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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My 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.
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.
I 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.
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.
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.
It 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.
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.
On Thursday we had arranged to meet Erika who had been the art director on our first two Direct English shoots in Boston 20 years ago. Daisy and her husband Jerry and Jack Foley were also able to join us so a grand reunion was held in the excellent Eastern Standard in Kenmore Square. Before heading there though Dee and I spent a while and many dollars in Barnes and Noble equipping ourselves with maps and city guides for California. I had ventured one day in June into the wonderful Stanford’s map shop in Covent Garden but had been so confused by all that was on offer I walked out maples and resolved to buy them in Boston – better for baggage allowances anyway.
We had a brilliant lunch with memories shared and news and career and domestic developments caught up with. Because of the change of day our firework party was going to be a little smaller than planned which was probably as well since we had been told by the apartment owner that numbers were restricted and only Dee and I had our names on the list. However I phoned the building management company and persuaded them that several more names could be added to the list since access to the roof deck was to be strictly controlled by security guards. Daisy would be able to join us later with her son Zeke and his friend Elliott, masquerading as Zeke’s brother for the purposes of roof access.
After lunch Dee and I went to do some food shopping so that we could offer our guests some refreshments before the firework show scheduled for 10:35. Walking down Boylston Street we confidently expected to fine the Star Market we had used so often in the past. Dee rolls her eyes every time I exclaim “There was never a roundabout there before” or “where’s that nice restaurant gone” but I think even she was taken aback by the replacement of our trusted food source by a high end residential block and a Mandarin Oriental Hotel. The bell hop at said hotel advised us that it had gone five or six years ago but there was a Shaw’s up around the corner. Oh dear! Shopping in American supermarkets hasn’t got any easier. Multiple locations for the same products, baffling displays, tempting special offers – no we don’t want 4 for the price of 2 we’re only here for a few days. However we did eventually emerge laden with far too much produce. Well we do have a reputation for over-catering to preserve!
Back at the apartment we prepared our repast only to find that Daisy had fed the boys before coming out but she had previously warned us that if we provided smoked salmon it would soon disappear into Zeke. Temptation later proved too much for him and smoked salmon was indeed consumed. Language moves on all the time of course and with a passing, professional interest in the subject, one tries to keep abreast. However when opening the door to our guests I was taken aback to be told that our building was “really sick”. Now I know about sick building syndrome but didn’t really think it applied to the elegant brownstone, formerly the Victoria Hotel, we were dwelling in. Seeing my blank expression Zeke and his friend Elliott enlightened me: “Oh ‘sick’ is what, back in your day, you would probably have called ‘cool’. It’s great, it’s wicked; we love it!” Some neologisms aren’t really that helpful are they?
Equally sick was the roof deck which elicited the other taboo adjective of this trip: “awesome”. This superlative has been applied by wait staff etc in response to such Herculean tasks as managing to order breakfast that morning in the excellent Trident Bookshop and Café, which we stumbled upon by chance but then discovered later was rated by the magazine Improper Bostonian – free from those street-side newspaper dispensers – “best spots for breakfast”.
How they liked the fireworks we don’t really know as they typically went off to the other end of the deck away from us adults. We got to the roof earlier than planned and just as well since because the met radar showed a storm moving in from the west, the Boston Pops Concert which is the centrepiece of the celebrations and precedes the firework show had the customary rendition of the 1812 overture with cannon and mortar effects … cut from the programme so the display wouldn’t end up a series of very expensive damp squibs. The flexibility of the organiser was impressive and I’m not sure a similar occasion in the UK would have been managed so well. To bring the whole thing forward by a day with street closures and massive security required and then to change the schedule at the last minute was pretty impressive. As were the fireworks. Detonated from a barge in the middle of the Charles River they gave us a half hour display of ever-changing patterns, colours and sounds. They were so good that Dee has been stimulated to consider a new career as a firework display designer when she returns to the UK. Seconds after the last burst the heavens opened and Arthur’s leading edge drenched Massachusetts. Daisy and the boys got a little damp on the way to the T station but by the time they got home the storm had blown out into the Atlantic.
How do you make smiley faces with fireworks? The “a” word came out again a few times.
The least said about Friday the better. The weather alternated between drizzle and torrential throughout the day. We barely ventured out and were glad that our over-catering provided with sustenance without leaving the apartment. By now I had some hundreds of pictures to edit and the rest of the trip to prepare so it was actually a relief in a way that we were penned in.
On Saturday Erika wanted to see us on last time before she headed off to Cape Cod to join her mother so we went to the lovely Metropolis in the South End for brunch. Another great time of reminiscing, gossiping and sharing thoughts about the state of the film business, Boston, America and the world.
Jack had invited us to go sailing on his 33 footer which he moors in Salem Harbour. So armed with our trusty Charlie cards we caught the T to a stop called Wonderland passing Boston’s horse and greyhound racing tracks on the way. Jack picked us up and drove us to Salem where a launch took us out to the boat. We were able to drop in to see his son Zachary who was nine when we last saw him. He’s now twenty and running a surf shop and café in Swampscott. He’s a charming young man who’s going back to college in the autumn after a year out surfing and working to support his studies. It was great to catch up with him.
The post-storm winds were rather fierce and so no actual sailing occurred but we sat and drank beer, ate chips and salsa and chicken and chewed the fat with Jack and his friend and would-have-been crew David. David is an IT guru with a serious interest in photography and had just been on an iceberg safari in Newfoundland. The pictures were stunning.
We did go up on deck to enjoy a great Salem sunset and then repaired home for supper and sleep after a day on the water.
Some weeks ago in Regent Street we experienced some amazing customer service. I saw a jacket (but not with those trousers) that I liked and Dee kindly offered by buy it for me as a birthday present. Of course they didn’t have my size but since this was J Crew and we knew we were going to America soon we asked if they had any stock in my size in or around Boston. The guy serving us, who just happened to hail from Boston, checked the computer and found there was one at the store in Chestnut Hill Mall which we happened to be familiar with from our time of living in Brookline just a little way back in along Rte 9. He then amazed us by calling and speaking to a colleague, allowing Dee to pay for it by credit card – less than it would have been in London – and agreeing to hold it for us.
So after our day in the Met Bar we set off to Copley T station, bought go anywhere Charlie cards for $19 each and proceeded to board an outbound train. I had done a route search which told us to get off after two stops at Kenmore Square and take a bus, but we saw Chestnut Hill on the route map in the T so decided to stay on the train. Do as you are told! It was a fun ride through the suburbs but Chestnut Hill Station is rather a long way from the eponymous mall – like a mile and it’s midday and nearing 90 degrees. Mad dogs and Englishmen sound familiar? Well we made it, the coat was miraculously there waiting and it fits. They had a 50% sale on so I got a rather fetching shirt to go with it. We had a wander round the mall and then as previously advised by the Mass Bay Transit Authority took the number 60 which starts outside Bloomingdales and delivers us back to Kenmore Square from where we head back to Copley and drop stuff off.
We had spoken to our good friend Daisy about meeting up and so she came around and then we went to a exhibition of quilts together at the Museum of Fine Arts. It was a real eye-opener. The majority of them were made by Amish or Mennonite communities which one associates with plain colours and fabrics. These quilts almost literally jumped off the walls as us since many of them featured complementary colours from the spectrum which cause that optical dissonance which makes them appear to vibrate and shimmer. We wondered how such plain living folk had come by such colourful and patterned fabrics and still don’t have the answer. Some we liked, some we didn’t but it was a fascinating exhibition.
Dee and I had also spotted signs for modern Japanese prints, ceramics and bamboo sculpture so we set off through the impressive halls of the MFA (need to spend more time here as in so many galleries back home) where some very interesting prints showed young artists rediscovering the techniques of the ukiyo-e woodblock printers whose work has been admired and described in several previous blogs. The applications of the techniques were extremely varied ranging from almost animated line drawing to impressionist water colours. I was staggered in the next exhibit to see what artists can do with bamboo. As well as modern takes on various kinds of container there were completely abstract expressions of great skill and beauty. We also discovered that the MFA has 50,000 antique woodblock prints which it can’t possibly display but is in the process of digitizing so they can be viewed online. By the time we’d finished our visit – the museum is open late on Wednesdays and free after 4 pm although you still have to queue to pick up your non-ticket – it was around 9 so Daisy headed back home to Somerville and we headed back to the Met Bar for a light snack before heading somewhat wearily to 271 Dartmouth. There was confirmation on the TV that Independence Day was going to be a day early in Boston this year to avoid the ravages of hurricane Arthur. Good weather forecasting guys!
Thursday comes and at least we’ve seen the volcano. We go into Tropea, explore a bit more of the town, have a coffee, then park up and have an early lunch down by the port. I choose ricciola a fish I’ve never heard of but am told is special to Sicily and Calabria. It’s texturally a bit like swordfish but with a sharper taste. In English it appears to go by the name of greater amberjack. Dee choose a plate of enormous prawns but even after her Japanese training declined to eat the heads.
We leave and walk to the port to be told we have to re-park our car – in a paying area! It seemed fine to me where it was but the attendant was very insistent. We exchange our trip voucher for tickets with an additional unexplained charge of 3 euros and head for the TropeaMar which is to take us on our trip. There’s great confusion among the throngs on the quayside. The TropeaMar won’t start and we’re going on the Stromboli Express instead. Tickets are exchanged and the Stromboli Express appears at the harbour entrance but there’s nowhere to berth her until some local boats have been moved. An almighty scrum to board takes places and eventually we set off at about 14:40. The view of Tropea up on its bluff is very fine as we leave the harbour.
The weather’s a bit hazy so spotting Sicily and the other islands is a bit difficult. We looked carefully for the promised dolphins but they were obviously in hiding today. We even consult with the bridge but they can’t help.
We can see Stromboli and its little rock Strombolicchio and Lipari and eventually Sicily. We arrive, disembark and are told to be back to the boat for departure sharp at 19:20.
There’s not a lot to do on Stromboli unless you are a trekker-vulcanologist, but we did see a couple of puffs of smoke from the crater that augured well for the night ahead. The beaches are still something of a surprise being completely black – not sure I could do a day lying on a completely black beach. So wandered its narrow tourist-shop-lined streets, leaping to avoid the buzzing three wheelers that are the main form of transport along with golf buggies.
We grabbed a beer and a snack before reporting back to the Stromboli Express as instructed. Some concern to find engineers with the engine room hatch up and the engine coughing like an old banger on a cold morning. However we finally moved off and went round to the back of Stromboli to the optimum place to observe the fireworks. And we wait and we wait. We drift. We turn around and we drift back. Several other expectant boats share the waters. Eventually after an hour the captain apologises for Stromboli not performing tonight and we whizz back to Tropea at full speed. What we do see is an amazing electrical storm over the Calabrian coast with vast areas of cloud lit up by flashes of pink tinged lightning. We couldn’t hear the thunder over the roar of the now full throttle engines – clearly desperate to get back before the curse of the TropeaMar stikes the Stromboli Express. Dolphins nil, Stromboli nil. But a fun and bracing day out on the sea wondering how our dear Captain Toddy is getting on in the tall ships race from Sydney to Auckland. Weather doesn’t look too clever down there either.