Publication Day!

25 January 2019 sees the arrival on Amazon of my book with thoughts about Japanese life and culture:

It consists of short essays about things that have amused or interested me about Japan, ranging from Anime to Zen all illustrated with, largely, my own photographs. The book is available as a Kindle ebook (best with a colour screen Kindle) and as a paperback. You can buy them here:

I’ve chosen to self-publish this after a couple of travel publishers expressed interest but then sat on their hands for months. So with the possibility of interest from new visitors to Japan for the Rugby World Cup this year and the Olympics and Paralympics in 2020, I got fed up waiting and decided to investigate Kindle Direct Publishing which proved pretty straightforward. The only downside is that it has to be an Amazon exclusive and they have minimum price scales for paperbacks which they print to order.

It has been great fun to write and the readers of first drafts have said some complimentary things about it. It’s brought back lots of very happy memories of my visits to Japan which started way back in 1979. I hope if you’ve enjoyed following my blogs over the years you’ll enjoy this slim volume which has obviously used the blogs and my travels as a source but with lots of added research to present a more helpful and insightful guide.

Please spread the word to anyone you think might be interested in going to or just reading about Japan. I’d welcome feedback from anyone who does read it and, of course, if you happen to like it reviews on Amazon, Good Reads and Tripadvisor can work wonders. Thanks for all your support in the past – and I hope – the future.

Raggett makes radio waves for 101 Japan

101-front-cover

So I made it onto the airwaves in the USA this afternoon (16 July 2019). A feature producer Ron Bernthal asked me to do an interview about the book and it aired today on WJFF Radio Catskill.  I hope thousands of listeners are now reaching for their devices to click on Amazon , as you can too if you haven’t got the book already. If you’d like to hear the piece it’s here.

Borders Radio Interview 16 July 2019

With the excitement of England’s Cricket World Cup behind us (blood pressure still way up!) now is the time to start planning for the Rugby World Cup in Japan in September this year for which I did a special feature for CNN’s Sport website. And further ahead there are the Olympics and Paralympic Games in Tokyo next year to look forward to. So happy reading and happy listening and even happier travelling!

Departure Day

Why is it that the weather on your last day is always the best? I guess you could call it ‘Sol’s Law’. I got up quite early, used the hotel lobby WiFi to add pictures to yesterday’s blog, checked out, leaving my bags with the concierge and set off under the brightest of cloudless blue skies to where I should have made my way last night. The trusty Blue Line from Parque took me to the river near the ferry terminal and the one major area of the city centre I hadn’t yet explored – Alfama.

Breakfast in a sunny square was good but maybe I should have waited to feast at one of the more traditional establishments that line the narrow streets of Alfama. I didn’t get to check out why there was a big poster for Jose Saramago, an author I like a lot. However, refreshed, I make my way up to the cathedral a fine edifice with imposing twin towers and more tuk-tuk operators than you could shake the proverbial stick at. They could probably have taken me up to the nearby castle but I preferred to saunter in the sun through the narrow streets and plunging stairways of the district.

I felt doubly bad about missing fado last night as I though all the shows would start around 22:00 (a friend told me the best ones do) but many of the bars advertised shows starting at 19:30 so I might just have stayed awake,

Alfama is a fascinating district with many souvenir shops aimed at the tourist market but also dry cleaners, bag wash shops, hairdressers (no – barbers) and minimercados with those dim interiors that reveal so many product lines to the intrepid. Also there’s a full complement of churches as befits one of the earliest settled parts of the city. My foot funicular took me along part of the route of the famous Tram 28. The queue to board was already long so I just snapped it and thought of San Francisco.

After an hour or so of exploring I found a view of the river through a break in the street and made my way down steps and steep and slippery cobbles to Santa Apolonia which is the eastern terminal of the Blue Line. I thought I’d have another look around Chiado so rode the two stops to the Baixa-Chiado station. This must be one of the deepest stations on the metro (Google confirms it as the deepest at 45 metres) as I had steps and then four long escalators before reaching the surface. It was much livelier today than on my previous Christmas Day visit and after a bit of sightseeing and window shopping my eye was caught by a barber shop with beer. It’s a really funky venue where you have a trim with a Lagunitas IPA (if trendy, Sagres if not) while your friends enjoy a drink and/or a snack.

Time to head back, pick up bags and make for the Red Line to the airport. That was the easy bit. The metro delivers you to Terminal 1 and you follow signs to Terminal 2 as that’s what it said on my boarding pass. In a large concrete desert is a little bus stand with a shuttle bus to T2 – you have to be sharp to spot it! This takes you to the distant, isolated terminal which is exclusively for Ryanair, EasyJet, Whizz and Norwegian. It’s not connected to any other part of the airport – no lounge! – and is very sparse and functional. I do recall a lengthy bus transfer when we arrived but nowhere else have I ever had rubbed in so firmly “Hey guys you opted for low cost air travel – this is what it feels like”. Once again the Priority Queue was longer than the Other Q as they call it and since we all had to go to the plane by bus it didn’t really matter. The flight was thirty minutes late leaving and struggled with a head wind but my faithful Data Cars driver was there to meet me at Stansted. He’s a Pakistani with an MBA from London Metropolitan University and the best job he can get is driving. We had a lengthy political discussion all the way down the M11 fortunately with shared views about most of the ills of the modern world.

Lisbon provided an extremely pleasant break over Christmas. There is much more to see and do and it would feel very different at other times of the year. Worth another visit? Definitely.

Countryside and coast

A rather delicate start to the day and a decision to delay breakfast until arrival in Sintra, trains permitting. So it was off to Parque station on the Blue Line and then through the wonderful arches of Rossio station to catch a train to Sintra.

There was one scheduled for 09:41 but a huge queue at the ticket office and machines where I was sure I’d need to top up my rover card. At 09:40 I decided to give it a try, was amazed when the barrier opened and I jumped onto the crowded train. It meant standing all 40 minutes of the journey and the windows have a tedious dot screen over them but in fact I don’t think I missed a great deal. My previous estimate of one in every three people currently in Lisbon coming from China was borne out on this train. From what I could see, we passed not very pretty apartment blocks, swathes of disused factories, small suburban hubs with the same pharmacies and supermarkets – and still loads of banks, they haven’t started closing down here. Finally a little countryside before pulling in to Sintra terminal. Laying siege to the station entrance were wannabe guides: walking tours, coach tours, tuk-tuk tours, Segway tours and bicycle tours and probably others I didn’t spot. I made my way past them all and found a little local bar that had juice, coffee and croissants so my day was properly under way.

I walked from the station area into the centre of the old town passing a series of sculptures kindly displayed by the council, but unfortunately only about a third of them were labelled so while I could admire some and pass quickly by others it would have been nice to know where they originated.

I arrive in the main square where the National Palace has two tall towers shaped a bit like the pottery bottle chimneys you find in Stoke, but more elegant. I decided to give it a try and having made my way up (160+ steps) through a variety of eras, styles and rooms with multiple purposes, I decided it had been worth while. There’s a blend of Islamic, Christian and some pagan imagery in the palace and the hits for me were the ceiling of swans each posed differently, the magpie room with the motto “For the Good” when magpies are usually written off as thieves and a mermaid room that stirred memories of a wild correspondence a few readers will recall.

The other great discovery was that the chimneys were in fact the outlet from the kitchens which were magnificent in their scale to cope with all those royal banquets.

As I stood at the top of the palace I looked up at a mist-swirled castle and said to myself, “No”. Instead I walked through the old part of the town, thanking my lucky stars I was here at his time of the year. I can just imagine how rammed it would be at peak holiday seasons. There are a few signs of a real town but it has largely been taken over as a tourist destination and small buses whizz you from one palace to the next.

After a big palace I fancied something on a smaller scale and took the bus to Monserrate which has several British connections. It has a large park complete with artificial waterfall designed by a Brit William Beckford, thought to be the richest non-titled gent of his era, he was at Monserrate from 1793 to 1799. The guide book says he was forced to flee Britain after being found in a “compromising position” with a sixteen year old boy. I visited his falls and shortly afterwards on the way down to the palace at the heart of the estate, a cromlech folly. Now one of my friends who may read this, Gwyn Headley, (Google him) is the world’s expert on follies so I guess he knows all about this but I have pictures just in case.

The palace itself is something after the style of the Brighton Pavilion with Indian, Islamic and Italianate features. It was built by another Brit Francis Cook who was a textile millionaire in the mid nineteenth century and was perhaps inspired by a reference to the estate by Byron in Childe Harold after his visit in 1809. Anyway it was a fascinating house and garden to visit and provided the country escape I had planned after four days of urban tourism. I rejoined the shuttle bus at the top of the drive and as we made our way back into Sintra I was glad my driving ambition had been foiled. On many of the roads we used the constructors had been less that generous with the spread of tarmac and with very steep runoffs at either side I spotted the potential for disaster when encountering other vehicles. Our bus had to stop and reverse a few times. It was a fine little tour through Colares passing fields of trees weighed down by oranges – yum it’ll soon be marmalade making time!

I could have spent more time in Sintra which is a super town on any number of steep hills and with endless tourist attractions but Cascais and Estoril called and a late lunch by the seaside beckoned. And very late it was as the bus from Sintra to Cascais via Cabo de Roca through the Sintra-Cascais National Park took the best part of an hour. I resisted the temptation to get off the bus and stand by the lighthouse at the most westerly point of Europe – ticking those boxes is for younger travellers and it was windy and cloudy so not a lot to be gained. The bus decamped us in Cascais and after a few false starts – extensive car park, closed up Market – I did find the way to the beach.

The famous street pavers had overdone it here with a wavy patterns than made me quite dizzy as it looks like the paving is in peaks and troughs but is all flat. However grilled sardines with butter, sea salt and parsley were a grand recompense for holding off lunch till nearly four o’clock, Facing me was a wheel, at 32 metres the biggest in Portugal according to the display on the screen beside it. After lunch I walked along the seafront passing another cove before coming to the station. Again the evidence of crowded summer visits was everywhere as only about half of the souvenir and ‘craft’ shops were open and I could feel the potential of the August crush.

A train was leaving a few minutes after I arrived and it hugs the coast all the way back into Lisbon with occasional great views interspersed with the backs of apartment blocks. Not as dramatic as Dawlish to Teignmouth in Devon but a fun ride. As it was nearly dark and beginning to rain I decide not to get off at Estoril which I’ve herd from many is a fine town – well it’s something to look forward to.

Having mentioned earlier the frequency of banks, I’ve been struck by how many bookshops there are in Lisbon and as I descended the stairs at Cais do Sodre terminal there was a book fair actually in the station concourse with avid customers.

As it’s my last night in Lisbon I should be going to enjoy the nightlife, find some jazz (I did look and there’s none till Saturday) or a Fado club to hear blues singing, but I had had a bad night, a very active day with lots of up, a late lunch and so I’m staying in to write this, listen to music and read a book (a real one courtesy of Richard S). Sorry!

Lisbon is famous for its graffiti, some very fine, some less so. I was struck by this piece to which a neighbour had obviously added some extra sheets to improve the wind power.

Boxing Day Walk

Well it’s a tradition to go for a walk on Boxing Day but as I had totted up about thirty miles over the last two days, I had planned a visit today to the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation which is less than ten minutes from the hotel. I set off around nine in time to take breakfast on the way and arrive at opening time at 10 when I hoped it would be less busy than later in the day. The streets were totally different today – still plenty of Chinese tourists – but lots of Portuguese people grabbing a bite before going to the office, workers in hard hats everywhere, cranes swinging overhead – like most major cities, Lisbon will be lovely when it’s finished. With a fresh orange juice, a cinnamon croissant and the obligatory pastel de nata inside me I arrived at the foundation and followed signs through a large, very dark and leafy park to the main entrance.

I knew from earlier emails that I’d get in for half price as an senior and happily parted with my 7 euros. As I walked out just over four hours later it felt like good value.

Gulbenkian made most of his money from oil in Iran and the Gulf and as well as being an avid collector of ancient and modern art and artefacts also instituted a series of cultural and educational programmes. There are two main areas: The Founder’s Collection and The Modern Collection at opposite sides of the park. I started in the antiquities building with a sense that I was back in the Getty Mansion in LA, surrounded by a similar array of amazing pieces from ancient Egypt – how does glass survive 24 centuries? – encompassing pottery and jewellery as well. I was struck by the nautical theme of the last few days with this bronze from 500 BCE and also by the clarity and spaciousness of the galleries. I also fell for the Egyptian cat and her kittens.

I suspect that even on busy days you would be able to move around and read the captions without too much of a struggle. It was also a pleasing feature to catch glimpses of the garden through the large windows. The exterior is a bit brutalist for my taste but you forget all that concrete once you are in these intriguing galleries.

There’s a progression though Greek, Roman and a lot of Islamic art given the Gulf connection – lovely tiles and carpets and illustrated manuscripts. I ambled happily through the rooms until arriving at the French collection – all that overgilded, overblown Versailles furniture – not for me! But then the big surprise which proved I did a bit of reading but not enough, but then of course it wouldn’t have been a surprise. Gulbenkian also had an eye, or good advisers, for French, Italian, Dutch and English painters and OK Singer Sargent was American and his lovely Ladies Sleeping in a Punt under Willows is here. I positively wallowed in some excellent Corot landscapes, Guardi’s views of Venice which I have always slightly preferred to Canaletto, a brooding Rembrandt Old Man, a wonderful ahead-of-its-time Durer duck.

I was also taken by the Edo period Bento box with its flowery lacquer. Gainsborough and Lawrence portraits and two magnificent Turners, Monet, Manet and Degas completed the feast. Happy morning!

In the temporary exhibition space was a display of sculpture from Rodin’s time in Paris including one of the Burghers Of Calais. It was nicely arranged with section on standing poses, non-posed naturalistic work, group sculpture and nursing mothers. I then took myself across the park to the Modern building passing on the way a splendid amphitheatre at which concerts take place with a lake in the background. Should I ever be here for a performance I’ll bring a cushion as the concrete seats looked rather hard. Kenwood music by the Lake without the stately home.

The modern collection is mostly of Portuguese sculpture, painting and installations one of which really caught my eye and ear. There are 34 boom boxes forming the word NO while playing the spoken word YES in as many different tones.

Otherwise there were some interesting pieces and it’s odd isn’t it how you get drawn to particular items. I approached one thinking that’s good to find it was by Jim Dine and to another that proved a Rachel Whiteread, Maybe the old adage is true ‘Class will out’.

In suddenly realised it was after two o’clock and I needed to find somewhere to watch Watford v Chelsea so rushed back to the hotel only to look at my calendar and realise that it’s a 19:30 kick off. On my way I did pass a sports bar so I should be OK. My other afternoon disaster was to attempt to rent a car. I had always thought it would be a good idea to get out to Sintra and back via the coast at Cascais and Estoril. There was a conveniently close Europcar who could rent me a VW Polo or equivalent. The clerk then said: “I’d better tell you the price before we do the paperwork.” Doesn’t augur well. 210 euros for a one-day hire. The Raggett pauper reared again – I had a car in Spain for ten days in the summer for less than that. So if the rail strike permits (60-odd % running according to the news) I’ll go by train tomorrow. Then back to the hotel to blog and be amazed by the day’s Premier League earlier results – How many goals? – and prepare to pop off to the sports bar for 19:30.

The sports bar was part of a hotel and had a few scarves and shirts (Benfica, Sporting, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Man United) I didn’t bring mine with me or they’d have had a Watford one to add. What they did have was the game on TV and an IPA which truly sprung (or Springed) off the shelf:and at 6.5% it might well have had even me doing karaoke. As it was the few others in the bar were amused but not disturbed but my oohs and aahs and scream of delight at the equaliser. Their penalty was never in much doubt but the Portuguese commentators were adamant ours was a nailed on penalty on Deleofeu. They showed it in close up and from five angles about five times and were most agitated on our behalf. The bar had wings, nachos, burgers and other suitable sports bar fare so I consumed a modest supper during the second half. I’m not sure whether it was anger at the ref or the food but I had a very disturbed night and was actually quite glad I wasn’t going to be driving first thing in the morning.

Dia de Natal a Lisboa

I had done a bit of research on places open to eat on Christmas Day – very few. However they included the highly-rated Ribadouro which was in walking distance of the hotel. So I walked off towards it to try to make a booking. Wrong! It doesn’t open until 12 but some chefs were lounging at the back door smoking and said if I came about three o’clock I’d get a table. So I went to the wonderfully named Praça de Alegria (Square of Joy) sat on a bench in the sun and planned a tour. I had explored the Baixa area yesterday so today it was the Barrio Alto, now my Portuguese may be negligible but in any language I knew it meant lots of up.

I made it up to the Mirador of San Antonio which had a convenient Christmas Market so I was able to have a coffee, a custard tart (OK pastel de nata) and find a bench from which to Skype my son and daughter-in-law post lunch in Hong Kong. We had a good catch up and agreed that Lisbon was a fine city, if hilly. As I looked from the mirador across the city to the Castel de Sao Jorge, I started to wonder if my plan to include that was sensible or even sane.

Having made it up to the Barrio Alto there was some up and down but undulating rather than the precipitous gradients I’d conquered earlier – even the tram wheezed a lot. It’s a grid of streets with some residential some commercial and a few of them open today. Relief came when I was able to buy a waiter’s friend (trusty Swiss Army left at home as I had no hold baggage this trip) and had a bottle of wine back at the hotel for later in the day – organic you see, no screw tops!

I gradually made my way back down to the riverside in time for a coffee in the trendy Chiado district.

There was a good display of old newspapers through the ages in front of the city hall which I admired prior along with a novel festive tree. I then had a flat walk across to the square before the ascent to the castle. A fortifying beer was needed to tackle that, rather spoiled by a persistent multilingual beggar – at least he knew Happy Christmas, Bonne Natale, Frohe Weihnachten and Feliz Navidad to address to various passers by. Oh delight! Just past the bar is a beautiful sight – an escalator. It took me two thirds of the climb leaving just the final scramble up to to the gates of the castle to see this notice.

I should have checked but thought maybe a castle would be open but if they can charge you for entrance then they’d have had to pay staff today. So I walked around the area, spotting a few stretches of battlements but missing out on the (supposedly) fabulous view across the city – well I had seen it from the other side.

The escalator was only up and just as I was contemplating hundreds if not thousands of steps down a small bus appeared which was headed down to the square at the start of the Avenida de Libertad where my lunch would soon await. I was a bit early, not a Raggett characteristic, so I had a beer in a padeleria where pastel de nata were just waiting to go into the oven.

So I walked up the opposite side of the avenue to yesterday and then crossed to Ribadouro where they were indeed able to find me a table, right beside a tasty tank full of lobsters.

They were a popular choice and the couple at the next table were battling their way through oysters, large prawns and a whole good sized lobster. They were a young Chinese couple, she severely elegant like the casino villainess in any number of dramas, he in scruffy top, joggers and trainers. Oh and have I mentioned that at least one in three of all people on the streets today is Chinese. Maybe it’s the Macau connection, maybe just that the Chinese are now the world’s greatest tourists. Anyway I decided that a lobster would be too far I accepted the suggestion of the traditional Lisbon Christmas dish of baked cod loin served with caramelised onions and pink peppercorns. I had read somewhere that many restaurants bring some plates to the table which you could be forgiven for thinking were freebie appetisers but which then get added to the bill. I was quite peckish so a plate of pata negre ham went down very well with a glass or several of a Lisbon white wine called Lasso. I managed most of what looked like a half a cod which was very tasty but an unusual Christmas choice for me. After a coffee, I made my way back up through the busy Winter Wonderland to the hotel to Skype the rest of the family, write a blog, read a book and enjoy some wine thanks to my newly acquired friend.

Lisbon Christmas Eve

I’d read about the collection made by a Madeiran Joe Berardo (maybe a friend of Chris Rinaldo) of twentieth century art bought directly from the artists in many cases. I’d also read that the museum closed at 14:00 on Christmas Eve. So I set off with my travel card on the Blue Line and Green Line metros to Cais da Sodre where I needed a suburban train to Belem. I failed to read the signs and flew past Belem Station, the Berardo Collection and the tower of Belem to the first stop at Alges. Fortunately a train in the opposite direction soon arrived with the word TODAS illuminated on its front. This delivered me to Belem where I walked through a pleasant park to the Monasterio de Jeronimos that reminded me a bit of Budapest Houses of Parliament in its gothic splendour. I was struck by the fact that all the circular stone motifs above the windows were different but didn’t have time to visit and discover their story on this trip.

Just across the road is the Cultural Centre of Belem which houses the Berardo Collection. It’s a fabulous building dating from 1992 in pink marble with a water garden and wide airy galleries with an permanent collection with an array of surrealist, dada, pop, expressionist and other art of the last century with most of the major names represented – Picasso, Miro, Warhol, Pollock, Rothko, Moore among them. It is so well curated that I was able to spend a couple of hours without getting the gallery glaze that so often comes over me. I was struck by a Henry Moore that had strings attached which seemed to reference the nearby suspension bridge and rigging of the boats in the marina.

On a lower floor was a series of temporary exhibitions including a piece called Purple by John Akomfrah which is a thirty minute video installation using six huge screens. I’m not prone to sit through such artworks but this was captivating, using brilliantly manipulated imagery, archive footage and a surround sound track that kept me there to the credits. It’s based loosely on a quote from Tennyson “Oh Earth, what changes hast thou seen?” and looks at years of pollution filmed across ten countries with recurring haunting images. It was co-commissioned by the Barbican where it played early this year and the Museum of Fine Art in Boston among others. Surprising, shocking, stimulating.

Outside I walked to the river front to view the Tower of Belem, deisappointingly small for such a frequently used icon of the city and then along to the monument to the Discoverers a much more impressive piece of work.

I followed the river bank with detours for marinas and harbours back to the centre of town and the district known as Baixa. The Museum of Beer called from on corner of the Comercio Square and I finally sat down nearly four hours after my bum was on a train seat. I then explored the local area with its chain shops, a few individual boutiques and some restaurants, few of which would be open tomorrow it seemed. As I approached Rossio Station I had to hide my head in shame for protesting yesterday about the paving of the city. Here was a sculpture dedicated to the brave and talented pavers of Lisbon. They do produced some fine mosaic effects but I’m still looking for a new set of suitcase wheels!

This led me to the Avenue of Liberty a long tree-lined rambla with cafes and I imagine very popular area for a stroll in summer. It ends in the square (why don’t we have a different name when they are round?)named for the Marquis of Pombal the minister who redesigned central Lisbon after the earthquake. As I made it to the north side I knew that it was truly Christmas.


A walk uphill past the many kiosks brought me to an exit for Parque station which is five minutes from the hotel. I had used a metro and a train to get to Belem but walked all the way back so decided to eat nearby again in a restaurant that billed itself as Portuguese with a Japanese accent. It was one of the worst meals I’ve ever struggled to eat and I won’t be recommending Tsubaki on Tripadvisor. Not a good end to an otherwise most enjoyable day. The one drawback about my otherwise fine hotel is that it’s WiFi is very poor so creating these blogs is a very painful affair with many “upload failed” messages. Please bear with me – your messages are very important to me.