Singapour stopover

It’s somewhere I’ve never been and was sort of on the way home so I decided to have a couple of days to explore Singapore. I’d been given tips by my neighbour Claudette who is a frequent visitor to a friend who lives there and by son and daughter-in-law who have been several times from Hong Kong.

I just missed the hotels shuttle service and was advised that there would be a 35 minute wait so I got a cab into town. As we drove along the incredibly straight coast road into the downtown area the driver had to flick his wipers a few times. ‘Is it going to rain all weekend?’ I asked, having only seen 10 minutes and a few spots in the last two weeks. ‘No rain,’ he replied ‘not the rainy season. He dropped me as requested at the Fullerton Bay Hotel which I’d reserved with Claudette’s guidance several weeks ago. A bell cap took my bags and escorted me to reception. There was a function of some kind in the main lobby with lots of elegant ladies in slinky dresses and guys looking more smart than casual. Very, no extremely, loud disco music belted forth from the other side of a temporary screen. Time to party! But not for me. I was told that I was going to the Fullerton Hotel just up the road instead but at the same rate that I’d obtained on booking,com. The bell cap whisked me back to the entrance, jumped the taxi line and thrust S$10 into the driver’s hand and said Fullerton Hotel. Which is about 200 metres away but I did have two cases and it was still raining, quite hard now.

E1022D34-03B5-41C1-927F-963CCE7C5A82The Fullerton is converted out of one of Singapore’s historic buildings the Post Office which also at times housed the Ministry of Finance. It’s a fabulous neo-classical structure with extensive lounges and eateries on the lobby floor. It was again stressed to me that I’d be paying the rate agreed which when I reached my room looked like a real bargain. I’ve been fortunate enough to stay in some very good hotels over the years but this room was amazing. OK the view was down into the internal courtyard not out over the Singapore River but it probably had the same floor area as my house. A bathroom with a massive bath and a separate drench shower were to my left, fitted wardrobes to the right and then in the main room a massive bed, easy seating area and a desk. The yukata I’d become accustomed to was replaced by a long towelling robe and a fully-stocked minbar and snack counter completed the picture. As it was late and wet I decided to grab food in the hotel and to make a swift move as everything closed at 10 pm. The fifth floor bar with a view stayed open longer and to look out over Marina Bay with its manic lighting displays. We’d seen the Hong Kong waterfront light show but this goes on all the time.

Next morning I headed for the Botanical Gardens after buying a two-day subway pass. Nice clear indications of line, direction and station again and I was soon having a pre-walk coffee right opposite one of the garden entrances. It’s a very pleasant garden for a stroll and plants are all labelled which is good. There was a reflexology path with assorted cobble and pebble patterns which I trod to liven up the legs for the trek ahead. There was no cherry blossom but hanami style picnics were evident all over. There was also a reminder of where our ancestor monkeys have led us.

I followed signs to the National Orchid Collection and have never seen so many outside of a greenhouse before and then probably not in this variety. Of course it is now 29 degrees so no hothouse required. They are very impressive and many of them very beautiful.

 

I wound my way back past a lawn with a concert stand and a lake spotting my first birds despite the constant squawking, chirrupping and fluting coming from the canapoy, Not some exotic sunbird but a hen foraging for her chicks for grubs in the leaves. I took the subway back a few stops to another of the recommendations Little India. The Tekka Centre has a massive food court with food of every (Indian) description on offer which are enjoyed at communal tables. I was very pleased to see that the goat meat had not walked here and was excited by the noise and savoury odours. A beer, samosas and curry puffs made for a good light lunch during which I was admonished by one diner for mixing beer with oil. It would make me burp he said as the two gas and oil don’t mix. He was not wrong.

I then went to look around the rest of the streets in the area when another Indian characteristic arrived. It may not be the rainy season but Little India was having it;s own monsoon.

I went upstairs to the sari floor dazzling in the colour arrayed in stall after stall with people ready to run you up a sari or jacket on the spot.

There was no sign of let up so I eventually made a dash for the station and went back to the hotel where my thoughtfully packed and as yet unused umbrella was waiting. I had’n’t taken it out with me on the cab driver’s advice. I took a chance on getting off at Esplanade which if the rain had stopped would give me a pleasant walk round Marina Bay. I had walked through the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands (sic) where there’s a boating lake inside the mall in Singapore’s most distinctive hotel, For the brave there’s a roof terrace linking all three towers. It had slowed to a drizzle by now and at least it’s warm rain. I saw a building called the Red Dot Design Museum and decided it would be worth a look.

It’s full of mostly photographic panels about innovative design approaches with an emphasis on ecology and sustainability. It was interesting to note how few of the exhibits were from Europe to the US but I guess its location would lead one to expect an emphasis on work from China, Korea, Taiwan and Japan. There were wearable items that turned into tents, chairs made form recycled paper and a host of energy saving efficient devices. It also had a bar to provide respite during another downpour where I was able to pour a Foxes Rock IPA brewed in Northern Ireland – proper craft beer at last. 

It cleared up a bit in the evening and I walked down one side of the river passing the stately buildings of the Victoria Theatre, Parliament and the Old Hill Street (Yes) Police Station with its mult-coloured windows and on to Clarke Quay.

I then crossed the rainbow Bridge and back up Boat Quay which has a fine array of eateries although many were closed on Sunday. Surprise, surprise I ended up in a Japanese restaurant which fed me tempura oysters and blackened cod in soy and yuzu sauce and miso soup with clams to end a real fishy delight.

My Monday plan started in the Gardens By The Bay a must on everyone’s lists. I did take my umbrella this time and while juggling it and the camera to document the garden I discovered the the lens had completely steamed up and I had a blank white canvas in the viewfinder, I somehow managed to deploy a lens cloth and images started to appear. Much of the early part of my route was out of bounds for remodelling and I wasn’t allowed to feed or add to the livestock of the lake but I did manage to make my way to the massive artificial sky trees (high level walkway closed for maintenance), well they have to get it ready for the high season and apparently they close it if there’s a chance of a thunderstorm which we had had and more were to follow.

The big attractions you have to pay for are a Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. The flower bit was devoted almost entirely to a display of tulips sponsored by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. There were some other nice areas: a Mediterranean Garden, South African and South American Gardens with some interesting plants but I was soon heading through the Gift Shop to the Cloud Forest. This has a stunning waterfall against a towering green cliff of plants. You then take a series of steps and elevators to get to the top and walk down a slope admiring lots of tropical plants on the way. It was fun and had good views over the bay. Oh and following Osaka’s Lego giraffe here we had Lego pitcher plants among the real ones.

Gardened out I took the subway to Dhoby Ghaut passing the fine sculpture of the Jelly Baby family to walk along the retail paradise of Orchard Road the central shopping street with umpteen malls. There’s a lovely white picket fence on the right which looks like the entrance to a park so I head towards it only to be assailed by shrill blown whistles and waving batons indicating I should go away. I persevered close enough to confirm what I was coming to realise was the Presidential Palace. No entry for me.

A023D581-5BD2-4FF9-ACC4-865A58844104There were some good colonial and vernacular buildings hidden among the glass palaces of commercialism with all the usual suspect brand names abounding – I think there were three Lois Vuitton and four Chanel shops in a mile. One outlet that did take me by surprise was a Crate and Barrel an old Heal’s style favourite from Boston that I’ve not seen overseas before.

 

I popped into Takashimaya to see if the Japanese department store food hall translated to Singapore, Nothing like as impressive and with the food court an upmarket take on Little India yesterday. there had been intermittent big showers and warm drizzle for much of my walk so I dived back underground and emerged at a dry Raffles Station and went to admire the Merlion, a small replica of which you put on your bed at the Fullerton if you want to be eco-friendly and not have your sheets and towels laundered every day. Merlion Park is at the end of a strip of bars called One Fullerton which afford good views over Marina Bay and seemed very popular for late afternoon drinking. With One, the Hotel and The Bay Hotel the whole area seems owned by the Fullerton clan.

B1FD1BFF-2929-4359-8CE1-91769C841689However I had work to do in sorting out packing for tomorrow’s trip home for which I need to leave the hotel a 06:30. So I pop into 7Eleven for a couple of cans to ease the sorting of clean and dirty clothes and cramming them into suitcases. Mission complete I set off for Duxton Hill an area of eateries recommended by my son. It’s pleasant area with about twenty eating options in a short space. Seduced by a real Spanish leg of bellota ham on the counter I entered a tapas bar and my first glass of wine for ages = it’s been beer and sake all the way.

As my taxi took me to Changi Airport in fifteen of the thirty minutes I’d been advised to allow, dawn broke and by the time we took off at nine fifteen the skies were clear and blue. I’ll try to lose my role as rainmaker.of Singapour.

Osaka Culture Quest

Saturday dawned bright and warm and I set off to find a post office as I had bought some postcards to send to my grandchildren. I usually do when travelling and thought I would do so now they were back in the UK. The front desk handed me a map with three post offices circled so I chose the one nearest to the subway station I planned to use for my trip to the waterfront. Cards successfully posted, I headed for the nearby Namba Ninja shrine. We remarked before and with the family how it was always something of a surprise to find shrines down side streets in the midst of normal city life. This one was no exception and in Kyoto I’d looked out of my bedroom window onto this bijou rooftop shrine.

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As with many, the Namba Ninja would be home to a flea market from 11 am, but I didn’t wait for that. I purified, donated and had my hon stamped and signed and then went for a coffee to start the day proper. Osaka subway is classified just like Tokyo’s with colour-coded lines and numbered stations so it was easy to get to Harborland where I wanted to see Tadao Ando’s Suntory Building. We’d admired his work on Naoshima Art Island and elsewhere on the previous trip.

 

It’s an impressive piece with great reflective curves and a calm contrast to the rest of the area which houses Osaka Aquarium and Legoland in a series of rather more garish edifices. I’m just sorry the grandchildren missed the giant Lego giraffe! The Suntory building itself has an auditorium with an IMAX cinema, a gallery and eating area and of course a museum shop. The exhibition was of the work of an artist I confess I’d never heard of but who is apparently big in publishing and film in Japan Kiyoshi Nakashima. My one-day subway pass gave me a discount so why not? The first part was filled with increasingly fey and whimsical pieces obviously drawn with great skill and speed, given the vast number of works on display. It was always windy in his pictures and thet feature bears and other cuddly toys along with slogans such as ‘Cheer Up Japan’ and other encouragements for optimism.
1636B787-787D-4F1F-BF0E-95CA3C074C27Then suddenly in another room were grotesque succumbs-like figures engaged in scenes of bloody torture and horror such that I even checked with an attendant that they were by the same artist.

ABECA023-5EC5-4454-B849-589124700DA8I think even Bosch and Brueghel would have been shocked. I guess too many pretty children with their favourite toys can only go so far and your inner vision of hell needs an outlet. I can’t say I was moved to bring any prints home but I was glad I’d been. As I left a large school party was being lined up to enter the aquarium. Health and safety here has kids wearing hard hats.

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Next on the culture trail was a subway ride back to  the centre and a walk through the Nakano Rose Garden beside the canal we’d visited before – again not in flowering season – to the Museum of Oriental Ceramics. Sadly this had a special exhibition of Sevres of which I’ve seen a bit and am not a huge fan. However I had to agree that the modern factory is turning out some exciting pieces. My real delight was in the elegance and subtlety of some of the earliest oriental pieces from China, Korea and Japan. Sinuous shapes and simple glazes on some of the pots did make me want to open a case and secrete the odd one in my camera bag.

Just nearby overlooking the gardens was a restaurant that looked like it had beer and food so a brief stop had me engaging in diversionary hide and seek and silly face games with a ten-month old baby at the next table where mother and her friends thanked me effusively for entertaining him so that they could catch up. I then walked along to the National Art Museum and Science Museum, the amazing structure of which we’d admired before at a time when it was closed. What I hadn’t realised is that the steel carapace is the only part of the museum at street level, the actual galleries are in three basements.

I had read of it excellent permanent collection of world and Japanese art and was eagerly looking forward to it. Damn and blast though. It’s forty years since it was established and they have a special anniversary exhibition of curators’ picks. Some were impressive, others less so. For my taste and time available there were far too many installations that involve 11 hours of video or a 90 minuets silent film that suddenly erupted into wails and screams. There were also lots of photo series many of which were well shot and framed but had whinge-inducing titles attached – too clever by three-quarters for me. However there was a nice Calder mobile and a fine Henry Moore. Am I turning patriotic?

We didn’t make Osaka Castle last time so I headed off there on the subway and was not disappointed. It had the Hokoku Jinja which provided me with my second hon stamp of the day before I walked up to the castle itself.

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The first thing you see is a massive shopping mall in red brick in a strange warehouse building style.Sadly I was too late in the day to walk up to the top and I’m not sure the legs would have made it. There are lifts actually it seems and it’s a good museum I’m told later. This didn’t start out as a walking holiday but soon turned into one. For once I was able to leave the castle by a different route – not through the gift shop either. Instead I was able to walk down and cross the Okawa River and head for the subway at Temmabashi just as everyone was heading home from offices and shopping sprees. Complete chaos and very full trains but not quite needing pushers to get us all in. 

Back at the hotel to put my feet up and plan the journey to Osaka’s Kansai Airport tomorrow morning, I idly turned on the TV to find the Hanshin Tigers playing the Yakult Swallows in Nishonomiya only 20 minutes away. If only I’d prepared better! But then there would be the dilemma of who to support. The Tigers are from this area where Murakami grew up but the Swallows’ home is the JIngu Stadium in Tokyo where he had his lightbulb moment about becoming a writer and where Dee and I attended a very cold game. I chickened out at 2-2 at the bottom of the ninth (Swallows nicked it 2-3 in the tenth) as hunger called and there are some good restaurants in Shinsaibashi where I was staying and there was another of those long malls with lots of competing choices. Given the memory of our successful night in Asakusa, teppanyaki won out and more fine Kobe beef was enjoyed.

It transpired that the best way to Kansai International was from Namba Station a short cab ride away. I could have caught a train but opted for the Airport Coach service which resulted in a fascinating journey through Osaka’s docks and harbour area most of it on reclaimed land and the airport itself on a specially built island in the bay. The industrial landscape fascinated me with old fashioned looking factories, a highly modern cruise terminal and massive distribution warehouses among the oil refineries. Great journey concluding with a massive bridge across to airport island.

I had changed my name with JetStar for my flight to Singapore via Taipei so boarded fine and because of delays at take off with air traffic control in Taipei, had to scuttle through security to get back on the same speed-cleaned aircraft. So although I’ve technically been to Taiwan, I can’t tell you much about it except that as we came in to land there appeared to be many communist era China style buildings – maybe ideological differences don’t affect intrinsic architecture using available resources.

From sea to shining sea

With apologies to Jonathan Raban, but I am also going from one side of the country to the other, just not quite as far as across the States. Check out from the New Otani in Tottori was routine and I set up satnav for the day ahead. Adachi Art Museum and Garden has been voted Japan’s No 1 garden for 15 consecutive years since 2003 so given our enjoyment of Kenrokuen and Korakuen on our last trip this seemed an essential visit. Tottori’s sprawling suburbs, strip malls and industry behind me, I was again on Route 9 which hugged the still beautiful coast.

I stopped for a coffee and croissant at a Lawson Station along the way and sat with my breakfast looking at this beach.

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img_3008I was quite glad I hadn’t elected to stay at the Camel Hotel – wonder if they paid to rip off the cigarette logo – it might be OK in the season but it looked rather down at heel now.

 

The route soon branched off onto Route 432 to Hirose where the garden is situated. On the way we climbed again away from the coast but not for long without being up among the mountains still holding snow at their peaks despite a very dry and snow-light winter. The fact that the mountains often run right to the coast leads to some of the dramatic scenery of Japan’s coasts.

The garden was a work of art. Incredibly beautiful areas with different classical elements. The problem is you view it through glass like a work of art. I wanted to walk among the stones, feel the moss and hear the water but apart from a tiny area you are inside the museum. So I’m glad I went but it will never replace the gardens we saw last time as my favourites.

The art on display was interesting a mixture of imitation of the traditional woodblock and scroll images we know so well and rather fey children who’d be fine on Hallmark greetings cards – that’s probably me being highly unfair but it wasn’t the exciting start to the day I’d hoped for. However the drive back to Kyoto more than made up for it. Routes 432 and then 314 to Tojo are highly recommended for anyone who enjoys a mountain drive. It delivered delights like this weir with a convenient lay-by for me to jump out and photograph it.

In the valleys there were also some great patches of cherry blossom, later here because of the height above sea level – I thought we were quite high yesterday but the Makijotao Pass (?) was 727 metres up.

A little further on I saw this massive red suspension bridge and was shocked to glance at the satnav and see that we were going over it via the Mina Bridge Loop which was like going up in circles into a very lofty car park. (Sorry for pic quality – trying to drive as well).

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The descent was also quite a fun drive through Okuizumo City down to Tojo at which point, given the need to return the car and get to Osaka, I took the Chugoku Expressway back to Kyoto. I was expertly guided to a petrol station so as to return the car full. I decide to walk to Kyoto Station to catch my Shinkansen to Osaka – they are so close the train hardly got up to speed. A taxi to the hotel and a local okonomiaki restaurant provided a proper Kansai version which I order entirely from an iPad and which offers regular, lots and lashings of mayo and brown sauce – well that’s my translation.

Westward ho from Kyoto

I think I said the next day was promising. How could it start so badly? I checked out quickly and decided that Times Car Rental claimed to be six minutes’ walk from the south entrance of Kyoto Station and what with stairs, escalators and our usual ten minutes to get to the north entrance I would take a cab. I’ve probably gone on about Japanese cabs with their suited and white-gloved drivers, lacy antimacassars and automatic doors. First in the line outside the hotel was the exception. He wore a flat cap, was malodorous and clearly disgruntled at having such a short ride. We got to the other side of the station and he indicated I should walk down a street to the left. I waved my piece of paper with the concierge written address and refused to get out. He insisted we were there, I suggested he drive on. He refused to go any further and popped the boot for me to get my luggage out. So I paid him half what was on the meter and he drove off disgusted leaving me at the entrance to a building site and he had the address slip in Japanese! It took me twenty minutes to find the tiny office of the car rental company and I was an unhappy sweaty mess after struggling with the consequences of another wrong decision. The car was a little blue Suzuki something and the process worked fine with no attempt to sell extras. The satnav was a great improvement on five years ago when we could only input phone numbers in that I could type in Roman characters with multiple press like phone texting used to be – remember that? She gave me an error free route out of Kyoto and onto the Chugoku Expressway which took me out of the continuous sprawl of the Kansai where there’s little evidence of countryside between Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe. However before long I was able to exit onto Route 1 (always a favourite in Boston) which took me to Sassayama City where I joined Route 9 to head west through the mountains to the Sea of Japan coast. Dee and I has seen a section of it at Koga when driving south from Kanazawa and I’d read that Tottori and the coast nearby were even better.

As we wound gradually upwards I was struck by a windmill in the middle of Makigawa and later had a stop to snap a typical settlement in one of the flat bits. Japan is 73 percent mountains with the population crammed into a quarter of the land area. At this time of year, April, the nascent leaves on the deciduous trees give the mountains a very fluffy look. I’m told they look great in the autumn too when the acer go through their colour changes. The little bluebottle buzzed its way nicely up through the Fukushiyama Pass at 323 metres above sea level and onto the Kannabe Plateau. On the way I had passed several stopping points for adding chains or changing to snow tyres but my favourite was one that had the tyre sign but also “Nap Parking”. The Japanese are the world leaders in napping in my experience – on the subway all the time, on buses, planes, on park benches so given the distances you can drive it’s probably a good idea to stop for forty winks. I didn’t nap but did have a coffee break. Route 9 goes all the way to Tottori but gets sucked into a toll-free expressway so I had to ignore the very polite “turn around when possible” and follow my nose. It led me to a parking lot called Tottori Sand Dune Parking. These are Japan’s only dunes and they are constantly shifting, mostly on today’s evidence inland across the roads.

The whole coast along this stretch has been designated the San-in National Park and was awarded UNESCO Geopark status in 2010. I explored an immediate stretch of, frankly not that impressive dunes when you’ve seen Braughton Burrows and the Coto Donana. However I spied a village and set off to explore. It was Iwami and behind a fisherman mending his boat was a shrine – no chance of getting a stamp here but the steps beckoned up towards the unpretentious Ajiro shrine.

There were 111 of them so I stood on one leg at the top (arcane cricket reference, sorry) and I loved finding the shrine gardener’s tool bucket.

I carried on through a tiny village road eliciting some strange looks from homeward bound schoolchildren and their parents. I had that awful feeling I’d be driving sheepishly back past them after a dodgy three-point turn. But no, it emerged onto a lovely winding coast road with ample stopping places to walk a stretch of the coastal footpath. I’m not sure whether the footpath extends the full 120 kilometres of the park which carries on from Tottori Prefecture in the west through Hyogo and Kyoto.

On the short stretch I was able to admire stacks and archways, not quite as dramatic as Galicia’s Cathedral Beach, but most enjoyable. There are also caves and interesting geological features warranting the UNESCO designation. The the road dropped down into Higashihama with its wide sandy beach and an island shrine you have to swim to or perhaps take a boat. However there was another shrine on the beach and I declined its invitation to climb these steps.

I awoke satnav and allowed her to take me back inland to join the toll-free expressway. I instantly understood why they couldn’t charge for it as it’s a two-way single carriageway road with occasional slower traffic lanes to allow overtaking. She took me right to the hotel where they were all ready for me and soon after check in had to rescue me from the WiFi wilderness by apologising for their slow speeds and providing a portable router that plugged into the Ethernet – long time since I’ve handled one of those cables apart from setting up the router at home. I haven’t got my laptop with me and I guess it has a socket but I’m not sure.

A quick run to Family Mart for a couple of beers – I’m averse to paying minibar prices except in extremis. After the first one slid down one of those moments came over me: “It’s all caught up with me, I really can’t be bothered to go out tonight or even be bothered to eat.” Do you ever get those? I don’t often but … After a severe talking to and a shower I ventured out to sample the delights of downtown Tottori. Just around the corner past the Daimaru department store – no town seems to be without one – I came to an interesting looking bar and ordered a beer an asked for the menu. No food was the reply so I didn’t linger long over my beer, paid and moved on. There was a small covered shopping mall, which also seems obligatory in Japanese towns, which contained a couple of dull looking, nearly empty places. I gave them a miss and was starting to curse my gung-ho alter ego when I hit paydirt. No menu in English, no pictures or plastic samples to point at but some friendly people having a laugh at the bar and a gnarled chef who seemed keen to accommodate me. I couldn’t really tell whether the lady that served me a beer was his wife or daughter but shortly afterwards she placed a fillet of fish in front of me and indicated that it was on the house. A voice piped up in English, “How you find this restaurant?” I replied that I was staying at the New Otani and had come out looking for some food. This prompted gales of laughter from a couple just along from me who confessed they were also staying there and had it recommended. Our concierge recommendations have not been brilliant so I hadn’t even bothered. With the help of the first voice who was an art dealer from Galerie Nichida in Nagoya and had studied in America, the couple said they had spent their honeymoon in London four years ago – second time around for both and now on a trip to celebrate their retirement. The conversation moved onto age, oh and by this time I had a plate of fabulous sashimi fresh from the sea today and some local, very good sake, and I arm wrestled the chef metaphorically, asking why he hadn’t retired if he was so old. He enjoyed the business, closed for three hours a day to go fishing, lived upstairs and what else would he do? Sign language, help from the gallerist and recourse to my phrase book made for quite a coherent chat. I won the age contest as he was only 68 although looked older than me. They were all suitably impressed at my venturing out alone in provincial Japan at such a great age. Some tempura including ginger root, asparagus and forest vegetables according to the book followed and then chef gave me a bowl of miso soup with some crabs legs – a speciality of the area. The evening ended with more local sake and an impromptu Beatles medley – chef is a huge fan – wife or daughter presented an extremely modest bill and I left thinking about what fun I’d have missed if I’d just flopped in the hotel. It reminded me of the night before Dee’s birthday five years ago in Okayama when we became firm friends with the couple who ran the bar.

It’s what travel’s for.

Whistle stop Kyoto

With only two days in Kyoto before the family caught a train a six o’clock back to Haneda Airport for an early flight on Wednesday there was no chance of doing the city justice or visiting more than a couple of it’s more than 2000 temples and shrines. Maybe one year I’ll come back with a clean hon (or several) and try to do a shrine crawl around them all.

We decided to start with the Fushimi Inari Shrine which is the famous one with the lines of red (actually vermillion) torii gates stretching way up the mountainside, It’s spectacular and the train stops right outside which is convenient. They’ve even given the station a shrine-look makeover.

We did our purification in accordance with the helpful sign: rinse right hand, rinse left hand, take a sip of water from right hand, hold dipper up to let water run off and replace. Slick by now these fast-learning children. So too are the colourful strings of crane origami figures strung into long skeins.

We walk up through several layers of torii until we think if we don’t head off back down this is all we’ll do today. Chris bought a fine yukata from one of the stalls and repeated attempts on messaging devices failed to get us all to meet up but then Helen, Martin and Alex bumped into us as we were sampling our first taco yaki stall. Octopus balls had been consumed in Trafalgar Square last year at the Matsuri, but piping hot in the street in south Kyoto was a different matter. We all took the train back to Gion-Shinjō in order to walk along Shinjō dori the street of department and high end stores On the way we passed a cat and owl cafe another of the children’s tick lists so we all spent half an hour stroking owls except for those with labels “I’m taking a break”.

It was then on to Nishiki market which I confess Dee and I had missed on our last trip. It’s a busy narrow street thronged with tourists and locals buying food from stalls, fresh produce – fish, meat and vegetables that make you wish you were self-catering. Total, glorious mayhem – a treat for eyes, ears and especially for the nose. We had lunch, wandered more and went back to the hotel for a break. The children were desperate to do karaoke and Jo found a place not far from Gion where we were planning to eat. Finding. Space for 8 was going to be a challenge but Helen was up to it. I declined to join the rest of the family at the song fest, arranging to meet by the Gion Bridge at 7. Karaoke ran late and my phone was still not roaming properly – it had made the journey from Nagoya for the princely sum of 907 yen, about five pounds or so. I also spent my “free” time on the phone to Virgin to try to sort out a data roaming package but my credit limit was breached while on the phone and so I had to make a very expensive call from the hotel landline to restore my credit. But still the roaming is not working properly – I might be asking for a refund.

I was at the bridge at seven and at seven fifteen and it had cooled down a bit so I popped in to a bar Dee and I had visited before: The HighBall Bar where you pay 500 yen and help yourself to whisky and snacks from bottles and jars on the counter. Just got settled when Chris responded to a voicemail message – the only communication I could pathetically achieve – so I supped up and went to join them. Helen had found a tonkatsu restaurant where we could all eat round a big table. Restaurants tend to be quite small and on many occasions we have found ourselves sitting on stools arranged near the entrance while waiting for a table to clear and in some places you put your name and number of guests on a sheet at the entrance. We waited about half an hour but were then shown downstairs and given a crib sheet on how to eat. You started by grinding sesame seeds with your personal pestle and mortar and then adding one or more of a variety of sauces provided. Food was enjoyed by all including my granddaughter who in a moment of tired relaxation wanted a cuddle and started stroking my hair. She said how soft it was and then spoilt the moment with the acute perception of the child; “You don’t need much shampoo do you Grandad?” A great evening and we travelled back on the subway hatching a plan for the morrow.

Monday had been a bit grey but Tuesday gave us full sun. It was already warm as we walked to the Higashi Hongo shrine we’d seen on Sunday. Compared with many it was very quiet and quite amazing in scale having rooms with over 200 tatami mats (geeks feel free to estimate square metrage – the mat is a standard of measurement at 1.91 x 0.955 m in Kyoto although I learned to my surprise that mats are slightly different in other regions). There were several stamps to collect for our hons and quite a trek to find them all. This is a massive monastery with private monks’ quarters all round it and incredibly impressive public areas. It was great to visit it early although there was a feeling that despite its proximity to Kyoto Station it is not on the big tourist tick lists – it certainly won’t be in the top ten, and given the choice maybe not even the top fifty. It had in a museum and auditorium are a great model showing shrine construction and some ceremonial leaves that are carried in processions.

After a leisurely and fascinating visit we walked to the subway en route for the kids’ first Japanese castle.

It was right across from the subway exit and had an impressive watch tower facing us. The entrance was a short walk away and the heat of the sun was increasing – 22 degrees were indicated on a signpost display. There was little in the way of a queue and we went through a brightly coloured main gate into the palace proper. It came as no surprise to that our friend from Nikko Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu had played a major part in its establishment. What was more surprising was that his descendant Togawa Zzzzzzz should have summoned all the shoguns here to persuade them to give up their power and restore it to the Emperor. The voluntary yielding of power? Now that is a departure from normal power politics. The journey round the palace was interesting as it took place along the so-called nightingale passage. This is a floor that squeaks melodically due to the method by which the huge floorboards were fixed with nails and brackets that allowed noise-emitting movement. Rather hoarse nightingales methinks. At first the rooms were impressive and highly decorated designed to shock and awe visitors but these gradually gave way to more modest private rooms where no one but the shogun went.

We then sauntered through the garden where we again wondered if the rich and powerful had a special long flowering species of cherry tree as the castle hanami was still resplendent. We got lucky with lunch in a restaurant right by the castle. It was not busy today but to reach the loo you passed through a room with enough tables to cater for the coach parties that will arrive in greater numbers come summer.and then took the subway to Gion which we’d really only seen a glimpse of and which is the famous old geisha quarter. It’s filled with narrow streets of wooden houses and gives a real impression of how Kyoto used to be. Today the only geisha visible were tourists who had rented kimonos from the many outlets available. As we came to the stream I mentioned that last time we were here I’d photographed a heron. A look the other side of the bridge and there it was – could well have been the same one, just like me a bit older and greyer.

Across the bridge we found fish-shaped doriaki another tick list item and ice creams and then sadly itàtime to return to the hotel and for the family to head for the shinkansen back to Haneda Airport to a hotel before their early flight back on Wednesday. I had a room change as I was renting a car in the morning. It had a great view to Kyoto Station with next morning abseiling window cleaners.

I googled craft beer as we’d passed an interesting place in our perambulations yesterday but to get to that one meant the subway again and I opted for the Yebisu Bar four minutes walk away. Given that you can easily walk for ten minutes underground to reach the actual train it seemed the sensible choice. The name should have warned me as Yebisu is one of Sapporo’s brands. As in the UK big breweries also own coffee shop chains and lots of fast food outlets as well a beer, spirits and sake brands and probably lots more I haven’t encountered. The bar did have three draft and eight bottled beers on the menu but they were scarcely craft beers in the way we know them. Should have made the extra effort – must be getting old.

Confirmation came from the family that they were safely in their hotel at Haneda and it was time for me to retire ahead of a promising day of driving tomorrow.

A Day in the country

I suppose the number one thing on anybody’s wish list when travelling to Japan is to ride a bullet train. Well Saturday held a day of varied travel for our novices. With lots of luggage and five of us we decided on a taxi from Asakusa to Tokyo Station. Lacy antimacassars and white-gloved drivers are a surprise when you first see them but you realise that cabbies take pride in their work, We didn’t use many but they all wore suits and ties and had enough English to make a joke or respond to ours. Then it was into the station and up to the Shinkansen tracks for a journey to Mishima. The one mistake I’d allowed the ticket office guy to press on me was that our reserved seats were in coach sixteen. How many coaches on a big Shinkansen? You got it. Where does the escalator deliver you on the platform? In the middle. So it was a long trek along the platform and then you have to board very quickly so as to keep to the schedule. I love the way the guard looks along the train, down at the track and mutter phrases to themselves almost like praying for the train’s success. I also like the fact that whenever any official or vendor enters the carriage they bow to it.

I’d promised the grandkids a bit of magic on the train and they were amazed when their forward facing seat was pivoted so that they could face their parents as a four. We whizzed off at high speed and through suburbs, tunnels and occasional stretches of countryside and were in Mishima within the hour. It’s over a hundred kilometres and given four station stops speeds must have been up around 180 km/h at times. At Mishima we changed to a local train to Shuzenji which is half way down the Izu peninsula. This was a fun ride with speeds which allowed you to look into peoples’ back gardens, see folk working in the rice fields and admire rural building styles. It also gave me time to contemplate that I had a vivid picture of my phone in the net on the back of the seat in front of me on the Shinkansen – probably in Nagoya by now. I did this five years ago when leaving Tokyo for Hong Kong and somehow it was produced for me to collect in Hong Kong at the airport. At Shuzenji we had to take a bus and sadly because of a change in our departure from Tokyo we had nearly two hours to kill in Shuzenji. Time for lunch. With all our luggage we didn’t want to stray far and despite worries about my granddaughter’s likelihood of finding something she could eat we entered a restaurant with a Japanese only menu, some helpful plastic plates in the window and a proprietress whose English consisted only of numbers, we enjoyed a great traditional Japanese meal.

We had to phone our next stop to tell them we were catching the 14:20 bus and a voice confirmed that we would be met at the bus stop. We purchased tickets and boarded the bus for a fantastic voyage. The Izu peninsula is mountainous and we were in the middle and needed to get to the west since the name of our destination was Nishi Izu Koyoi Onsen and I know nishi means west. The first third of the journey was through winding, climbing roads through various spa resorts, golf courses and a Tudor England theme park Niji no Sato (Rainbow Park) which also features a miniature railway modelled on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch narrow gauge one in Kent. The bus went in but there were no takers on this occasion. From then on there were trees clinging to sheer mountains, almost as many hairpin bends as Nikko and eventually glimpses of a gorgeous little circular bay. This was indeed the port of Heda our home for the night. I thought all the family would enjoy one night of constant shoes off, shoes on of a traditional Japanese hotel or ryokan so booked this one in hope from the internet. It had pictures of Mount Fuji on its website but then so do most of the hotels in Japan. We were met as promised by a smart lady who took us five minutes to the hotel and treated us to a glass of delicious yuzu juice while checking in took place. We also noted that there was a free whisky offer from 15:00 onwards and a wine dispensing system I’d seen somewhere before. You charge a card and select the amount and type of wine from 10 options until your credit runs out. We were then shown to our adjacent identical rooms. I then caused confusion by asking if there were different rooms for singles and families but it seems they are all 12 mat tatami rooms and futons are laid out for the number of occupants.

Having warned the children that all onsen (hot spring) bathing in Japan was always in the nude after having a really good scrub in the shower to keep the spring water clean, we booked the private onsen. It was a bit small for five and very exposed to a howling gale so I left them all to it and went to pursue the return of my phone. I found the number for Japan Rail lost and found and called it but no one spoke English so the helpful staff spoke to them in Japanese with the train, coach and seat details I’d written down for them with a description of the phone: Samsung, black wallet with business cards. In the conversation I heard the word meishi which I knew from previous trips meant business cards. Great relief – they had my phone and agreed to send it to our next hotel in Kyoto on Monday. It cost 907yen – about a fiver – but that’s so much better than an insurance claim and replacement. We all met up in the lounge with the family having enjoyed their onsen experience so much that we all decided to go to the public one next morning before breakfast. We’d spotted a sign to “Beach Walk” and decided to give it a try. At the foot of a set of rather uneven steps we found ourselves in a car park and as we rounded the corner this view confronted us.

What a stroke of luck! Many people visit Japan and never see the sacred mountain because of cloud. WE got her in resplendent beauty with a defining strip of cloud as well. We walked back along the beach in the almost completely circular bay but then emerged to confront a gale so strong it made everybody work hard and literally took my breath away. I always carry an inhaler for my asthma but it’s a comfort blanket from the old days but before making it, in stages, back up the steps I had to have a puff.

Time for a shower and change and a card game before dinner (Mike A look away). I’d experienced a kaiseki meal with Dee and was a bit concerned as we’d had grasshoppers, forest ferns and fish heads. However this one was more mainstream and my granddaughter’s child’s choice came served in a miniature fishing boat. It included vegetables boiling in a bowl with a fire pellet under it that indicated the food was ready to eat when the fire went out – dead clever. The courses went on and were all delicious and the service was attentive, amused and excellent. I don’t think they see that many English families. After dinner we returned to the lounge where it would have been rude not to avail ourselves of free whisky and dispensed wine. It was not a long start as an early onsen was required before breakfast.

Onsen enjoyed and Japanese breakfast enjoyed by all even the sceptical junior, we did the beach walk again. Less good. views but still OK and the wind, while strong, had abated somewhat. We’d decided that the bus schedule was incompatible with our travel plans so had ordered a taxi to take five plus luggage back to Shuzenji. However we we’re a bit dismayed to find a single ordinary four seater with inadequate boot space. Much sucking of teeth and phone calling resulted in a nine-seater appearing in about ten minutes and as the minibus could go much faster than the scheduled bus we were there in very good time to take a train back to Mishima and then the shinkansen to Kyoto. We arrived in time for a walk about the immediate neighbourhood near the station with a massive shrine to be seen when open and including a visit to the roof garden and the ten floors of Isetan department store in Kyoto’s incredible station. A first for us was cherry blossom images on the station steps made from LEDs affixed to the risers.

Underneath the station as with most is a retail and culinary plethora of opportunities. We went for an interesting Japanese take on Italian and on leaving I suggested that if we took the adjacent exit we might be quite close to the hotel. To everyone’s amazement we were right by the lobby steps. I confess it was just good guesswork as these subterranean passages are totally disorientating. A plan was hatched for the next day which involved meeting up with the sister of one of Chris’s mates who happened to be in Kyoto as part of a world tour.

Last look at Tokyo … for now

We decided to have breakfast outside the hotel and just along from it was a Denny’s a restaurant/cafe chain frequently mentioned in Murakami’s books so that was a obvious choice and offered a good mixture of Japanese and western fare. The most stunning thing was that seven-eighths of the space was smoking and we were bundled into the remaining eighth. It’s really a shock to find that in many places people are allowed to smoke freely. Offices, hotels and the trains haven’t been able to ban it completely but all have special smoking rooms where the afflicted/addicted can go.

AA5AAC02-91AB-4BB6-B1DB-E3FC4C009443It’s also odd to see how little obvious recycling there is. I did find this splendid facility in Ueno Park but in general trash seems to be collected unsorted, packing in plastic is extreme and there is certainly no hint of a charge for plastic bags.

 

After our outing to the north on Wednesday with all the peace and quiet of the countryside we spent Thursday back in the maelstrom that is the Ginza. There’s been a long-standing love of stationery in this family which has been inherited by the younger generation. So first stop was Itoya – 8 floors of amazing craft materials, pens, notebooks and other desirable items where new pens were purchased along with a number of other delightful objects. We had been joined by an old university friend of Chris’s, Will, who lives in Japan and had made the four-hour bus journey from his home to meet up. He’s a great guy and gave us some interesting insights into the life of an expat married to a Japanese wife with young children to bring up bilingually. We all met up in Itoya and then visited Mitsukoshi for an okonomiyaki lunch in the tenth floor food court. We then just had to take the children in particular to see a department store food hall. These are astonishing places with fantastic displays of delicious foods and ingredients. At one of the bakery stalls there were cronuts, that recently invented hybrid of the croissant and the doughnut, so we took some of those for later consumption. While in the centre of the city it would be wrong not to visit the Imperial Palace so we set off there and found Tokyo’s last good cherry blossom for our own hanami picnic in the grand plaza outside the palace where it transpired Chris’s friend had been married. Do they plant a special long-flowering strain especially for the emperor’s benefit?

E86627D9-3A8D-4C09-83CF-F3CA7616F74Fimg_8713-1It was a slight disappointment last time that you really can’t go into the palace grounds as the gardens are said to be spectacular. So we just have to do with pictures by the moat and the iron bridge. A mild amusement though was seeing someone of clear importance being admitted to the palace after repeated checking of permits.

Next was a visit to Hibiya Park where the young ones had fun climbing up to the Liberty Bell and exercising on monkey bars and assorted playground equipment. They so enjoyed themselves it was soon time to walk to the subway at Toranomon which I remembered as my regular starting point back in 1979 when we set off for our lectures and school visits from our base in the nearby Okura Hotel. Back in Asakusa we had a farewell drink with Will before he had to set off for Shinjuku to get his bus home. One of the difficulties we’d encountered had been finding restaurants able to accommodate all seven of us so Jo and Chris took the children for pizza – they had been very tolerant of Japanese food – and Tom, Caroline and I went to a local sashimi, sushi and tempura place that served its tempura with hot dipping sauce – a first for all of us.

img_0025We decided to stay local on Friday and visit Kappabashi Street, the one and a half kilometres of food related shops. They sell everything from industrial scale ovens and fridges to chopsticks and rice bowls. And of course the great attraction – the plastic food plates that adorn the windows of so many establishments and give you a hope of knowing what to order. Plastic food key rings, new chopsticks and a brilliant set of trainer chopsticks with rubber guides for finger position and a hinged top help young people master the art of eating with chopsticks.

img_8728The guides can be adjusted or removed as chopstick proficiency badges are gained. Tom and Caroline had spotted some dishes they wanted to take back home so they went back to buy those and check out of the hotel before returning to Hong Kong that afternoon.

The rest of us went to a drum museum which was superb. There’s a collection of representative drums from all continents and many cultures with good explanations in English. Best aspect however was that there were thirty or more drums and percussive instruments you could bash yourselves, although the signs did say ‘Please play gently’. We spent a happy hour there and then went to meet up to take our farewells from Tom and Caroline.

With our hotel overlooking the Senso-ji Shrine we couldn’t leave Tokyo without its stamp in our hons. So we went there and achieved that and a walk round the grounds before tackling Nakamichi Street the road that leads to the shrine from the Karinomon Gate and is often given the soubriquet ‘Tat Street’ but which does in fact have an amazing variety of goods on sale and we managed to find a gorgeous kimono for my granddaughter and an elegant yukata for her brother.

The tick list was gradually showing a positive reduction but the scramble crossing at Shibuya was next on the list. It still feels pretty mad at ground level but there’s no match for the aerial views on the web. We just couldn’t find a good vantage point in the air that was obvious A little light store perusal brought a few fashion purchases and then we moved back to the subway Shinjuku bound.

Another of the must see Tokyo phenomenon is the Shinjuku neon and it didn’t disappoint. Even though Dee and I had stayed in Shinjuku five years ago, the advances in animation and displays were staggering and the extent is mind blowing. We were hungry by now and entered Bar Mouton on the fourth floor of a restaurant stack and I suppose should have deduced from its name that it featured lamb, not that common in Japan except in Hokkaido. We all had very tasty and different dishes and a first taste of craft beer from the growing Japanese scene. Looking out of the restaurant window the neon  was so bright you thought it was daylight outside. Bar Mouton featured a pianist who regaled us with all the standards that seem to be the repertoire of lounge pianists the world over. A stroll around the mad streets of Shinjuku and it was time to head on back and get packed for our next phase of the journey.