Culture vultures

41 sushi pink Now back in London, 

          back at work, can we find the

          soul of Japan’s art? 

It’s been a while since the last blog – far too much work and play (yippee!) – but a lot has been going on – much of it with a Japanese flavour.

Hokusai waveEverybody has seen Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa even if they didn’t know that was what they were seeing. It’s from a series of wood block prints called 36 views of Mount Fuji. We have reproductions of two of them on the walls at home so the opportunity to see all of them in digitally analysed new versions was too good to miss. The exhibition was at the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane and to get there we went through the Spitalfields Market a lively area with craft, fashion and food stalls which we’d missed out on since it’s rebirth a few years ago. Great fun on a Saturday morning – very lively.

Some people are critical of ‘new’ versions of old works of art but seeing the whole series together was fascinating. Each print depicts aspects of everyday life in the Edo period (1603 to 1868)) always with a hint of Fujisan in the composition in the most imaginative ways. It showed just what a superb artist he was. The exhibition also confirmed the outstanding skills of the wood block makers and printers who worked with the artists of the period.

Prints on paper however well displayed always fade with age so seeing the colours as vibrant as they would have been in the first editions I found startling and a further tribute to the woodblock makers who had to make a block for each colour in the print. The exhibition also had various artists’ re-imaginings of Hokusai in an exhibition space laid out like the streets of old Edo with red lanterns and small rooms devoted to different visual approaches. A vast video wall completed the exhibition with images some of which gelled and some of which I failed to connect with. But a fascinating occasion all round.

Later in the month we saw lots more Hokusai in the brilliant Shunga exhibition at the British Museum – surely one of very few that have to carry a PG certificate! All the great artists of the period seem to have engaged in making erotic prints alongside their mainstream work. The extensive array gathered here shows that their drawings and the prints that followed were of the same quality as their mainstream work. It also confirms that sex can be elegant, energetic, exaggerated, delicate, delightful and dangerous but above all should be fun. There’s a great quote displayed relating to the old adage that size doesn’t matter:

“if ‘the thing’ were depicted in its actual size there would be nothing 
of interest, for that reason don’t we say that art is fantasy?”
Shunga 1
A couple of the more publishable shunga images for a family audience


The exhibition is clearly very popular given the crowds and the length of time people spent looking at each of the hundreds of prints displayed. The curators have done a brilliant job in putting them in context and explaining that they were usually produced in sets of 12 as with so many ukiyo-e prints and would be used as instruction manuals for newlyweds, as foreplay for couples, consolation for the separated and just for a laugh.

Seeing rooms full of people losing their embarrassment while peering at sheet after sheet of bi-gender genitalia having such fun made one doubt whether there’s much British reserve left. There were a few faces around looking a little confused though. The exhibition runs until 5 January 2014 and is well worth a visit.

IMG_4124IMG_4127Following last month’s Japan Foundation lecture on zen in gardens (our own Japanese maples are looking especially fine this year) and ceramics we were keen to find some really elegant cups for green tea consumption. We found them in the most unlikely place while on a two-day break in Wiltshire.

M at Lacock
Mike in the gloom at Lacock

We drove down through alternating rain and drizzle, checked in and decided to go and view an outdoor sculpture exhibition at Lacock Abbey. By the time we arrived it was closed and nearly dark anyway, so we wandered around the village – in Cranford, Pride and Prejudice and Harry Potter land – and came across Lacock Pottery. We climbed the stairs to the deserted loft gallery and there were two bowls that were just what we needed. We looked at the other exhibits but kept coming back and eventually rang the bell for service which brought forth David McDowell who filled us in on his own intriguing history as the offspring of a FitzChurchill. After a time he vouchsafed the information that the pots were by a local potter Matt Waite and used a very uncommon glaze called Chün or Jun. It has no colour in itself but when light strikes it it takes on the finest pale blue tone because of reflection on metallic particles in the glaze – fascinating stuff. We bought them, were given a lengthy guided tour of the glorious B&B David and his wife Simone run at the pottery and eventually escaped back for dinner at Marco Pierre White’s latest project Rudloe Arms. It’s work in progress at present but the art from his collection displayed all over the hotel means you could just walk around for hours enjoying the paintings, mobiles, cartoons, photographs and memorabilia.

Dee making a bright start at the hotel
Dee making a bright  – if chilly – start at the hotel

The next day a total contrast in terms of weather but held the same surprises and delights. A bright blue sunny morning dawned – ideal for our planned trip to Bath. We caught the bus from the end of the hotel driveway benefitting from Freedom Passes’ nation-wide (except Scotland – boo – have your independence!) validity for free bus transport and we’d also been warned that Bath was notoriously difficult for parking.

Neither of us had been to Bath for ages and so set out to do the main touristy things: Pump Room, Roman Baths, Assembly Rooms, Fashion Museum and the less well known Museum of East Asian Art which houses a lot of Chinese pottery, lacquer and jade with some good examples of Japanese ceramics too. We scuttled round being close to closing time and then had a long chat in the museum shop to a young Japanese lady with whom we exchanged views about the collection, her enjoyment of the UK and our trip to Japan.

Our need to scuttle was caused by spending much longer than we ever thought we would at the Roman Baths – a truly amazing “visitor attraction” (dreadful phrase). History, archaeology, reconstructions and interactivity coupled with the incredible extent of the site mean that you could easily pass a whole day in the Baths but that would not do justice to Bath which really deserves its World Heritage Site status.

Dee and Mike taking in the Baths

 Bath lights  Assembly room real thing

Dee and Mike taking in the Baths      Bath’s chandelier-themed lights    The real thing in the Assembly Rooms

Back to the hotel on the bus and tonight’s dinner is at another Marco Pierre White pub The Pear Tree about five miles from Rudloe. It’s been part of his empire for three years now and feels much better bedded in – indeed it has eight rooms so you can stay there too. The dining room is in a large conservatory on the side of an old stone pub and very tastefully decorated and designed. Food and wine were up to scratch too.

Bowls on granite with blueThen it was back to London but via the workshop of potter Matt Waite whose pots we bought earlier in the week. He didn’t have any others available but undertook to make us two more and to fashion us a sake jug and beakers in a similar style. We await the outcome with bated breath. Matt is interested in oriental ceramics and ancient glazes and produces elegant tableware in a variety of styles but all individually thrown so each pot, cup or bowl is unique. We were pleased to meet him and kept him from his kiln for far too long chatting about travel, pottery and everything under the sun. He was great company and is a fine potter.

Another Japan Foundation discussion evening focused on a Japanese project to catalogue all Japanese art objects in foreign collections – I don’t think it’s a sinister move to demand them all back! It was fascinating to see how many collections there are in stately homes and private houses as well as more accessibly in museums. We’ve ordered a promising-looking book A Guide to Japanese Art Collections in UK which will help us track them down as we travel around. It seems like there’s a good Japanese gallery in the Maidstone Museum which we might get to visit over Christmas.

And as with every blog there has been some more Japanese food. After the Shunga exhibition we paid a return visit to Abeno now with its licence restored so no free beer this time. Despite the availability of okonomiyaki we tried the soba rice which has rice, noodles, meat and vegetables and the yaki soba fried noodles. Both were excellent as were the kari kari renkon – crispy slices of lotus root with sea salt.

Then following the Japan Foundation evening we tried a fairly newly opened restaurant in Coptic Street called Cocoro. It specialises in ramen (noodles) and curry. We had one of each and they were very good – the speciality tonkotsu ramen with pork belly and broth made from stewed pork bone was really tasty. Judging from the salarymen behind us who had clearly been in for a long evening and several other tables occupied by Japanese diners it’s proving a popular addition to the area.

Sushi and omeletteFinally my own first efforts at sushi making have been moderately successful. Taste is good, shape and symmetry leave a lot to be desired. I also made the delicious slightly sweet omelette we use to have frequently for breakfast in Japan. It is great on its own and also makes a good sushi filling. I used it with some roasted pepper in one set of sushi while the others were prawn and avocado.

Dee and I are going on a sushi-making course next year as a Christmas present to ourselves so we hope that rapid progress will be made.

 New Yorker MurakamiThe month was rounded off nicely with some Murakami to add to the mix – he’s been missing a bit lately. In the New Yorker magazine on 28 October a new short story appeared called Samsa in Love. You can read it here and it makes for an good easy introduction to aspects of his world. The combination of disorientation, dysfunction, political edginess and the obvious nod to Franz Kakfa’s The Metamorphosis make for an interesting read. His descriptions of the interaction between Gregor Samsa and a hunchbacked woman with an ill-fitting bra are both poignant and hilarious.

Pizzo and beyond

40 sushi pink Our last day today

                can we visit Pizzo

                and not eat pizza?

We’ve had a great time, quiet, nine mainly sunny days by the pool. Eating at home because everywhere else means one of us not having a drink so as to drive home along the roads that cry out “mind the eggs”. But we’ve eaten well on local produce and drunk well on local Ciro wines. There have been a few moments of thunder and a couple of quick downpours but on the whole it was just what we needed. There was a well designed garden area with a stone bench that reminded us of Japan and lots of lizards and a few geckos for company.

By the pool  Dee and thunder  Stone seat  

So we leave our villa today passing what was maligned in a previous post as a wayside fruit stand. It is of course a full blown supermarket with everything we could have wanted and had we looked harder we could probably have avoided our fraught trip to Vibo Valentia last Sunday.

Supermercato MS Supermercato

We are going to spend the day and night in another town up the Calabrian coast called Pizzo. We’ve booked into the hotel for one night and reminiscent of early arrivals in Japan earlier this year we have expectations of leaving baggage at the hotel and wandering about until official check in time at 15:30. Pizzo is a warren of undulating winding streets but eventually we hit a free parking space in Piazza Mussolino (note the last vowel) which is walkable to the hotel. However we arrive – sensibly deciding not to take our bags – to find the front door open but a sliding glass door impenetrable. We ring the bell. Niente. We walk about and knock on windows. Niente.  We telephone and leave a message on the voicemail and so to the Piazza della Repubblica for a coffee. We’ve not quite ordered when the hotel phones and says we can come now. So we apologize to the patrone, head back to the car and pick up out bags and wheel them along a street of roadworks to the hotel.

Magic! Our room is ready. The hotel is beautiful. The staff are apologetic – they were serving breakfast on the roof terrace and couldn’t get the door – sounds good for tomorrow as breakfast’s included. It’s called the Piccolo Grand Hotel and it’s a perfect description. It has all the elegance and style of a grand hotel but in a converted palazzo that only has 12 rooms.

We ask about parking and are advised that we are best where we are and set off to park up for the day as there’s not much call for driving in Pizzo.

ParkingNow you can only buy parking by the hour on a card on which you scratch out the year, day, hour and minute on a foil covered card. And you can only buy cards by the hour. So having decided to stay put we need ten of them at 50 cents each so we sit and scratch and display the whole array in the windscreen. They say it’s OK in the tabacchi where we buy the cards – we’ll see tomorrow if there was a hidden sign saying “No return within one hour”.

Hey ho coffee calls. Il Patrone is pleased and maybe surprised to see us back but we have good coffee and a chocolate croissant for breakfast before exploring the town.

Pizzo harbour Pizzo GV Pizzo street

It is a pleasant place with some nice churches, grand – if rather run-down – palazzi and wonderful views of the sea from narrow, angled street corners. The area is famed for its liquorice so we buy a few packs to take home for offices and friends as well as some limoncello flavoured biscuits we think will go down nicely for Friday treats. We go for a prosecco and a beer in the main square before meeting Beata to give her the keys and retrieve our breakages deposit. She arrives, flustered and with many other visitors to attend to and we decide on a local produce shop-cum-restaurant Le Chicche di Calabria for lunch. What a good choice!

Pizzo lunch Tasting menu

We had the Calabrian tasting menu which kept coming – a plate of four or five different cheeses, then a platter of salamis some mild, most quite fiery. For the first time we were presented with our cutlery and napkins in a paper bag. These first courses were the precursor to four bruchettas again two tomato-eyd  and the others really hot with the chillies they love so much down in the south. Finally there was the steak – almost a comparable tenderness to the Hida beef we’d tasted in Japan earlier this year. Accompanied by a rosato wine from Ciro region just to the north and finished off with coffee it was an excellent way to spend several hours. We buy a few more bits and pieces from the shop and when we decline a large bottle of local liquorice liqueur our explanation “Ryanair” is greeted with a sage nod of acceptance. Their meagre baggage allowances go before them everywhere it seems. We retired to the hotel which has a lovely small roof terrace for some embroidery in Dee’s case and some reading in mine.

One of the great things about this static, relaxing holiday is that for the first time in ages we’ve been able to read all six of the Booker Prize shortlist – well nearly as according to Kindle I’m 18% through the sixth. For what it’s worth here are some brief observations in order of reading just before the winner is announced:

Ruth Ozeki A tale for the time being A bias has to be admitted because it deals with Japan and Canada in both of which I have an interest but it’s an imaginative look at post-tsunami Japan with further insights into zen and the Japanese character. The writing is not always quite as balanced as I would have liked but it was a compelling read.

Colm Toibin The Testament of Mary My winner by a short head. A beautifully crafted novel with a vivid sense of period and the politics of the birth of Christianity. A stunning concept brilliantly delivered.

NoViolet Bulawayo We need new names Startling and distressing but compelling and for me at least very educational, her stories of kids growing up in Zimbabwe are fresh and have an authentic feel. I found some of the US-set chapters a little less well done but it’s a book I’m very glad to have read.

Jhumpa Lahiri Lowland Again I was always going to enjoy the next book from a writer I already admire and with its settings in Kolkata and New England another two of my interests were featured. A heartbreaking series of stories unfold from her silky pen and I loved it.

Jim Crace Harvest How have I gone all these years without reading Crace? This is my second favourite – unusual for me in that it’s historical again set around the time of the enclosures but it’s love of the land, the politics of medieval poverty and the restless energy of the characters made this a wonderful introduction to an author who will be the subject of multiple downloads soon.

Eleanor Catton The Luminaries This will win because I can’t stand it. I must be the one person in the world who just can’t do Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell offerings which have twice won the Booker and this over-researched, over-written introduction to intrigue in New Zealand’s gold rush falls into the same category. The fastidiousness of the writing with immense effort to achieve a sense of “written at the time” I find very alienating. It leaves me completely frustrated with its lack of energy and I can’t say now that I’ll even bother to finish it. So put your money on this one and ignore my opinions above.

La lamparaWe had been told by several people that La Lampara was the best restaurant in Pizzo and the helpful staff at the hotel called ahead to make sure we could get a table as it is a) small and b) popular. It was great with a shared starter of smoked tuna followed by ricciola for Dee and swordfish for me so we had sampled the three fish the area’s most famous for. Wine choice not brilliant, a not quite dry enough local white but a very pleasant evening in excellent surroundings before retiring to the hotel to blog and discover that England had managed to qualify for the World Cup.

Next morning dawned very wetly. A veritable stream flowed by the hotel’s front door and it was impossible to distinguish sea from land from sky as everything was a uniform grey. Good preparation for our return to London.

view in the rain view after rain

Toes in the Tyrrhenian, Toilets in Tropea and Vongole alla Viagra

38 sushi pink  Two days in and will

                 we spot Sromboli the isle

                 they say’s just out there?

Tyrrhenian toes DeeSo we have provisions, we have a pool, the sun is shining and all’s well with the world. A brief trip of exploration to the beach in Zambrone Mare, dip our toes in the Tyrrhenian Sea and back to sun lotion and kindles by the pool.

After a few hours in the sun we decide it would make sense to head into the nearby town of Tropea – the jewel of Calabria – for a wander and a drink before coming home to cook. We find parking easily, walk into the main square to find the Tourist Information closed – no change there then. We book a boat trip to see Stromboli by night on Thursday on board the TropeaMar. It leaves Tropea Port at 14:00 gives you three hours on Stromboli and then goes to observe the nightly eruption before returning to port. There are several companies competing to take people out to the Aeolian Islands in general and the volcanic Stromboli in particular.

Fortunately the guide book we brought with us has a route for a one hour walk around Tropea which we begin. As we head towards the cathedral it becomes clear we have happened across a military wedding with chaps in blue dress uniforms with red plumes and swords ready to greet one of their own  – plus one  – as they emerge from the elegant and simple Duomo. The local wedding photographer even promises aerial photos and an amazing helicopter rig takes a camera into the skies to document the event. Confetti and rice are thrown at the couple. The bride looks a bit surprised by the whole thing. They then cram themselves into a tiny vintage Fiat 500 before the usual horn honking passage through the streets.

Tropea wedding guards Tropea helicam rig

Tropea wedding with confetti Tropea heels

Tropea wedding surprised bride Tropea wedding car

We continue our walk and fetch up back in Piazza Ercole, the main square for a beer and  a glass of wine before driving back to the villa – it’s beginning to get dark and we’re still none too sure of the road. Drinks are fine, price reasonable and accompanied by crisps, nuts and mini bruschetta but we need a comfort break before the drive. One of the guide books did warn us that few loos in restaurants or public places provide toilet paper. Most also don’t have seats or locks. And finding the flush the first time can be demanding – a tiny plunger spigot thing beneath a wall-mounted cistern. Equally, having to first find and then press a foot pedal, which looked like a spanner, to run the water in the handbasin was a surprise – after all if there is no visible tap you just wave your hands under the spout don’t you? After the luxury (and questionable environmental ethics) of heated loo seats and free toiletries in Japan this all came as a bit of an unpleasant shock. If you’re going to Italy make sure a roll of Andrex On the Go is in your hand luggage – thanks Boots’ holiday section.

Next morning we decide we’ll buy some fish from the local fishmonger in Zambrone. It’s a converted garage under a large family house on the outskirts of the village centre. We purchase a kilo of vongole and two lovely looking sea bass. The lady fishmonger takes us up into her garden to pick fresh parsley, basil and celery which she throws into the bag for free. She also counsels us to go to the beach to get some sea water in which to soak the vongole as it will make them open really well prior to cooking.

Sea water carrierSo we head off for Zambrone Marina with a litre water bottle which I have to empty on the strand. Have you ever tried getting sea water into the neck of a water bottle? When the tide’s coming in? I got very wet. I got about 700 ml of sea water. What was reassuring though was that you couldn’t tell from looking at it that it wasn’t mineral water, so clear is the sea round here.

Another session by the pool and after a shower and a stroll it’s time to cook the vongole with some onions and garlic and a chilli, dubbed in tatty tourist shops ‘Calabrian Viagra’. They are quite hot as are the red onions for which Tropea is famous – lots of tears at the stove.

Off shore are the Aeolian Islands, the most famous of which is Stromboli an active volcano which erupts regularly and predictably – they say. The villa details promise Stromboli views. After two days we hadn’t seen it as it was too hazy out to sea. This evening however we could see Stromboli set off by a gorgeous sunset. Let’s hope it’s like this tomorrow when we go to see Stromboli at play.

Stromboli sunset
Stromboli is the amazingly conical island to the right of frame with the big cloud above looking like it’s just erupted


37 sushi pink  Stones and sake please

              but will Calabria lure

              us with sun and wine?

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to blog – those good people at Maverick provided lots more fun scripts for me to write. But we’ve been pursuing Japanese life in London after hours. Two excellent lectures at the Japan Foundation have rekindled an interest in attending scholarly lectures – and drinking sake. The first was called Place, Memory and the Human Body and was given by Miyako Ishiuchi a fabulous photographer whose fragments of people, places and garments form her own quest for her past and produce memorable, occasionally disturbing images along the way. Her work is in Tate Modern – there’s an interview here – and she’s represented in London by the Michael Hoppen Gallery.

The second was by Allen S Weiss a New York University professor who has made a study of zen elements in Japanese gardens and ceramics. The talk was a launch for his new book and concentrated on the gardens side of things but the book is beautiful and will repay attentive reading in short bursts as the level of philosophical analysis made our brains hurt on a Thursday evening. It features Tofukuji that we visited in Kyoto as well as many others. I’ll never look at an arrangement of stones in quite the same way – fascinating, informative and fun. By an odd coincidence the writer was introduced and questioned by a Japanese gardens expert from Writtle College who was called Dr Jill Raggett. We exchanged cards and will look for the possible relationship which will be on her husband’s side. There seems to be a Hampshire connection so maybe we’re related somehow.

After socialising we went for okonomiyaki in Abeno, the original, having previously enjoyed a post theatre evening in sister restaurant Abeno Too. It was well up to standard with an autumn menu featuring a starter of kari kari renkon crispy, spicy lotus root that look like mini cartwheels, autumnal agedashi tofu and the main yamazatoyaki featuring burdock, bacon and mushrooms of many kinds – all delicious.

Two days later, 5 October, was Japan Matsuri London a festival of music, arts and crafts, martial arts and food which takes over Trafalgar Square in London for the day. The opening involved speeches from a number of luminaries – the highly inspiring Japanese ambassador, London’s deputy mayor – we were spared Boris – and a number of folk in costume representing the historic links between Japan and the UK. Much congratulating of London for inspiring Tokyo’s successful bid for Olympics and Paralympics 2020.

The ambassador speaks                                           The Choshu Five and William Adams

Matsuri ambassador 1  Matsuri Choshu 5

It was the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the first British trading post in Japan by William Adams a sailor from Gillingham so he was there. It was also the 150th anniversary of the first Japanese to come to study in London at University College. They were called the Choshu Five and they were there. They proved influential in the modernization of Japan and opening it to the west.

The event was launched by the smashing of a sake barrel – not quite as dramatic as it should have been because the planks on top had already been disturbed. However a campai from all on the platform drinking from the traditional wooden sake cups got everything off to a flying start.

Sake poured and …                                              Campai!

Matsuri barrel bash Matsuri campai

Matsuri imperial ladyWe wandered round the stalls, watched a kendo display with explanatory commentary, Matsuri imperial man 2met people in traditional Imperial costume and went to watch brilliant displays of drumming from students at the Japanese School in Acton and by the London Okinawa Sanshinkai. There were lots more performances but we needed to head home, pack and set off to Stansted to catch an early flight to Lamezia Terme in southern Italy.

Matsuri drummers 1 Matsuri Okinawa 7 

Arrival in Italy was fine. Flight on time to much applause from Ryanair crew, desultory from passengers. Car as described for once although a huge queue at Firefly rental desk – shared with Hertz who had no takers. Lesson about rates? TomTom installed and we set off for Zambrone where the villa we’ve rented is situated. We drive down a poor motorway with road works, two narrow lanes and fairly soon reach a turn off for Zambrone.

Zambrone signs Madama frazioneTrouble is like Gaul according to Caesar (Book 1 De bello gallico) Zambrone in tres partes divisa est. It may even be more as we came across the sign for Madama which is described as a fraction of Zambrone. The villa agent Beata was waiting to conduct us to the villa by Zambrone station but the SatNav took us to Zambrone Superiore. The station of course is in Zambrone Marina, It took us a while to sort out who was where but we did meet up and checked into our home for the next ten days.

It has a well equipped kitchen – always important for us – comfortable beds and a great pool with sun loungers aplenty. Looking good. One small problem though. We flew in through a thunderstorm and it’s pretty murky now. However the forecast is better with 28 and 30 promised for next weekend.

As it’s Sunday afternoon and we have no food and are unsure of  local restaurant hours (if any) we decide to go and do a big shop. We had seen signs along the road for Vibo Center with the magic appendage domenica aperto, open on Sundays.

Iperspar wide  iperspar WS

So we set TomTom for Vibo. On the way we pass a roadside fruit stall – excuse me Supermercato – where we stop and get some local rosato wine which later proves very palatable in its unlabelled litre bottle for 2 euros 50. We buy eggs, potatoes and onions and press on. As we approach we discover that again Vibo is multi-located. We find the Marina bit but there’s no sign of a Spar and we redirect to Vibo Valentia Centro. It’s miles away and what TomTom doesn’t know is that one of the roads is closed. Round and round in circles we go until finally we fetch up in Vibo Valentia where signs to the Spar are intermittent  but pop up just when you’ve despaired. By now it’s absolutely throwing the rain down and we scuttle into the covered parking and make our way into the mall with its avenue of boutiques and then a massive supermarket. We stock up and are attracted by the roast chicken spit against the far wall where we buy tonight’s dinner.

We set TomTom for its newly designated favourite location and are told it’ll be half an hour – not bad. Oh what a ride. Completely cross country, along tiny winding roads in the hastening dark.

P1030149Portions of the road were unmade and elicited cries of “mind the eggs” from my navigator – they were only in a bag not an egg box. We pass through Zambrone village which we’d seen before and at the side of a dark road in no man’s land are told “You have reached your destination”. It took us a while to find the road on which the villa is located but then we tucked into a herby and delicious chicken, good wine and cheese and felt a little more like we were on holiday not doing a team building orienteering course. On unpacking we found that five of the six eggs had survived.

Mike’s superannuated, extra belated, hyper birthday blog

35 sushi pink

When a birthday’s big

It is good to eke it out

But four months, come on!

I've been meaning to do an update on my amazing big birthday for ages 
but work has intervened as have football (great start to the season)
cricket (Ashes won and Hampshire in T20 finals again) and a social life. 
Just before my birthday an advertising agency Maverick asked me to go 
in for an extended interview as a writer and I ended up staying there 
all day and apart from my birthday itself, most of the next three weeks.
It was an interesting experience being in a big office after years of 
working on my own or with just a small team and I thoroughly enjoyed 
it and look forward to more. So here it is - only a month late!

So the big trip to Japan was my birthday present from Dee and from me. That started in April and was – as you’ll have seen if you’ve read earlier blogs – something of a success. It exceeded our expectations by a serious factor, included a birthday dinner for both of us  at Alain Ducasse’s Spoon in Hong Kong with my son and daughter-in-law and was quite enough excitement for an oldie.

Writing about it, editing the photographs and video clips kept the memories alive for May after we returned and most of June. Then some serious work for some extremely pleasant publishers from the Netherlands intruded – but hey, it’s all got to be paid for somehow.  We had loved Leandro Erlich’s swimming pool in  Kanazawa and managed to get to the Dalston House installation. His immersive (no pun intended) art is great fun and at the Dalston House we were amazed by several groups with carefully rehearsed and choreographed routines for their five minutes of fame. Our were more modest and tentative but great fun and a reminder of good times in Kanazawa and it was as hot too. Then we had a wonderful birthday dinner with Ilse at La Luna di Luca in Richmond where owner Martina prepares a menu of regional Italian food – Sicily in our case – and course followed delicious course during several delightful hours.

Dalston M&D Dee on the sill Dalston Mike shooting Dalston House WS

Glyndebourne picnic And so the celebrations went on and on – and suddenly we were in July and the birthday itself was upon us. On a day of most propitious sunshine and light breeze, my daughter and son-in-law took us to Glyndebourne for a performance of Hippolyte et Aricie an opera by Rameau that I’d never seen (you can see it online on the Glyndebourne website). We had an afternoon tea picnic on the lawns – proper stuff: cucumber sandwiches, scones, strawberry jam and clotted cream complemented by a fine bottle of Nyetimber Classic Cuvée, appropriately grown, made and bottled in Sussex.  Glyndebourne terrace

The week before I had had an email from Majestic Wine Warehouses to tell me I’d won six bottles of this fine wine which outperforms many champagnes in wine tastings and competitions. I think I’d had to enter my email address and tell them where Nyetimber was. Very nice competition – thank you Nyetimber, thank you Majestic. And we could tell why it wins medals – it was oishii (delicious in Japanese) – very crisp on the tongue, nicely dry but with good fruit flavour. The opera was brilliantly staged and sung and with William Christie conducting the OAE the music was always going to be outstanding. A fabulous dinner in the interval, a glass of wine afterwards and being driven back to London – what more could anyone ask for on their 70th?

But that was only phase two. Saturday was spent opening a huge pile of parcels from friends and relatives the generosity of which was astounding. I won’t do an exhaustive list but a Neal’s Yard cheese experience, whisky and a whisky tasting, books about jazz, Japanese architecture, Japanese cooking, a sushi making kit and the most beautiful proper old fashioned watering can, huge quantities of garden Shoe horn rightvouchers, theatre tokens and a cellar full of wine and beer demonstrate the skill of all concerned in matching their gifts to my tastes – although I suspect collusion with my wife in some cases especially when it came to a long handled shoehorn which I have so admired in hotels in Japan – you don’t have to bend down!

Saturday afternoon and evening was spent in the company of more than 80 friends and relatives with ages ranging from one to 85 and it was wonderful. The excellent Union Club in Soho had been booked as the venue by Dee and they pulled out all the stops to make it a brilliant occasion. We’ve had so many emails from people who also enjoyed it that I now know it wasn’t just me. The food was excellent, liquid refreshment flowed and I had a chance to catch up with everybody – if only briefly with any one group. The young people present did a brilliant job getting everyone to sign a giant birthday card. I even had birthday cakes and the real surprise for me – my face on the label of a case of Harvey’s 1943 Birthday Ale specially commission by the mastermind of the whole occasion, Dee. Wow have you set the bar high for yours! But thank you for an absolutely fabulous continuing birthday celebration.

A calming beer to start with.
Before the storm  E, M, M before 
Early arrivals in the bar

Bar early  Bar busy  Union in the bar

Food was served upstairs

Dining upstairs  Chris and Daisy  Dining upstairs 2

There was a speech and kind words from absent friends and the mega birthday card

Dee absent friends  Birthday card aloft  Card 2

Fun was had with friends, family and neighbours

Dee, Jac, Toddy  Mary, Jo, Mike  Upper Woodyates crew

And then there was the big surprise

M Beer shock   M with beer]
Sunday morningOf course many more people had brought gifts to the party so Sunday morning was spent with a glass of champagne to celebrate our wedding anniversary while opening the remaining presents which continued to surprise, amaze and delight. We set off – Dee and myself, her sister, brother-in-law and nephew for a late lunch where I, at last, was allowed to contribute by providing our anniversary celebration. We went to Chapter One, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the strangely named Locksbottom, travelling ecologically on the 261 bus. I was trying to get its website up on my phone to call to say we were running a few minutes late but the mobile site wasn’t working well so I couldn’t. However I did get an inaccurate look at the dress code which caused me to panic about all three males being in shorts, natural we thought, on a very hot Sunday afternoon, but it is quite a posh place. Mild Mike panic ensued but fortunately they allowed shorts if they are ‘tailored’ which ours obvious were – well sort of. Relaxed and seated at a good table, we had another gift. Because of an error at the bar our aperitifs arrived after our first course and were announced to be on the house. I do like it when people who make mistakes don’t argue but just take it off the bill. The rest of the meal was as good as you’d expect from a Michelin-star-worthy chef and a fine afternoon was spent out in the wilds of Bromley.

So apart from the trip itself, a definite Japan theme was evident in many of my birthday presents. We chose to extend this the next weekend with a trip to Hyper Japan at Earl’s Court. We’d never been before but were amazed by the size and scope of the displays and activities. Computer games and manga we’d expected, food stalls of every kind too, but the huge numbers of people in costume as manga characters was astounding. It was a bit, I’m told, like a sci-fi convention with people posing for photographs, chatting in bizarre groups and generally having a great time. We’d seen a bit in Japan but had no clue as to just how big cosplay was. There were martial arts demonstrations too and some fabulous drumming – Eisa from Okinawa I discovered with shimasen players and dancers as well as the drummers.

P1020941On Sunday 28 we went to the Olympic Stadium to see the paralympic athletes in action. It was the first visit to the Olympic Stadium for Dee and me and we understood why everyone had been so enthusiastic in 2012. It is a great space with a better atmosphere than at Wembley for the playoff final. What is proposed for its future is a travesty and should be stopped. I note there is a page on Facebook and an e-petition to the DCMS but neither has much support so I guess West Ham and the philistines will march on with their annihilation of this iconic space. As we tried to settle up with Elaine who had organised the tickets we were told they were a present too – so on and on it goes!

IMG_3921 IMG_3944 P1020944 IMG_3965

Chery tree with highlight

I went to see my daughter and the grandchildren the next day to drop off Daisy’s birthday card and wish them a good holiday trip to Boston and Cape Cod (only slightly jealous!) and came home with yet another present – a cherry tree so we can have our very own hanami season at home in future and have no further need of going to Japan to see cherry blossom.

However I’m sure we’ll find some other excuses.

Strawberries, salad and okonomiyaki in London

34 sushi pink         Garden strawberries –

                      Oh the joys of eating in

                     Japan and London!

Strawberries 1

It was while picking these beauties in the garden last night that I recalled that we had been in Japan at the peak of their strawberry season and had enjoyed many while we were there. It also brought to mind a delicious dessert at a London restaurant and so after a rather busy period of proper work I thought I’d share a few more random thoughts about Japanese food in London.

During our planning for the trip we received some very good advice from a friend who knows Kyoto very well: “Do not miss out on the okonomiyaki in Kyoto,” she emailed. “You really need to fill up on this most fabulously umami creation on the planet.” Well we didn’t miss out and were not disappointed in a small restaurant, Kyo-Chabana, not far from Kyoto Station. We were extremely pleased to discover that okonomiyaki is available in London at Abeno in Museum Street and Abeno Too in Great Newport Street very convenient for us after seeing Britten’s opera Death in Venice  at the Coliseum. We had already decided to we decided to keep it simple with a starter of summer vegetable tempura while the okonomiyaki cooked. It proved a good choice. Since coming back from Japan we’ve been very disappointed with the tempura batter in many restaurants. It’s often too soggy, too heavy and spoils the taste of the vegetables or seafood it envelops. But at Abeno Too the batter was crisp and light around delicious asparagus, edamame , cherry tomatoes, onion and broccoli.

The Abenos claim on their joint website to be the only authentic okonomiyaki restaurant in Europe and in our limited experience it may be a fair claim. Our young server/chef arrived with a bowl containing the batter, eggs, dashi and cabbage that form the base of the dish which she mixed up and poured and shaped into a disc on the teppan hotplate in front of us on the counter. We had decided on the Kiso mix from the dozen or so variants on the menu so we had bacon, mushrooms, cheese and lotus root as the other elements bubbling away on the grill. In some restaurants they bring ingredients for you to cook yourself but here it was expertly cooked for us. It takes about ten minutes including a mid-cook flip to have it thoroughly cooked and then mayonnaise, okonomiyaki sauce – a sticky brown tangy concoction – ginger and bonito flakes are added to the top. The bonito flakes curl and waft in the heat in the most fascinating way that makes you almost forget to eat.

We didn’t forget though and just as well – it was delicious and we had to have a little sake – served in traditional wooden boxes – to provide the full Japanese taste experience. Neither of us is a great fan of desserts but had been very impressed by ice cream in Japan so I was seduced by the maccha– green tea ice cream – so refreshing – and Dee by a kinkakuji from the summer specials menu. This was a box of sake jelly with a strawberry (see above) embedded in it and gold leaf on the surface with a mouthful of azuki bean jam filled doughnut on a cocktail umbrella. We shared and were both amazed by the delicate flavours and the elegant presentation.  A great evening of Japanese tastes just off St Martin’s Lane.

Cucumber, wakame and prawn salad (Raggett) smallWe also had fun making our own wakame, prawn and cucumber salad for a competition run by the Japan National Tourist Office (no there’s no link this time as WE want to win it). Here’s what it looked like and it was a subtle blend of flavours which we think were enhanced by our addition of the ever so on trend pea shoots as garnish. With a little sake in the Bizen pottery cup which was a gift to us from Mr Yamamoto at the Hotel Koraku in Okayama it made for very pleasing starter.

Earlier in June we had a chance to catch up and share impressions with a good friend who visited Japan a couple of years ago at the elegant Watatsumi on Northumberland Avenue. We’ve been there a number of times before but were able to introduce Ilse to its delights. They serve superb food and also some excellent cocktails especially their Japanese fusion cocktails. The “small nibble” dishes of edamame, crispy spicy calamari and baby prawn tempura made for excellent tapas style sharing dishes and we followed it with their mixed vegetable tempura where the actual vegetables will vary with the season but are in a light batter with a very tasty dipping sauce. The restaurant is in an old banking hall with high intricately plastered ceilings and makes for a relaxing and peaceful atmosphere in which to share food and conversation.

So June was a good month with Japanese food made at home on several occasions – a particular hit were some salmon, prawn and wakame fishcakes with tangy ponzu sauce – and eaten out on five evenings which included one old favourite and what we are sure will become a new one and three others that were OK but not special. And in July we have HyperJapan to look forward too – our tickets have arrived and we are contemplating a feast of Japanese food and culture. We are also hoping to get to Leandro Erlich’s Dalston House installation – we loved his swimming pool in Kanazawa and the London project looks great fun too.

Now back to work.

Japan in London

33 sushi pink    Three weeks back at home

                how, where can we hope to find

               Japan in London?

Part of my fortunate workload at present is to edit, catalogue and store all the photographs and videos we shot during our month-long tour. It’s wonderful to relive the moments and taste the food but oh the withdrawal symptoms! So this Saturday since we had to go into town, we decided to recapture some of those elements of Japan that are available in the city.

Several years ago we dined very well with friends at an extremely unpretentious restaurant in Brewer Street so I walked along there and while perusing the menu was approached by a young Japanese man who said “I really like this place.” That’s good news and he was soon followed by another (Japanese) customer who engaged me in conversation – just like in Japan – wanting to know my interest in Ten Ten Tei. I mentioned that I’d eaten there once a while ago, had just come back from Japan and was looking to replicate the delights of dining there in London. “You can’t do better than this,” he said, “it’s genuine, simple Japanese food, well prepared and served.” I thanked him and said I’d be back with my wife later – which we will. He then wanted to know where we’d been in Japan and was amazed at the itinerary, saying we’d been to parts of Japan he hadn’t. But then I guess that’s true of many visitors to the UK who have been to places I haven’t here. So a good start with reminders of Japanese friendliness and the confirmation of another good place to eat. It seems not to have its own website but has a Facebook page.

Dee rejoined me for a trip to Arrigato which again has no website but you can get a good picture from reviews on Yelp! We browsed the shelves, looked at taro root, burdock and other ingredients we had tasted, ogled the excellent bento boxes for lunch, saw sushi, noodles and soup being consumed by others and vowed to go back there to eat. In the meantime we stocked up on enoki mushrooms, konbu (seaweed), the super-addictive torpedo rice cracker and peanut snack and checked out the tea stocks for future reference. This included packs of Fuji matcha (green powdered tea) in fabulous retro style. Arrigato is smaller and has less variety than the Japan Centre on Regent Street but was less busy and probably an easier place to shop. And of course you can buy online from the Japan Centre website but you miss the fun of browsing.

On the roof of the Brunei Gallery at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies of London University) is a Japanese inspired garden which we had intended to visit before our trip so today seemed like a good day to remedy that. It got better too as in the gallery was an exhibition called Treasures from the Tenri Central Library which covered 1000 years of art in Japanese books. A brilliant display of drawings, watercolours, woodblock prints and illustrations from the sixteenth century to the twentieth. There are some great representative images here. Exquisite work that recalled some of our museum and gallery visits in Japan and well worth a visit by anyone with an interest in the production and illustration of books.

Then it was up to the roof garden a small but beautiful area with significant elements of Japanese garden planning in this case strongly reminiscent of Tofukuji in Kyoto with raked gravel with boulders, squares of limestone alternating with beds of thyme and a scented wisteria as an arcade over a restful bench. The calm was slightly disturbed by shouts form the roof of nearby Senate House where someone was abseiling down the building.

Back in the gallery we could have taken part in calligraphy and origami demonstrations which are going on until the end of June and also include Gagaku music, the tea ceremony, sake tasting and lectures using the exhibition as a resource. However, welcome though this discovery had been we were also intent on visiting the Wellcome Collection only half a mile away where there is an exhibition Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan which closes at the end of June.

It’s an attitude-altering, mind-expanding exhibition that presents the work of untrained and self-taught artists all of whom live in the care of the state – as the exhibition brochure says “in social welfare facilities”. The clay and papier-mâché  models and sculptures, tapestries made from leftover scraps of thread, paintings and drawings on cardboard and paper factory offcuts, demonstrate the creativity of those who might be considered disadvantaged in modern society. They may be raw but the variety, impact and lasting impression left by this exhibition makes them very definitely works of art in that they communicate ideas and emotions to the viewer. The pieces exhibited ranged from bold life-sized depictions of the artist and friends to obsessively meticulous drawings of imaginary cities of the future. It served to give us a new interest in “outsider” or “raw art” which is increasingly recognized as a genre worthy of study. There’s a good discussion in RawVision magazine. If you can get to the exhibition before the end of June, do. It’s well worth it. And the Wellcome Collection itself is another superb relatively unsung museum of science and the mind. As its slogan says it’s “The free destination for the incurably curious”.

Sunday had a Murakami dimension too. We took the grandchildren to Chislehurst Caves which involved walking in semi-darkness through (part of) 20 mile labyrinth of chalk caverns under south east London. Dampness, darkness and lots of dead ends brought several passages from Haruki back to mind. Labyrinths in the mind or physical ones to be crawled through recur in 1Q84, Kafka on the shore and several other of his books and stories.

So we did discover several aspects of Japan in London last weekend and look forward to meeting a dear friend for dinner and reminiscence in the excellent Watatsumi restaurant on Friday.