too dangerous so now you walk instead. It's very similar to depictions of hell in European churches, but there's something about them being in 3D that makes it extra gory.

What a lovely day out for all the family!









This is the dirty blood pool, apparently.


A classic view of Singapore with the dockyards and cranes in the background.





Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Lunch for beginners

A friend picked me up on not having posted for a while. It has been a while.

Part of the reason is that life has just been plodding on without anything notable to write about. Or to put it another way, I haven't been on holiday recently.

The other part is that I have been writing, but other things. After years of failing to make time to write I am finally managing to sit down, almost daily, and write for about an hour a day. My job is very un-taxing. I have finished everything I need to do this term with two and a half weeks left to go.

It's normal to take a for many Singaporeans to take a long lunch. So I've got into the habit of taking my laptop out when I go for lunch or for a coffee and making time to write my plays.

That's the first hurdle. The next and far bigger one is making what you write good. Elizabeth Gilbert who achieved huge success with 'Eat, Pray, Love' talked in her TED about being blocked as a writer and how to get around it. About being at a place in her life where she has probably achieved her greatest success already. She talks about the idea that writers can be possessed, almost by spirits, daemons or a genius. So genius is not something you have control of. You give yourself up to the genius. It's their responsibility to create, well or badly. It's a very soothing idea.

Except when you read through your play and wish it was better.

http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html

I know I'm feeling homesick when I find myself reading to the Royal Court Theatre's website, sometimes the Manchester Exchange or the National. I read the cast lists, watch the videos, curse that I'm so far away from high quality theatre.

Which leads me neatly onto the Shakespeare in the park, a Singapore tradition, staged by the Singapore Repertory Theatre in Fort Canning park each summer. Very popular among the expats, though I suspect largely for the picnic.

This year was Othello, which was MUCH better than Twelfth Night last year, but still, agh. It depresses me to compare it to what I am used to.

Going to the theatre in Singapore is like watching a third year drama school production. There's probably someone in the cast who is really good, a few very solid actors who'll end up teaching and then a lot more who are appalling and hideously miscast and would NEVER EVER be employed in the UK.

Rant over.

A few people have been asking if I'm coming back in the summer. Two years are up in July. Not yet, is the answer. I'll be home in December for a visit and am certainly starting to think about making plans to move back unless I can find a job that stretches me a little more or moves my career on.

So if you've been thinking of visiting come. Sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Snowflakes and cherry blossom

Skiing in Niseko, Japan.


From the top of the slope it looked a long way down. And very steep. Snowboarders spilled off the lift every few moments and then went whizzing down past me. I looked down again. It still looked very steep.

We'd gone night skiing. The slopes of Hirafu, in Niseko, Japan, are flood lit by night and open for those who haven't clocked enough hours during the day. It was the first time we'd skied that part of the mountain.

I need to explain my skiing. This was my third time. I am not yet a confident skier. When I'm on slopes I know and have got into my stride I can be okay. When I get nervous all my technique goes, I tense up with terror and return to a Frankenstienesque snow plough.

I started to ski down to where the DFP was beckoning to me, a bit further down the slope. It still looked very steep. The snowboarders were still whizzing past me, the snow humpy and churned up. I started skiing down and lost my nerve big time, took off my skis and walked back up the slope. (Oh the shame). I started approaching people and asking 'Green? green? Where is the green slope?' But they were Japanese and couldn't understand me. One of them pointed to the slope I'd been standing on and said 'black'.

Eventually I found the green slope craftily hidden in the opposite direction. The beginners bypass was smooth and untouched. The snow was thick and powdery, like mounds of cream and icing sugar. No one else takes the beginners bypass at that time of night. I calmed down and skied down to find the DFP who'd been looking for me.

Niseko is famous for its powder. It's an island in the far north of Japan, a couple of hours by plane from Tokyo. The snow comes in droves, chilled by Siberia. Hokkaido ends up with snow piled high as late as March when the famous cherry blossom is starting to bloom everywhere else in Japan.

Even more wonderful than the snow is the food. I love Japanese food anywhere in the world and here we ate some amazing meals.

On our last night we went to Racuikhi, which I highly recommend to you. It's a tiny place, only ten seats along a bar over which you watch the husband and wife team prepare the meal and serve you. She was dressed in full kimono.

It's hidden, far out of town, at the end of a snowy walkway. We watched him make the noodles for the soba, which it's particularly famous for. At night they only serve one set menu. There's no choice, you get what they prepare, but there's no problem with that. Course after course of stunningly tasty mouthfuls. The scallop sashimi was creamy and light. I've never tasted anything like it. The tempura so light you could hardly believe it had been fried. The dashi (stock) for the soba was a thing of beauty. Everything was elegantly presented and served with immaculate care and politeness.

I know it's what the Japanese are famous for, but their politeness and awareness of other people was so refreshing. We were staying at the Hilton, which is twenty minutes by shuttle bus from the main town. We were waiting for it to leave one night and all the seats had been filled. Even the first few pull down seats in the aisle had been taken. A few more people arrived and immediately those seated in the central aisle jumped up. Children were moved, people gestured down the bus, everyone took responsibility for making sure that the new people could be seated. What a change after Singapore where people get into the MRT train and stop by the door ignoring those trying to get in or out, where people stand in front of the train doors and start getting in before the other passengers have left, where people refuse to move down the carriages. It drives me crazy.

The best thing about staying at the Hilton was the onsen downstairs. Onsen are hot, communal baths found all over Japan. They are full of volcanic minerals, each onsen has different minerals and different healing qualities. A dip in an onsen is the perfect respite to a days skiing.

As this is Japan of course there is a certain way to do the onsen. First you shower. Then you go outside to the pool with only a small hand towel covering your front, like a curtain to hide your bits. Outside the air is -5. When I sat in the 42 degree water and leaned over the edge, the modesty towel folded on my head like a pro (ready to cover myself as soon as I emerged) the snow sizzled and melted as it landed on my arms. Around the pool the snow was piled deep, enormous icicles reaching up and down.

It took me a while to get over the embarrassment of being starkers in a pool full of Japanense ladies. They all seemed very relaxed with themselves, from the very young to the very old, happily letting it all hang out, with their little hand towels folded on their heads.

(Initially I tried to be all western and take a big towel with me but learned the hard way that it does not work. There was nowhere to put the big towel. I had to leave it balanced on a wall where it got snowed on. Then getting out of the pool and retrieving it was a scramble before I was covered up again. Small towel folded on head is definitely the way to go. All you need to do when you stand up is reach to the top of your head and bingo!)

On the way back we had one night in Tokyo. One night in Tokyo is not enough. Immediately I arrived I knew I wanted to come back. As we came in on the train from the airport the cherry blossom was blooming.

We were staying in Asakusa which is an older district of Tokyo with a famous temple called Senso-Ji. After the westerness of the Hilton I had booked us into a cheap ryoken for our night in Tokyo. Ryoken are traditional Japanese inns with tatami mats on the floor and futons which get rolled out for you to sleep on. In the really posh ones they come and serve you many course meals in your rooms and there's an onsen to bathe in. Ours was not one of these. It was very tiny, but very clean and everything worked perfectly.

We went for a wander through the humming market we were staying in the centre of and down to the temple. Then we headed into the city to explore the different districts. We went to the geek district famous for it's 'maid cafes' and the fashion district. We saw it here first – Mormon chic. (Teenagers dressed in black hats and long black coats.

Not enough time. Not enough time and we had to come back. Japan is high on my list for a re-visit.