Sole Sister

Cruising in the single lane

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A suitable destination


Sacred cows. 

My elder brother put it best when I tried to describe returning to ordered Australia after a month immersed in the colour and chaos of India. Sensory deprivation! Having lived there for over a year as a PhD student in the 1970s he returned to cautious Canberra – a bit like landing on the dark side of the moon after being on the set of a Bollywood movie. Now I understand!


A rowdy wedding party takes over the street in Ahmedabad. 


Rogan work.

The colour and chaos of Delhi streets. 

India is indeed a celebration of the senses with its noise, colours, smells and tastes and I wonder now why it took me so long to visit. Having missed the boat (excuse the pun) in the days way back when all the cool kids followed enlightenment-seeking hippies and pop singers to the destination du jour, I knew my window of opportunity was progressively narrowing.  Luckily, my sharp-eyed travel buddy spotted a perfect opportunity in a small-group tour specialising in tribal textiles – right up the alley of two ethnic craft lovers.


Craft skills start young under watchful eyes.


A nomadic Jat camel herder displays tribal finery. 

We visited the ateliers of dyers, weavers, spinners, knitters and stitchers of numerous fabrics and styles; spoke with scholars documenting and saving precious samples; met accomplished artisans in villages, cities, tiny family compounds, and nomadic tribal people out in the desert.  Its heartening to see cooperatives and organisations working to safeguard these precious crafts and skills and we eagerly visited the outlets where the products of painstaking labours are sold at fair trade prices. Female tourists also make a bee-line to more commercial retailers such as the acclaimed Anokhi and Fabindia, both started decades ago by foreigners wanting to share and preserve the textile skills more widely.  Their wares include the output of villages that specialise in industries such as beautiful quality block printing.


Keeping crafts and colours alive. 

While India’s renowned textiles were the initial lure, having endlessly drooled over the spoils of returning friends, India’s layering of religions and cultures has fed the richness of art, architecture and cuisine that makes it such a fascinating destination. From the early Indus civilisation of the Harappas, which dated back beyond 3000 BC, were added the traditions of Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism. The Moghul invasion from around 1500 AD introduced Islam and its religious and cultural heritage. I’ve long remembered the awe in which my late architect father-in-law spoke of places such as Fatepur Sikri, the red sandstone city founded in the mid-1500 by the Moghul Emperor Akbar as his capital and regarded as one of the best-preserved examples of Moghul city architecture.  It is listed under UNESCO World Heritage protection, along with that other incomparable Moghul-era monument, the Taj Mahal. After witnessing the feisty Miriam Margolyes moved to tears by its beauty in the BBC TV series The Real Marigold Hotel, and with THAT photograph of Princess Diana etched in my brain, I knew I couldn’t retire my backpack before seeing the Taj.

Taj from the Red Fort Agra

Taj Mahal from the Fort, Agra; porticos in the Fort; Chand Baori stepwell, near Jaipur.

These architectural gems just scratch the surface. American historian Will Durant made the point that in spite of the barrier presented by the Himalayas India had bequeathed to the West ..”such gifts as grammar and logic, philosophy and fables, hypnotism and chess, and above all numerals and the decimal system.” In Jaipur we visited the early 18th century Jantar Mantar Observatory built by the founder of Jaipur, Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, a brilliant scholar of astronomy.  It comprises 19 architectural astronomical instruments including the world’s biggest stone sundial.  The impressive structures also are under UNESCO World Heritage protection. And that’s not to mention India’s many other contributions including the Auveydic medicine system and Yoga. Then there’s the brilliant cuisine – delicious AND nutritious and ticking all the boxes before “gut health” became the new big thing in dietetics.


Haveli, Shekawati regon. 


Demoiselle cranes in the Little Rann of Kuutch wetlands. 

India is full of surprises and paradoxes. In a country of around 1.35 billion people, the second-most populous, it’s possible to find open spaces with expansive wetlands attracting numerous migrating birds and the international twitchers who follow them. Wildlife sanctuaries offer opportunities to spot rare wild animals. Gaudy weddings and rowdy celebrations endlessly manifest, stopping traffic and keeping us bemused tourists awake. The roads are hair-raising but instances of road rage are rare. The Aussie suburbs seem so boring by comparison. I can understand the sentiment of the world’s most famous Indiaphile, Scottish historian and writer William Dalrymple,  who declared if he had five more lives he’d live them all in India.



Livin’ the life…it pays to be a protected species in India. 



Summer spectacular


Jagged rock-islands as far as the eye can see.

The Shakotan Peninsula’s Cape Kamui eases its way out into the Japan Sea like a advancing dinosaur, the howling wind whipping up waves which engulf the rocks at its feet. On its brow sits a lighthouse steering the seafarer clear of danger. Kamui is one of Shakotan’s three capes: the others being Ogon and the eponymous Cape Shakotan. The peninsula is renowned for its desolate sheer cliffs, plummeting into the boisterous ocean, crystal-clear waters and numerous needle-point rocky island outcrops just offshore, the product of millions of years of wear and tear from buffeting and pounding swells eating away at the coastline. Over the horizon lie Russia, and further to the south, North Korea.


Shakotan’s Cape Kamui eases into the Japan Sea like a giant dinosaur. 


Enjoy the spectacular views! 

The name Shakotan originates from two words from the Indigenous Ainu languages, shak, meaning “summer”, and kotan meaning “village”.  Its genesis as a region came through the development of the rich herring industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Herrings became such a money spinner that the nearby town of Otaru, “herring central” in its heyday, became so wealthy from the trade, and such a centre of commerce, it became know as the Wall Street of Japan’s North. Overfishing and climate change killed off these marine versions of the goose laying golden eggs around the mid-195os leaving the townships struggling to find new meaning in life.


The stunning Shakotan coastline.


Tourism is stepping into the breech with the sea again offering a lifeline. Shakotan is renowned for its uni and ikura, the much-sought-after bowls of ikuradon and unidon a major drawcard in summer and autumn. Tourists who travel to enjoy the old herring warehouses and canals of Otaru are happy to travel the few extra kilometres to savour a bowl plus the spectacular scenery en route. Along the stunning coastline a scenic, 42-km highway snakes along open stretches and through tunnels around the numerous bays and inlets. Dramatic cliffs drop into the ocean with townships, mostly deserted, scattered along the length. The Peninsula is also a stopping off point for Japan’s only national marine sanctuary. A growing attraction is glass-bottom boat excursions into the Japan Sea.  It’s all giving a new lease of life for the “summer village”.


Anyone for ikuradon? Unidon? 




Winding roads and tunnels. 


Lonely Shakotan shacks.

Thanks to Yogi for some of the photographs.






The word kawaii, exclaimed with squeals of delight, is ubiquitous in Japan. It means “cute”, or “adorable”, a quality highly rated by Japanese females, especially young women. The use of kawaii goes into overdrive around most of the country on 15 November each year, the designated day of the Shichi-Go-San Matsuri – the Seven-Five-Three Festival – when the year’s batch of littl’uns turning 7, 5 and 3 dress in their sumptuous national costume, have their photographs formally taken, then head off to the local shrine with proud families for even more photographs, and blessings.


With two grandchildren in those age ranges I was delighted to be personally involved in the most recent Shichi-Go-San in Hokkaido. There, in northern Japan, it’s held a month earlier so the children aren’t subject to the rigours of biting early winter winds and temperatures that can bring snow falls from late October onwards. On the big day, first there’s the trip to the professional photographic studio where formal shots are taken in full kimono, luckily available for rent given the the cost involved in a complete outfit. An astonishing array of colourful gear is jammed into laden racks around the studio awaiting selection.  There are the so many layers that make up the completed attire – inner garments,  outer jackets, sashes for both boys and girls, zori sandals, trinkets for specially coiffed hair,  oversize bows for the backs of kimono, little handbags and props such as “samurai swords” for the boys. After the lengthy photo session, with well skilled photographers (mostly girls!) managing fidgety children with amazing humour, comes the selection of images, a tricky decision indeed. img_5339



Then off to the shrine for more photos -and given the intricacy, elegance, colourfulness  and sheer charm of their ensembles the children are naturally greeted with many more squeals of kawaii!




A roe by any other name


The freshest ikura and kani don at a seaside restaurant on the Shakotan Peninsula. 

The etymology of words is fascinating.  And so it is with that sought-after Japanese autumn delicacy, ikura, – いくら – the glistening omega3-packed sacs of exquisate piquancy that explode with surprise and flavour on the taste buds. Otherwise known as “red caviar” the Japanese word for the salmon roe sounds a natural part of the language. But in reality it’s borrowed from the Russian for “caviar” – ikra – and directly transposed into the Japanese into which it readily fits. A clue that it’s not a Japanese word is that it is written in a phonetic script, rather than kanji Chinese characters. A little research also reveals that in the Turkish word for caviar is kuru, very similar to ikra and ikura.


Delicacy double dipping – ikura and uni don. 

Each year the salmon river migration takes place in late summer/early autumn in Hokkaido. Luckily for the salmon using every ounce of their strength to get back home, once they enter the rivers and streams they are protected, except for recreational fishermen who apply for a special licence ahead of time. But that it doesn’t count Hokkaido brown bears and eagles. After spawning, the exhausted salmon depart to fish heaven.

The most delicious ikura is said to come from  roe taken just before the breeding season when the outer film is taut and the roe soft.  The thin membrane that holds the roe in a cluster needs to be carefully removed to separate the individual eggs. They are then marinated before being eagerly devoured, usually with steamed rice. My daughter-in-law’s mother marinates her ikura in a 60/30/10 mixture of soy sauce, sake and mirin.

Separating the roe from its membrane sac; marinating ikura; ready to eat!  

A popular dish in Japan is ikuradon – a bowl of rice topped by glistening, deep red roe. Often it is teamed with other treats such as uni – sea urchin – and kani – crab. Sea urchin is a prized luxury in Japan, especially when it’s in season in summer. My son is a great fan and would weep to hear of seaweed farmers in Tasmania destroying sea urchins with some sort of robotic spear because they are a major predator of their “crops”. There must be an export opportunity there!


Packaged ikura tops Hokkaido souvenirs at New Chitose Airport’s amazing retail mall.


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Happy New Year – 明けましておめでとうございます


Nengajou welcome the New Year for multiple millions of Japanese.

Happy New Year! As millions of lunar calendar followers around the world welcome in the 2017 New year, those following the Oriental calendar are preparing to wave goodbye to that little scallywag the monkey and welcome in the stately rooster.

In Japan, where Oriental symbolism is synced with the lunar calendar the Rooster has crowed his first 2017 morning call. Multiple millions of nengajou, the little symbol cards that friends and family send each other, rather like Christmas cards, are arriving in special postal deliveries through the day. Across the world revellers are waking to sore heads, or the first day of well intentioned resolutions. The rooster will be in hot demand this year, this famous early morning riser credited with being able to foretell the future. Many will hope that he can see an end to the political upheavals experienced in numerous countries in 2016.

2016 calendars will come down and their replacements will go up. I have written before about the attachments I form to my calendars, which usually include one put together by my photographically talented older brother; another which I order specially from Tokyo’s captivating Blue and White Shop in Azabu Juban; and one which arrives every year from a young Japanese woman who stayed with us as an international language student over 20 years ago.



Hello new Blue and White, goodbye old; and a sad farewell to this Southern NSW egret image. 

This year I’ll be putting up a beautiful calendar featuring Japanese art treasures, given to me by my Japanese family, which has been published by JAL Airlines for as long as I can remember. The pieces chosen for each month are exquisite, of the quality of treasures I’ve seen in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Oriental section. While a calendar’s not quite as good as the real thing it’s an excellent substitute.


A section from the January illustration from the JAL calendar. 

Whether you’re an Oriental or a lunar cycle person here’s wishing you a very happy 2017 . May the qualities of warmth, generosity, diligence, sociability and excellent communication skills attributed to the rooster be the overriding zeitgeist in 2017.

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Four seasons in three weeks


Cows graze in bucolic bliss beneath Mt Yotei. 


Fields lie fallow awaiting winter snows.

Autumn is my favourite travel month. You can’t beat it for cost, crowd and climate reasons. It’s the perfect time to enjoy comfortable temperatures in most countries, without peak season crowds, and travel and accommodation prices. The added bonus in cold climate countries is the spectacle of autumn colours. I’ve not long returned from (what is becoming) my annual sojourn in Hokkaido which happily coincided with the late autumn. And the season didn’t disappoint. Japan’s northernmost island, famed for its incomparable powder snow, managed to give a taste of all seasons during my three-week visit, an opportunity to enjoy what lies beneath the ubiquitous white of winter.

When I arrived in early October the weather was warm, the autumn colours just starting to show. The tip of Mt Yotei’s distinctive volcanic cone had a dusting of white but cows still grazed in bucolic bliss on lush green pastures close by. My first weekend the thermometer sat at about 23 C, ideal for picking grapes destined for crushing for Niseko’s fledgling sparkling wine industry. Sun block and hats were a must.


Harvesting grapes for Niseko’s fledgling sparkling wine industry. 

By early the next week a trough came through dropping the temperature and hastening the spread of the autumn colours. Soon the surrounding countryside was ablaze, the famous momiji  transforming to their signature shade of crimson – the turning “to flame” that Australian poet Clive James wrote in Japanese Maple. I love the way the Japanese kanji for autumn, aki, is a combination of the tree and fire symbols -秋.


The rice harvest is completed as autumn sets in.


momoji turns to flame. 


Autumnal landscape. 




A happy conjunction of autumn and Hallowe’en. 


The ojizosama watches over passersby. 

By late the next week the temperature had dropped further, rain turned to sleet, and by the timeof my departure the landscape had put on its familiar white winter coat. A perfect sayonara.


Sayonara snowfall.



Avid readers


A favourite haunt back in the ’90s when we lived in inner-city Brisbane was the original Mary Ryan Bookshop in Latrobe Terrace. Apart from its laden shelves there was a welcoming coffee shop on the lower level where I would take my mother for our fix of caffeine and to enjoy its treed garden sloping down one of Paddington’s many gullies. Mary Ryan was one of the first bookshops to incorporate a coffee shop and the genial owner Phil Ryan a pleasant and knowledgable source of advice on what to buy.

Alas, Mary Ryan Paddington was one of many such book-lover-friendly enterprises that succumbed to the competitive forces unleashed by  the internet in the 2000s. Those that have survived are much treasured. In Brisbane the best known of these are Riverbend Books in Bulimba and Avid Reader in West End. As a end-of-year treat my bookclub facilitator had the prescience to reserve a spot with the latter’s knowledgable owner Fiona Stager, a much-sought-after presence at such talks because of her wealth of knowledge of the latest publications and her well regarded opinions.  Apart from her status as an avid and discerning reader Fiona has a wealth of knowledge of the publishing industry as a lecturer on the subject at the University of Queensland.


Over glasses of wine and tempting snacks she talked through her reading suggestions from the latest publishers’ offerings. Interestingly a number were by Australian writers, underscoring the health of our literary scene.  Her recommendations:

Not Just Black and White, by Lesley and Tammy Williams, which tells Lesley’s story of being an Aboriginal girl from Cherbourg settlement forced from home to work as a domestic servant; Ghost Empire, beloved ABC Conversations host Richard Fidler’s rich telling of the history of old Constantinople; The Riviera Set,  the rollicking bed-hopping and partying history of the monied and famous at the Chateau de l’Horizon near Cannes over a period of 40 years; The Atomic Weight of Love, Elizabeth J Church’s story of an ornithologist who marries a much older physics professor recruited to work on the Los Alamos Project and her battle to retain her own academic identify; The Birdman’s Wife in which Melissa Ashley gives artist Elizabeth Gould the credit she deserves as the true genius behind John Gould’s famous early sketches of Australia’s unique bird life; To the Bright Edge of the World, an Alaskan explorer’s story extracted by Eowyn Ivey from journal entries, military reports, letters and documents; Our Souls at Night, a tender account by Kent Haruf of a widow who asks her widower neighbour if he’d consider sharing her bed – not for sex but for warmth and comfort; My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Stroud’s telling of a hospital-bedside reconciliation between a long-estranged mother and daughter;  Between a Wolf and a Dog, the heartfelt account by Georgia Blain, daughter of acclaimed journalist Anne Deveson and broadcaster Ellis Blain, of a woman dying from a brain tumour, and written at a time when Blain herself was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer; Truly, Madly, Guilty, world top-seller Australian Liane Moriarty’s latest pot boiler and suggested by Fiona as the perfect beach holiday read; One, Patrick Holland’s well researched account of the demise of Australia’s last bushrangers, the Kenniffs, in western Queensland;  in Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil, popular writer of young  adult novels, Melina Marchetta, makes a provocative move to crime fiction to reviewer approval; Midsomer Murders screenwriter Anthony Horowitz has fun with the vintage crime novel genre in Magpie Murders;  nature writer Simon Barnes tells how birds help us understand the world we live in, in The Meaning of Birds; and finally,The Memory Stones, Caroline Brothers’ harrowing account of the Disappeared of Argentina’s  military coup in 1976 and the ongoing devastation down the generations.