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February 18, 2015updated 01 Feb 2016 10:19am

Robert Ettinger's diary of incidents and adventures in Asia

By Spear's

From the beauty of Japan’s shogun shrines to bone setters in Sri Lanka, leather CEO Robert Ettinger takes Spear’s through his diary


Business trips must allow for culture too. I had once heard the Japanese proverb-rhyme ‘Never say kekkou [beauty] until you’ve seen Nikko’, and so naturally I wanted to see Nikko when I was in Japan to visit our shop and the retail outlets which stock Ettinger.

Nikko, 140km north of Tokyo, is Japan’s most lavishly decorated shrine and also the mausoleum of the great 17th-century shogun and statesman Tokugawa Ieyasu, so I thought it worth the pilgrimage to see what the Japanese consider the epitome of beauty. With the autumn colour fading on a crystal clear day, I cannot imagine anywhere more charming, more atmospheric and more beguiling than Nikko. Back in Tokyo, there is order rather than beauty. Everything is so clean and precise that not even the plants can grow out of shape.


My wife is staring at the soup. There is definitely something moving in it. It looks like a tadpole. I can’t tell. But it’s moving.

In Korea, we are being taken out for a delicious barbecue by our importers, but some of the accompaniments are more than a little hard to swallow. Finally, our host and partner says that there is no way he is going to eat that fermented cuttlefish, so we don’t have to either.

If Tokyo’s dominant principle is order, then Seoul’s is grey. Everything was grey on that cool winter day, from the cement buildings to the smog to the river to the cars and lorries, all of which fall somewhere at or between white and black. When I have the time, I like to escape by hiring a bicycle and venturing out to the bracing sea air of the West Sea Islands via the little landing-craft ferries. These small agricultural and fishing islands embody what every Korean is desperate to escape, but for me they have a charm and friendliness of bygone days.

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Our Emirati business associate gives us an unusual but exceedingly welcome present: a copy of the Dubai telephone book from 1961. Inside, on the first page, are the direct lines of the three principal bedrooms in Sheikh Ahmed’s palace. It is incomprehensible how Dubai has grown since those early days – not so long ago – and (judging by the cranes) is still growing.

This could only be confirmed by the amazing view of the city from the residents’ lounge in the Burj Khalifa. My wife, who is known to get vertigo on a thick pile carpet, manages to enjoy these magnificent views on account of the brilliant design of the building. It now takes nearly an hour to reach the desert, where the development stops and the sand dunes begin. I take a lesson in desert-driving — let your tyres down, keep a constant speed to avoid sinking into the sand – since every Christmas we holiday in Oman and I am aware of both the fragility and the danger of the desert.


’Have you seen my camels?’ says the Jebali, one of Oman’s mountain men. Now the business trip is over, my wife and I are holidaying in the Middle East. I have been driving for five hours as we approach the top of the mountains on an old route into Salalah and have indeed seen camels – in fact, many camels. I can’t, unfortunately, tell which ones are his.

The Jebali herd livestock on the western flanks of the mountains. They are imposing, with their turbans, dark robes, guns, khanjars (daggers) and swords, but they become somewhat less intimidating when, business done, they sit down, stack their rifles in a pyramid and play dominoes over a cup of coffee.


The second part of our holiday is in Sri Lanka, where our driver is making a rather sudden stop. He explains that his nephew has a compound fracture that has not mended, and in this very village lives Sri Lanka’s most renowned bone doctor.

We follow him into the mud and brick hut with its corrugated iron roof, passing a mound of firewood and kindling, and find a collection of people attached to various twigs and branches by rags and string. Some of them wear very complex structures, allowing a joint to rotate or to bend. This gifted healer uses everything that is available to him: it was not firewood that was stacked up, but the wood for the splints.

Robert Ettinger is CEO of his family’s leather goods business, which holds a Royal warrant from the Prince of Wales

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