Chopin/Graves Take 2

First things first – a trip at 10:00 to Clinica Belice for my two days before PCR test. Take 2 on that too as they needed to see my passport which was in the hotel – I’m really rubbish at this travelling lark. They were very efficient and friendly and I’m promised results tomorrow evening, [received Negativo at time of writing so if they have crew I might get home!].

Then later than usual to retrieve the car and set off. Well at least I know the way to Valldemossa and with the cloud much higher over the mountains I can appreciate the gorge that leads through the Sierra Tramuntana up to the town.

I know where to park so am soon in the Chopin/Sand cells inside the monastery. It is fascinating and reading George Sand’s disgust for the locals probably explains why they didn’t have a good time here. Her Un hiver en Majorque has some joyous descriptions of the landscape among the groaning about conditions and the impounding of a Pleyel piano for weeks by evil Spanish customs. When you read the copy you realise that they were only here for eight weeks and you wonder why all the fuss? She wrote about it and he composed some of his most famous works. Guess that worth some fuss – 24 Preludes Op28 are very highly regarded by Chopinistas.

What is fascinating is to see the wall displays of facsimiles of his manuscripts with furious revisions. He hit the paper hard as well as the keys. And it is good to see his bust keeping a watchful eye on the piano they’d paid Pleyel 1200 francs for and from which he’d had so little use thanks to customs difficulties

To talk of them living in a monastery cell sounds like real deprivation and there were three adults (FC, GS and maid) and two children living there but they did have a garden of their own which Mme really enjoyed with its stunning views.

There’s not a huge amount to see and an hour and a bit sufficed. Valldemossa itself is too touristy for my taste, highly groomed streets, some interesting art but a whole lot of craftish tat. So i have a peremptory stroll, stopping of course to snap Chopin Street and WhatsApp it to my friend Jadwiga who is Polish and a Chopin groupie!

As I left the town I was struck by the large number of plane tree avenues leading to and from Mallorcan towns – there are some on the mainland but it feels rather French midi to me. I love them. Good now, but must be great in summer.

Having not eaten until four yesterday I thought ‘wouldn’t it be good if there’s a restaurant between here and Deia.’ There was and it is clearly very popular because while there were only a few diners when I arrived just before two, by the time I left it was full. I had some great sepia in a spicy pica-pica sauce and habanitas con baicon – an old favourite but here the very small broad beans had leeks, onions and peppers as well as bacon. Very tasty and timely – I thought.

The short drive to Robert Graves’ house was familiar too and I much prefer the town to Valldemossa – sorry if that makes me a tasteless Brit. There was a convenient parking spot right opposite the house so I crossed the road full of hope.

The nicest ‘P off we’re closed’ sign ever!

Once again the lack of a planning companion struck – they close at 13:00 so I should have come here first. Doh! However the gate was not locked and I crept in to have a look at the garden at least. I was caught by the very friendly and fluent English speaking gardener who said he would have shown me round the house but had to leave at three-thirty. We chatted about the problems of gardening – it rained for the whole of November and everything is behind – but he’s doing his best, upon which I complemented him, explained I couldn’t come back again this trip but be sure not to miss it next time. He allowed me to take some photos and rewarded me with a couple of incredibly juicy tangerines.

With little encouragement, I decided to carry on round the Ma10 to Soller and then head inland and back to Palma through the middle. With today’s better weather in the mountains their scale, variety and colours were amazing – just not enough safe stopping places for photography but I managed a few.

I passed through some interesting towns that would repay a visit: the Botanic Gardens at Alfaibia are closed until March, but look fun; Bunyola had some interesting buildings; and as I came to the end of the Ma2040 I found myself at the Mallorca Fashion Outlet – no point me stopping there! This is on the outskirts of the town of Inca which is linked to Palma by a near-motorway standard Ma13 so I headed on home or back to the hotel at least.

World of wonder

Christmas Eve has a special meal planned at the hotel but first there’s some boring admin to deal with. So after breakfast: Book a PCR test for Monday two days before flying home. Check 7 minutes walk from hotel, walk in service no appointment needed. Brilliant.

Christmas Day visit to Rosa and lunch out in the country will need a car. None available in the city but I can pick one up at the airport tomorrow and it’s on the way anyway. Check. So now to the real business of the day – a trip to the Fundacio Pilar i Joan Miro.

The location is out in the western suburbs of Palma in an area called Cala Major and it takes about fifteen minutes in a taxi from the hotel. One of the things I wanted after the grey of London was some blue sky. Not yet in Palma but today as I walk towards the entrance the cloud lifts and there is a good-sized patch of blue. And of course with Miro there will be more sun inside.

My visit was a little truncated as a large part of the building was closed for repairs and remodelling but both in the extensive gardens where big sculptures were displayed and in the studio where the stacked canvases there were ample testaments to the genius and prolixity of Joan Miro. He and his Mallorca wife Pilar, lived on Mallorca from 1956 until his death in 1983. He used a small building Finca San Boter while his friend Josep Sert was designing and building a purpose built studio, now known as the Sert Studio. Up in Boter it’s fun to see the remains of Miro’s sketching in charcoal directly onto the whitewashed walls and also to note the eclectic collection of everyday objects he took inspiration from.

The Sert Studio is a fine building from the outside with a fluted roof either echoing waves or clouds and slanted tiles to allow filtered light and air into the capacious balconied studio. I was utterly gobsmacked by the sheer number of canvases leaning against each other and the walls. While there are strong similarities in Miro’s basic mark selection and palette, each canvas has a different atmosphere and you wonder what the finished articles would have looked like. It’s always fascinating to see artists’ work in progress and there’s plenty of it here.

There was also a rather good fifteen minute video about his life and work on Mallorca which after climbing and descending the many steps to Boter studio I was happy to sit for a while and watch. I was very pleased I’d made the trip out here and as I left wondering where I’d get a taxi, I came upon a bus stop that said Route 46 went up the Passeig de Mallorca which is very close to the hotel. It also had a QR code that informed me that a bus was due in ten minutes so I decided to wait. Well worth it! It headed off in totally the wrong direction according to my understanding of where Palma lay, but eventually came to a terminus in Genova, waited for a while and then returned me through bustling suburbs including one that must have been close to the more infamous areas of Mallorca as there were adult only entertainment bars, sex shops which I found a bit surprising next to supermarkets and pharmacies. However it did pitch up where I wanted and I had a stroll back to the hotel with a few stops for liquid, but little food refreshment as a six course meal was planned for nochebuena in the hotel. This began at nine o’clock began with cava, a delicious fish soup, crispy octopus and fillet of sea bass accompanied by frequently poured Verdejo and after a short pause and change of glass, a Rioja went nicely with the lamb stuffed with foie gras (apologies vegans!). I declined the tiramisu with red fruits but did have some home made turron (nougat) with my coffee. By now I was chatting to my neighbours Carl and Cristina, Swedish fiancés who were here for Christmas before heading to Andorra for skiing where they had become engaged this time last year. Sampling a copa or two of Mallorcan brandy, we got on well and I have an invitation to their wedding in Stockholm in August. I may just be too busy with centenary celebrations at Watford to attend however. But what a lovely Christmas Eve and one that didn’t end up in hospital!

The joy of Christmas travel

Well, after careful consideration, I decided I would go away for Christmas and with a family recommendation I’m heading for Palma de Mallorca for a week and will rent a car to see a bit more of the island while I’m here. I’ve completely forgotten how to pack and found the new rules about cabin baggage confusing – for an extra 20 quid I can take a big and a small one – one for the locker, one under the seat. Hooray no waiting at the carousel!

As the flight is at 07:10, I’ve booked into the Premier Inn North Terminal at Gatwick with a week’s parking with Purple Parking. So out of practice, I go to the hotel first and check in only to be told that I should have parked first and come in on the shuttle bus. As I go to retrieve the car there’s a security guard on his walkie talkie summoning the bomb squad. He admonishes me “Never leave a car unattended in an airport”. I grovel and set off. It transpires that Purple Parking is halfway to Brighton and I have a vague recollection of using it under a different name once before when Dee, Jacque, Toddy and I set off for the Copa de Ibiza in 2004, my only other venture to the Illes Balears. A short wait and a bus takes three of us to a stop outside the terminal from which the only route to the hotel appears to involve dicing with death with drop-off traffic. I make it, have a beer and supper and retire fairly early with the prospect of a 05:00 alarm. I was concerned that extra security and health checks might make the security/check-in process even longer than usual. It was not too bad and soon I was at the gate where my bag option also conferred ‘speedy boarding’. a real bonus. The flight was busy but not full so distancing and masks were easily possible. As we took off and headed out across the channel the sunrise was amazing (and a bit sharper than the through the window phone shot).

A corner of Sussex as the sun comes up.

The flight was pleasant enough with solid cloud over most of France until the Auvergne and the eastern Pyrenees showed a light touch of snow. We even arrived ten minutes early – just as well as getting out of Palma airport is a task of IKEA-like proportions. A bus into town, walk to the Hotel Amudaina where, despite it being 11, they kindly allowed me to check in rather than just leave my bags which is what I had expected. Having declined EasyJet’s breakfast offerings, it was dump stuff in the very pleasant and spacious room and pop next door for my first orange juice, croissant and an excellent café solo doble. Refreshed I decide to go and explore. It’s not long before I get confirmation of where I am.

This sign is on the waterfront where there are lots of posh yachts and in the distance those apartment blocks of cruise liners that flock to the wonderfully curved harbour.

Next to this is the Lotja, the old stock exchange which with its barleytwist pillars and fine ceiling reminded me of the similar building in Valencia. That evening I was to say to a friend I met later on that much of Palma reminded me of Valencia – no bad thing in my book.

So I continued to walk around the city with occasional breaks for coffee and beer. I found the cathedral which I plan to visit tomorrow and the market – Mercat del Olivar – I love the colour, the smells and the constant babble of chat in Spanish markets and had some tapas in a bar inside it. The Plaza de Espana was a bit sprawly and dull, the Plaza Mayor very elegant but spoilt by Christmas market stalls – what have the Germans done to the worl.

The old town is filled with narrow streets and occasional delights of modernisme architecture. Feeling I’d had a good first orientation I went back to the hotel to change into more suitable garb for a concert at the Palacio de Congresos where I was to meet my friend Rosa Pascual and her mother. As it happened Rosa’s mum wasn’t feeling too well so I had the pleasure of Rosa’s company, and no need to confess to my lack of Catalan, for a concert in a fine new auditorium.

It was given by the massive forces of the Orquestra Simfonica dels Illes Balears. The programme opened with a festive overture by William Grant Still which was unknown to me and quite lively if a little rough at the edges as the band settled down. We then had Handel’s Water Music and a suite from the Nutcracker at which I kept wanting Matthew Bourne’s dancers projected on a screen behind them. It then went a bit poppy and Hollywood before concluding with a special arrangement of some Catalan carols which nearly had Rosa joining in and which we both really enjoyed. Rosa thought the conductor had made a very sensitive treatment of some old favourites. She then kindly dropped me off at the hotel but couldn’t stop for a drink as she had to drive back into the middle of Mallorca along dark and twisty roads to a villa she’s staying in.
I went for a walk around the neighbourhood, was declined entry by one restaurant which said the kitchen had closed so ventured a little further and supped in La Bodeguilla with a great atmosphere, far too much food and my first taste of a local Mallorca wine OBAC de Binigrau which was a blend of several grapes, lightly oaked and most acceptable but I think they should leave off the subtitle if they want to export it. It had been long, varied, exciting and lovely day – and I’m abroad!

Raggett makes radio waves for 101 Japan


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

Borders Radio Interview 16 July 2019

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

Publication Day!

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

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

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

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

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

Westward ho from Kyoto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s what travel’s for.

Whistle stop Kyoto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Day in the country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eastward Ho – nearly not

I’m never flying in March again. My flight to Amsterdam at the start of the month turned into a scrambled (but very pleasant) trip on Eurostar. My slightly worrying plan to drive to Liverpool after removing 2 inches of snow from my car first thing Saturday morning in middle March turned out to be an absolute breeze and a great weekend – post match – with our friends Tony and Lorraine Brown noted Liverpool artists. And now it’s off to Tokyo also in March.

Well the day started well for my latest travel adventure. The alarm went off, I showered, remembered to put my Swiss Army knife in the hold bag not my jeans and my trusty Data Car turned up 5 minutes early. We made good progress through wet, grey London and arrived at Terminal 4 at Heathrow for my planned rapid check in and then leisurely breakfast in the Lounge. But wait – a little problem lies ahead.

729978A4-E309-4C7B-9721-04F456BEC732My name is entered in the Etihad system as RAGGETT/MIKE but my name on my passport says RAGGETT/MICHAEL and for security reasons they have to match. Don’t know how it happened but they won’t check me in. I am presented with a call centre number which I dial, run through the options and am told my call is ending now. So I dial again and press different options and eventually speak to Marije who is in Belgrade and tells me I need to photograph my passport (thank God I have a phone with that capability – trying to grab it in a Photo-Me booth boggles the mind) and reply to an email she’ll send me. No email arrives. I try Heathrow WiFi. I switch that off and try 4G. Still no email. So I go through all the button pushing again and eventually and miraculously, reconnect with Marije. She gives me her email address and I despatch my passport’s photo – not a work of art taken while balancing it on a suitcase and using the camera on a new phone for the first time. By now the best part of an hour has passed and there are only two staff left at the check in desks who urge me to hurry. I explain that while I may appear to be on the phone, I’m actually hearing Balkan ‘hold’ music and can’t tell it to hurry. Marije’s voice returns after an age to tell me that it’s fixed in the system and will cost me $149.90 (how?). So I now have to dig out a credit card, read her the details three times – for security – and then go to the desk where a frustrated agent had really wanted to close five minutes ago. She puts a Tokyo label on my case after I ask her to remove the one for Abu Dhabi and then a suited gentleman colleague escorts me straight to the gate. My original refusenik check in agent says, “Oh you made the flight!” With a rather surprised tone. I am on the flight by the skin of my teeth but have to go to the transfer desk at Abu Dhabi to get a boarding card for the flight on to Tokyo.

So that’s an error I won’t make again – rely on a boarding pass on my phone – even their printed version above didn’t help. I had entered my details with the full Michael on the Etihad site in order to check in online yesterday so where the discrepancy arose I don’t know. I’ll be looking carefully at my other bookings to Singapore and back to the UK to make sure I don’t miss breakfast or have to fork out 150 bucks. The joys of travel!

Amends are made half way with a beer and food in the Al Reem Lounge at Abu Dhabi airport. Bring on the orient! After all I do have a valid boarding pass for this leg.

Some time on Tuesday/Wednesday, Abu Dhabi Airport

Wednesday work out

This was the day I should have joined the competitive Fitbit brigade – a million steps and a hundred thousand stairs at least! There’s a story that Salvador Dali tried to buy this castle when he was trying to give his muse-wife Gala the ultimate gift. It’s a while since I’ve been to Pubol to see the Castell Gala-Dali – 2004 to be precise. I remember it being quite impressive with some outlandish Dali touches but I didn’t recall it as much of a castle. So off I set and was amazed to be directed into a massive outskirts car park – I remember parking on the road just around the corner last time. It transpires that it’s one of the most visited sites in Girona province and that includes his wonderfully mad museum in Figueres with its eggs on the roof, random sculptures and geodesic dome topping the lot. It’s well worth the return visit – especially the jungle of a garden with its fountain dedicated to Wagner – who was well represented in the record collection inside.

IMG_2265I also loved the chess set in the form of fingers which was Dali’s homage to Marcel Duchamp. In the attic is a great display of Gala’s sumptuous frock collection – it’s the era of frocks, OK.IMG_2271

And on the way out in a temporary exhibition space was a series of photographs of him in his home in Port Lligat taken by his good friend Ricardo Sans. Some are candid, some posed and some even double-exposed making a fascinating record of a period of their lives from 1949-1956.

He was a great artist to some and a complete charlatan to others – a bit of both for me as they are not mutually exclusive – but he had poor taste in castles. Basically a cheapskate when it came to buying battlements.

Castell d’Emporda

It is reported that when he bid for Castell d’Emporda, where I’m staying, he would only pay in artworks so the then owner declined. There was another one not far away in Foixa but he settled for the building in Pubol. He added some battlements in the garden but for me it’s a manor house not a castle. I had my first hike of the day up a hill and across a field to get a shot of it – church not part of the so-called castle estate.



Castell Dali-Gala, Pubol and right a real castle at Foixa

I vaguely remembered the nearby castle so I set off over there and was not far from Toroella so popped in there to remedy yesterday’s lack of info.




The morning was quite pleasant although thunderstorms were threatened so on my way back from Toroella I slid off down to Pals beach for a walk along the dunes. It’s a beautiful wide sandy beach that stretches for nearly 4 kilometres – I just did about one and then turned and came back. Going north you have a great view of the Islas Medes a protected area with brilliant diving opportunities.

It brought back many happy memories – I think my daughter actually learned to swim here – and for once it hadn’t changed much because of sensible planning restrictions on green zoned land which does provide income from the rice from the renowned Moli de Pals. I suppose it was about twenty years ago when I drove back towards La Bisbal from Girona that I started to exclaim that there was never a roundabout there – with monotonous regularity. Well Catalunya has certainly fallen in love with roundabouts and has made many of them works of art – I might have to do a photo essay one of these days.

One of our running jokes (?) on those early trips was to chorus “One of these days I’m going …” whenever we saw this sign. It’s about how you pronounce it OK. And of course we did.

IMG_2294It is a romantic and beautiful cove (below right) but just as I was about to settle for a beer on the front the rain started. It was nearly time for lunch so I went up to another favourite spot the Faro de San Sebastian. As the drizzle grew stronger we needed the lighthouse to be pointing inland. Now that place had changed – a local bar/restaurant has become a posh hotel with lots of weddings and corporate meetings it seems. Well it’s a great location on a good day and at least comfortable for a snack out of the rain.

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Nearby are two other lovely beaches Llafranc and Calella but I decided against them and drove off to the Cap Roig (Red Cape) Botanical Garden by which time the rain had kindly stopped. We’d been before but it’s been transformed into a real tourist attraction with brilliant labelling, wide paths and hundreds and hundreds of steps. The suggested circuit took me two hours and left me in a fine sweat and it’s on a cliff face so incredibly steep. A theme recurred even here – there’s a castle in the middle but it’s closed for refurbishment at the moment – another one Dali could have considered. They have a famous cactus array and you can see why it’s called the red cape.

Then back to the hotel to scribble and shower before going out to a highly recommended restaurant Bo.Tic in Corça just up the road. Then it’s on the road in the morning south to Tortosa where I’m staying in – you guessed it –  the Castell de la Suda which happens to be the location of the parador in that city.

However as tomorrow is mostly driving south, I might just talk about Bo.TiC. Bo is good in Catalan, T is the chef Antonio known as Tito and C is Cristina his wife and the lovely front of house. It’s posh, it’s not cheap and first Wednesday in May it’s empty except for me. The locals I talk to blame it on two or three cloudy days and people not coming out from Barca and Girona. However the service I get is off the scale – every one of the 15 dishes on the Menu Degustacion is explained in detail and it helps. Tito who I met later likes to have fun with food from the outset where what looks like an olive is in fact a fondant filled with anchovies and the sauce poured from an olive oil bottle is in fact vermouth. A great start to an astonishing evening which concluded with a dark chocolate pudding in the form of a set of dice – some squishy jellies, some crisp exteriors that crunched to a tasty interior. I got lucky with wine too. I wanted something from the Emporda but there were lots of those on an interesting iPad wine list, so I went for a red from Mas Oller in the village of Torrent which I had driven past for years on the road from the motorway to Begur. It was a syrah and garnacha mix and very tasty, not too heavy for the fish courses and good with the concluding lamb and went well with the chocolate too. All in all a good way to end a stay in the north of Catalunya as I set off south tomorrow to my next castle.