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.

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.

North to Nikko

When I was first here in 1979 as part of a training delegation from the Inner London Education Authority, apart from workshops at Tokyo University, we were guests at a school in Maebashi for a day of workshops with teachers and classroom observation. Very formal and quite unlike London schools in the 70s. We stayed overnight in teachers’ ryokan style accommodation with futons on tatami floors and a six o’clock rise to salute the flag and greet the day. Mid morning our hosts decided we had earned our supper and drove us to Nikko and Lake Chuzenji. Both made a striking impression on me and I wanted to go back with Dee but time would not allow us to make that trip with everything else we wanted to do and there’s no big Murakami connection. So with the willing (I think) indulgence of all the family we set off for Nikko on Wednesday morning in a Toyota Hi-Ace 9 seater minibus. Our driver Ikeda san was waiting for us promptly at 08:30 and confessed that despite being a professional driver for 35 years he’d never actually driven this particular job before. He seemed pleasant enough, had little English but we got by just fine. The first part of the drive out of Tokyo was quicker than I expected but then was quite dull across the flat Saitama plain with suburbs and occasional rice fields, until after about an hour we started to climb and tree clad hills with good patches of cherry blossom appeared.

img_8593The main attractions of Nikko are the Shinkyo Bridge, a fine vermillion specimen at the top to the town and which is thought to be sacred as the entrance to the shrines, and the Toshogu Shrine complex which climbs through a hillside of massive cedars and has the world renowned monkey carving ‘hear no, see no, speak no evil’ and the most elaborate collection of buildings of any of Japan’s shrines.

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Just outside the car park there’s a culvert in which water appears to flow uphill. It’s an optical illusions as two slightly downhill streams meet and form a whirlpool. My science fan grandson was intrigued by this and deduced a lucid explanation. We then moved on into the main shrine area where there is just so much to see and absorb that a few words from me can’t do it justice. Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu was credited with founding the first unified Japan in 1600 and his shogunate lasted until the Meiji dynasty started in 1868. So I guess it’s fair that this hillside has more elaborately decorated buildings and sacred places that any other. It’s a world heritage site of course. The atmosphere despite thousands of tourists is serene and stimulating, peaceful and provocative at the same time. Apart from noting that this is where the original wise monkeys originated and of course had to recreated by the family – monkey has been my grandson’s toy of choice since birth – and that there’s also the famous carving of a beautiful sleeping cat, I’ll report that we got two hons stamped, climbed 207 steps to the main shrine – carefully counted and checked by my granddaughter – I’ll let a few pictures convey a sense of the place. I’m so glad I went back as it is really special. We also took time to visit the museum which has lots of interesting artefacts and documents contemporary to Tokugawa’s time. The guidebook said lots of people don’t bother but it was well worth the half an hour to examine the contents portable shrines, swords, scrolls and books. By the way no photography permitted in the main shrine.

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Calligrapher writing in my hon
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The sleeping cat

 

Just a few of the 207
Resting place for the shogun’s remains

Tom’s brilliant IT geekery found a splendid restaurant, Hippari- Dako in Nikko Town which Ikeda San was able to put in his SatNav and get us there in no time. After a morning of walking, most of it up somehow, we needed food and drink. Then it was up to Lake Chuzenji of which I still have the sharpest memory of eating fresh trout from the lake and struggling as a chopstick novice to extract lumps of fish and leave the bones behind. It must just have been so fresh and tasty that it’s stayed with me for nearly 40 years. The lake is spectacular and 1270 metres above sea level. It was formed when Mount Nantai erupted and blocked the valley 20,000 years ago. The water today looks very black and volcanic. The area is not much more developed than when I was last here although I don’t remember swan boats.

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The fun bit of the journey is the approach to Chuzenji up the one-way Iroha winding road. It has 48 hairpin bends which elicited a number of ‘Oh My Gods’ from the children as we powered our way up. We stretched our legs and had a photo call at the lake before moving on to see the Kegon Falls another of Japan’s ‘divine’ waterfalls. However, Ikeda San missed the turning and with great humility and apologies drove us back down and then up again. He did joke that we were likely to be unique in doing the Iroha road twice in one day. The falls were quite impressive but as my daughter ventured ‘It’s no Niagara’ and even Gulfoss which Dee and I visited in Iceland was more impressive in its scale. I did find the noise and apparent weight of water falling pretty impressive.

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We all had ice creams and then settled into the minibus for the trip back to Tokyo. There was some dozing off in the back, unsurprising after our day’s efforts and we hit bad traffic at the approaches to Tokyo so were an hour later than planned getting back to the hotel – only part of that due to Ikeda san’s mistake.

A tiring day, but one which everyone enjoyed and I was very pleased that my wonderful family indulged an old bloke’s desire to take another look at a place remembered more for it sense than it’s actuality during a business trip 40 years ago.

Family matters

The rest of the family were arriving at dawn on Monday and I arranged to meet them at the Karinarimon Gate near the Asakusa train station and our hotel.

 

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We did indeed meet and enjoyed the Senso-ji Shrine in the early morning with no throng of tourists that I’d had to batter my way through last week. Sadly the cherry blossom had faded but it was still a sensational experience to add to travelling from the airport by monorail and train. So as not to let jet lag take over completely we took all the luggage to my room and then whizzed up to the 27th floor for a hearty breakfast. The buffet provides something for everyone: fruit, eggs and bacon, sushi, pickles and miso soup so all could feed to their heart’s content. In order to fill the time until official check in at 3pm we walked the 2 kilometres (brave children after a 12 hour flight!) across the Sumida river to the Tokyo Skytree which was on the tick list.

The elevator to 350 metres high was incredibly fast with ear pops but almost no sense of motion. It was a bit hazy but gave us a great impression of the size of this city – it is vast. It was also interesting to see the number of tennis courts, running tracks and baseball Ds in the immediate vicinity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A drink in the food court and a train back to Asakusa ensued and then it really was time to turn my single room into a three person dormitory. An armchair and footstool provided a comfy bed for one and mother and son shared my good sized bed for a single room. The men went and drank beer and waited until the four bedded room was available. They all napped for a bit and then we set off for dinner in a ramen bar where you order from pictures on a screen, present the tickets that print out to the wait staff and then food and drink arrive after some consultation. My son and daughter-in-law had arrived from Kobe by now so we all spent the evening together. An early night followed so as to prepare for a proper day of Tokyo sightseeing. It was great having all of us on holiday in Japan at the same time.

We started Tuesday with a visit to the Meiji shrine and had the bonus of seeing a full blown wedding. Dee and I had enjoyed the process of getting your hon stamped and inscribed at each shrine we visited and I had a spare one which we’ve entrusted to my grandaughter’s enthusiastic care. Following the shrine we walked through the garden where amid the peace and quiet were huge koi and lots of turtles or terrapins. Both kids had researched lots of YouTube videos and wanted to see the heart of Japanese modern kawai culture, Takeshita Street, in nearby Harajuku which we did after a lengthy wait for lunch in the Tokyu Hands department store cafe.

It’s manic and overwhelming but rainbow candy floss was acquired and just at the end of the street was a place where everyone could dress up as samurai to general amusement and mirth.

We wandered on through the winding back streets ad came across a fabulous piece of modern domestic architecture and as so often in a back street a beautiful little shrine. This was the Togo Jingu dedicated to the memory of Admiral Togo who was known as the “Nelson of the East” as he fought so many successful sea battles against the British, Chinese and Russians. A second hon stamping of the day occurred. The shrine provided a fine moment of regrouping and contemplation and was such a contrast to the mayhem of Takeshita Street just 200 metres away.

Tom and Caroline had friends to meet so we set off back to base, me via Tokyo station to buy tickets for our trips to Nishi Izu on Saturday and Kyoto on Sunday. The five of us then went for a spectacular teppanyaki dinner which had none of the (over) acting that often occurs at UK teppanyaki places but just a chef who cared and quickly clocked that he could tease my granddaughter with fish and vegetables and then be staggered at the way she devoured steak, Prior to the delicious Wagyu beef we had whole prawns – heads, tails, everything – and sea bass and a salad. Yes I’m well prepared – beer with the fish red wine to go with the meat, but eating a healthy and delicious salad to begin.

img_0023Steak was cooked to our precise tastes followed by bean sprouts and fried rice. Happy tour party returned to base well pleased with a day well spent. I won’t dwell on the fact that I had to break all the sky bar’s rules (no children, no glasses taken outside) to get my daughter a glass of wine in the 20th floor viewing room which we had commandeered as our lounge. Tom and Caroline returned and we all caught up and then retired to prepare for the next day’s trip to Nikko.

Kobe comforting break

05421F8E-B7F8-4AE7-9431-AD3A3B267DA0On Thursday evening, work done for the day, Caroline asked the concierge for a recommendation for a typically Japanese restaurant. Motomachi Ioka proved exactly that. This is the menu, the only one available. While able to read most of it Caroline didn’t feel like spending the entire evening translating for us. So we watched as the sole, hard working chef prepared dishes and then indicated we’d like that too. In one case seeing him construct croquette-style patties with onion and potato Caroline asked what they were called to be told they were creama crockets so we had some.

 

They were oishi and the chef appreciated our approval. After a few more dishes and glasses of sake we were ready for a good night’s sleep. Travel tiredness for some, work tiredness for others. Comfort for me – no trains tomorrow.

Dee and I had really enjoyed the Nunobiki Herb Garden on our visit five years ago and we were all happy to spend a morning riding the cable car to the top of the mountain and walking halfway down through the most marvellous variety of flowers and trees with panoramic views of Kobe harbour. The journey starts just outside Shin Kobe Station and the view down to the port over Ikutagawa Park with its pale cherries in full bloom and the river cascading through a culvert was a great start.

E029D9E0-5015-47B7-BE67-FEF945C6AE58The herb garden is divided up into a number of themed areas and is pleasantly informative and a gently curving path wends its way downward.

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There’s also a chance to view the Nunobiki Falls which has been the subject of poems, paintings and prints as far back as the tenth century. It’s one of the top three ‘divine’ falls in Japan, whatever that means. We’ll see another on on Wednesday, the Kegon Falls north of Nikko. You can hike all the way back to Kobe but conveniently there’s a boarding point halfway down as well so we were whisked to the bottom in time to find lunch in the Crown Plaza’s Oriental City. We chose a lunch set which proved tasty enough but nap-inducing in quantity, so rather than walking to the station we took a taxi to our next destination, The Hakutsuru Sake Brewery Museum. As we arrived we were intrigued by the behaviour of three gardeners who appeared to be scouring the lawn with tweezers but unfortunately we couldn’t see what they were actually up to.

 

The museum gave a good explanation of the sake making process and included a tasting, during which Tom made a new friend. Pepper helpfully directed you towards purchasing the sake most suited to your tastes.

 

We did catch a train back into Sannonomiya, Kobe’s main railway station as I wanted to visit the earthquake memorial park at Higashi Yuenchi which we had seen only through pouring rain five years ago. Today it was warm and sunny and ideal. But we reached it through that very Japanese route a: massive underground retail mall under the station with numbered exits to go up to street level.
The Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1985 is the stimulus for a Murakami book After the Quake in which he weaves fictional stories of people affected by the earthquake in what was his original home town. Tom and Caroline left me snapping and walked back to the hotel.

D9C09E14-E678-4777-84DE-BA5A972F3F1CI also walked back through the main (posh) shopping area of Kobe stopping at the small Sannomiya Shrine which is very small and simple and surrounded by high-end retail. Japan’s oldest shrine the Ikura is a short walk away. The Sannomiya, like most shrines I’ve been too somehow creates an area of calm amid the bustle. Apart from its history as a place of worship it bears a plaque commemorating the insult given by foreign sailors in 1868 which resulted in the Japanese Bizen troop commander firing at all foreigners and then committing seppuku, ritual suicide, because of the shame he’d brought on his people.

We decided just to walk back into the Motomachi area for dinner and pick a lively-looking locale for dinner. Again there was no menu in English but by asking for some tempura and enquiring whether they had gyoza, resulted in the chef putting gyoza fillings into the tempura batter rather than dumpling pastry and a delicious dish was invented just for us. This was a tiny bar where we suspect they rarely saw gaijin but were extremely welcoming and I apparently gained huge brownie points when I added a domo in front of arrigato to say thank you. It was what I was told was appropriate back on my first visit in 1979 and unsurprisingly is now considered very formal and polite. Well that’s me!

We rose early on Saturday and caught the train to Hiroshima which is only an hour away on the Nozomi Superexpress. We boarded the City Loop bus passing Hiroshima Castle, the Art Museum and alighted at the Atmic Bomb Memorial Museum where a series of excellent displays, video testimony from survivors and recovered artefacts make for an informative and reflective display. You do wonder how anyone could ever have taken such a decision knowing full well what the outcome would be. And then do it again in Nagasaki. And today we have chemical weapons in Syria and Salisbury, nuclear stockpiles only somewhat diminished and history’s lessons remain seemingly unlearned.

41A0BB16-F7C5-4974-B2F6-16913F61BC92.jpegThe peace park is one of Hiroshima’s most popular Hanami sites and the picnickers were out in full with blankets, bento boxes and selfie-sticks well to the fore.

There’s a very impressive subterranean hall where 140,000 tiles represent the number of A-Bomb victims and the central fountain 8:15 – the moment the bomb was dropped. A sombre space for reflection and remembrance.

 

We walked on into the town centre and found space in a traditional and very popular restaurant where we were show to a dining platform where I was expecting a hole under the table to accommodate legs but there was none. So being quite tall and unaccustomed to cross-legged dining we shuffled about uncomfortably until we spotted a group leaving a table with stools which would prove much more accommodating for Tom’s 6 foot 4 and my 6 foot 2 frames. So Tom as quickest of access was despatched to secure it while we struggled to join him and make it firmly ours. This did result in the next party to arrive being shown to our platform – something which the matron of the party regarded with some displeasure. Hey she was younger than me anyway and their limbs grow up able to contort in comfort. Sitting smugly enjoying our noodles and beer in pottery beakers, I realised that while I had picked up my camera bag in the scramble I hadn’t got my phone so I went across and asked politely if they’d mind looking for a mobiru around their platform. By pointing and holding my hand to my ear they understood and eventually fished it out to my great relief and embarrassment. However domo worked wonders again and we parted all smiles.

After lunch we walked to Hiroshima Castle a “faithful” replica rebuilt in 1958. It has an impressive moat and a shrine where I was able to add a stamp to the hon we had started in 2013. Sadly here they give you a cloakroom type counter and take it off behind curtains to do the calligraphy. I much prefer to watch them do it while you wait.

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On our way to the castle tower we passed three dogs being taken for a carry,

A6C443DB-C9E1-48C8-B069-51C03F1D55AFThe castle tower was quite tall and probably had great views but it looked like a lot of steps for an old chap with left leg sciatica problems – and Caroline’s not fond of heights so we admired from the ground. Probably just as well or we might have found ourselves like this. F8A95007-EF8B-4805-B050-E35A1F445E6D

 

 

 

 

We then moved on to the Sukkien Gardens which were a little disappointing compared to the great gardens until I read the sign on the way out which explains that the name means ‘shrunken view garden’ so it was always planned as a miniature example of the Japanese gardener’s art. It had many of the usual features and was popular with newly weds – or just people who rented a kimono and suit to dress up for the day,

It also had cherry blossom trees that combined different colours on the same tree.

It rounded off an interesting day trip to a city completely rebuilt since the 1950s with wide boulevards and straight blocks.

The train whisked back to Kobe for a shower and change before going to a hotel-recommended shabu shabu restaurant. It was very smart and involved two shoe removals – one’s own and then their slippers before entering a tatami room with low tables and thank goodness holes for legs beneath. This cooking style involves boiling water at your table to which are added vegetables to make a broth into which you dip mushrooms, cabbage, carrots and of course Kobe beef which you then dip in ponzu or sesame sauces. DF797865-D29B-46AC-B613-0576C68332CB.jpegTruly delicious and something I had last done properly in 1979 as guests of the ministry of education. We thought the sake we’d selected a little sweet to start with but it went very well with the food.

When Dee and I were here we’d had an uproarious night with some young students in a Spanish tapas bar so as a contrast to the refined dining we’d just experienced we set off to find the Bar Mar, It was still there and as a result of Tom showing them a photograph from my blog of five years ago, we received a complimentary plate of serrano ham to go with our Tempranillo. Caroline revealed that in the last three days we’d walked thirty kilometres so an early-ish night and respite for tired legs was in order. I stupidly fired up Hornets Player and listened to a comfortable victory over Bournemouth at last – until extra time when that damned Defoe equalised. Angry sleep.

Caroline had researched brunch in Kobe so we headed out for the harbour front to a place in an old red brick warehouse nicely converted into restaurants and retail. There was a farmers market and a flea market in full swing as we passed. The food presentation was a little odd: huge sandwiches, my granola was served on toast with cream cheese and maple syrup and Tom consumed a huge ‘Full Aussie”. Back to the hotel to pack up, taxi to the station and just make the train back to Tokyo. There was terrible congestion in the drop off area and my driver couldn’t find anywhere to let me out. Then my ticket got refused by the automatic gate and I had to get it stamped at the window and rush up to the top of the escalator where the train and I made simultaneous appearances. I’m leaving travel arrangements to younger people in future. However I am hurtling back to Tokyo after a very pleasant trip down south.