Toodle-oo Toledo-oo

As an occasional crossworder I couldn’t resist the anagram – apologies. Not so good on the ear unless you do oo, oo and oh, oh. Hey on with the the story. After the excitement of travel, results of cricket and football on Sunday I ate on the parador’s elegant restaurant terrace looking across at the city. The building itself is based around a typical Toledo cigarral the large hilltop houses the rich built for themselves overlooking the city.

On Monday morning I drove in to town, found a good parking spot – 2 euros for four hours – and went to explore. Now in most of Spain Monday means closed so the El Greco Museum would have to wait. However the city guide app informed add me that his masterpiece The Burial of the Count of Orgaz could be seen in the San Tome church so that’s where I headed.

From the other side of the river Toledo centre looks like it will be pretty flat once you’ve got there. That is an illusion of the cruellest order as I was immediately confronted with steep streets and then steps to achieve the church. A modest 2.80 euros gained entry and it was worth it although crowded with multi-lingual tour guides explaining it’s subtleties.

It is a stunningly large work and has a heavenly half and a mortal half in which brilliant portraits of the great and the good of Toledo at the time surround the interment scene, including the artist himself. Along with the Disrobing of Christ in the cathedral also open on Mondays but a steeper 10 euros, these two were some of his earliest paintings and were brilliant business cards for his work as a portraitist to the nobles of the city.

From San Tome to the high gothic Game of Thrones-worthy cathedral was not too bad but it was another steep schlepp up to the Alcazar, that huge fortress at the eastern end of the city. Worth it though as each facade is different, the views down to the Tajo are excellent and there are bars nearby.

I concluded that unlike many cities it has no real centre but a number of quite small areas where shops and restaurants congregate. It’s quite hard to get a grip of which is probably why there were so many raised umbrellas escorting tour groups. Maybe I should have done the city tour bus. Beer and tapas downed I walked blissfully down to retrieve the car and go back to the parador for a swim and a read.

I got a cab back into town and was deposited in Plaza Zocodover the central meeting point near the Alcazar. It’s Monday and most restaurants are closed except the two that sadly dominate the square MacDonald’s and Burger King – oh Spain I weep for you.

They of course were open but I persevered and found a little local bar where I thought I’d take a tapa before finding a restaurant. There was a quarter of a tortilla left and a big dish of wild mushrooms after which I made a joke that actually worked in Spanish along the lines of ‘I asked for a snack and got a meal’. Great hilarity and a glass of wine on the house as we watched the US Open tennis on the TV – a change from the very popular bullfight channel that plays in most bars – and had a bit of a conversation about the effects of Brexit – hard to avoid when you say you come from the UK. In one bar someone did actually say ‘If you don’t like us why are you here?’ My remain vote sort of placated him but there’s a degree of rancour. A copa in another bar and a walk back, up of course, to Zocodover to find a cab and complete Toledo Day 2.

On Tuesday I returned to my same parking spot and walked up to the El Greco Museum which was well worth the wait. I have even more respect for him now as a painter after perhaps glibly dismissing the elongated blue and purple figures I knew. His technique and brushwork up close are fantastic for the time and the various videos playing around the house are very informative. The museum is in a reconstruction of a house like the one El Greco might have lived in and is near the area where he is know to have lived. His business prospered and he had a studio with assistants who would knock out small scale copies with the price adjusted to how much actual painting the maestro had done himself. His last house had 22 rooms so he did OK as an entrepreneur as well as a painter. Oh and he sold prints from engravings too.

Outside the museum was a Corten steel sculpture of the apostles that El Greco was so famous for. As a Richard Serra fan I was quite taken by this work by Paco Rojas and by the steel letters dotted around the museum itself. There was also a well placed restaurant with a 12 euro menu so why not? On the menu were carcamusas which I’d never encountered despite extensive travels in Spain. It’s a dish of lean pork fillet with tomatoes, garlic, pimiento and wine, I think, anyway it was good. Next was a trip to another synagogue, mosque cum church in this eminently three faith city: San Juan de Los Reyes which had a great cloister, fabulous ceilings and bizarre stone work.

Touristed out I found the car, drove back to the parador and swam lots in the warm evening air. Also read a bit. Back to Zocodover for the evening and fund the bar in the city. Craft beer – one most appropriate given my background – and a queue to eat that would take a while. So passing the blandishments of the chains I found the nicer square – Plaza del Barrio del Rey – where there were some local bars – again just tapas as I’d had a menu for lunch.

It was fine but I felt I’d never really got to grips with Toledo, It’s this odd mix of reverance for the three religions history and an attempt to become a tourist destination. The parador and its inviting skinny dipping pool was great, the city did not add itself to my must rush back list.

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No frills and great thrills

After a lovely wedding of two neighbours who are also great friends on Saturday, Sunday morning saw me bright and early at Gatwick to set off for Spain for ten days or so. I’m flying with ‘no frills’ Norwegian who encourage you to check in at their automated terminals. So I enter my booking code and it is declined. I ask a helpful official who advises trying another machine as they “can be temperamental” – please preserve me from machines with mood swings! Next terminal is having a good day and so takes my details – careful to match my full name this time after previous Etihad experience – and prints out not only a boarding card but a luggage label. This is real DIY travel. Through lengthy security and off to the lounge for breakfast. But no, despite my pass I’m not allowed in as the lounge is completely full because of a number of delayed flights. Not a good start. However the Priority Pass is accept for breakfast at another cafe so complete grumpiness and rumbling tum are avoided.

We board quickly and I get a window seat, stow everything above except the Observer which Malcolm delivered just as I was leaving home. What a fool am I! It’s a lovely clear day and the view of the Isle of Wight from 10,000 feet or so was amazing but camera and phone were in the overhead locker and my B and C companions are asleep. It just filled the frame of the window perfectly and looked like a postcard. The Needles were a bit black from up here because of the low sun from the east but otherwise a great shot I missed. The Channel Islands looked good too. So onward to Madrid, pick up a car and get to Toledo in time to check in and enquire if any TV channel nearby is showing Watford v Tottenham. Negative. Annoying but thanks to Matchday Live on the Watford website I’m taken through the dull sounding first half by John Marks and Rene Gilmartin. Still 0-0 at half time is a result already. Then the mad second half begins with an own goal of freakish nature it seems and then we equalise and then go 2-1 ahead and the vocal level of commentary is such great I have to turn it down to avoid upsetting the neighbours on their balcony. Can we hold out for five minutes of added time? Yes! Wow – I need a lie down now! 5 games played, 5 games won.

As a friend of the Parador chain I get a free drink on arrival so I think this is the time to celebrate so I go to the bar, present my chit and down a beer as the sun starts to slide downwards and lights up Toledo with a wonderful soft light.

I’ve never been here before but look forward to exploring over the next few days – lots of El Greco to find, the massive Alcazar on the right and the cathedral in the middle look worth a visit and later at dinner – sorry vegetarians local venison with some suitable red wine – these were illuminated to look like beacons in a starry hillside. And so to bed ready to explore tomorrow.

Singapour stopover

It’s somewhere I’ve never been and was sort of on the way home so I decided to have a couple of days to explore Singapore. I’d been given tips by my neighbour Claudette who is a frequent visitor to a friend who lives there and by son and daughter-in-law who have been several times from Hong Kong.

I just missed the hotels shuttle service and was advised that there would be a 35 minute wait so I got a cab into town. As we drove along the incredibly straight coast road into the downtown area the driver had to flick his wipers a few times. ‘Is it going to rain all weekend?’ I asked, having only seen 10 minutes and a few spots in the last two weeks. ‘No rain,’ he replied ‘not the rainy season. He dropped me as requested at the Fullerton Bay Hotel which I’d reserved with Claudette’s guidance several weeks ago. A bell cap took my bags and escorted me to reception. There was a function of some kind in the main lobby with lots of elegant ladies in slinky dresses and guys looking more smart than casual. Very, no extremely, loud disco music belted forth from the other side of a temporary screen. Time to party! But not for me. I was told that I was going to the Fullerton Hotel just up the road instead but at the same rate that I’d obtained on booking,com. The bell cap whisked me back to the entrance, jumped the taxi line and thrust S$10 into the driver’s hand and said Fullerton Hotel. Which is about 200 metres away but I did have two cases and it was still raining, quite hard now.

E1022D34-03B5-41C1-927F-963CCE7C5A82The Fullerton is converted out of one of Singapore’s historic buildings the Post Office which also at times housed the Ministry of Finance. It’s a fabulous neo-classical structure with extensive lounges and eateries on the lobby floor. It was again stressed to me that I’d be paying the rate agreed which when I reached my room looked like a real bargain. I’ve been fortunate enough to stay in some very good hotels over the years but this room was amazing. OK the view was down into the internal courtyard not out over the Singapore River but it probably had the same floor area as my house. A bathroom with a massive bath and a separate drench shower were to my left, fitted wardrobes to the right and then in the main room a massive bed, easy seating area and a desk. The yukata I’d become accustomed to was replaced by a long towelling robe and a fully-stocked minbar and snack counter completed the picture. As it was late and wet I decided to grab food in the hotel and to make a swift move as everything closed at 10 pm. The fifth floor bar with a view stayed open longer and to look out over Marina Bay with its manic lighting displays. We’d seen the Hong Kong waterfront light show but this goes on all the time.

Next morning I headed for the Botanical Gardens after buying a two-day subway pass. Nice clear indications of line, direction and station again and I was soon having a pre-walk coffee right opposite one of the garden entrances. It’s a very pleasant garden for a stroll and plants are all labelled which is good. There was a reflexology path with assorted cobble and pebble patterns which I trod to liven up the legs for the trek ahead. There was no cherry blossom but hanami style picnics were evident all over. There was also a reminder of where our ancestor monkeys have led us.

I followed signs to the National Orchid Collection and have never seen so many outside of a greenhouse before and then probably not in this variety. Of course it is now 29 degrees so no hothouse required. They are very impressive and many of them very beautiful.

 

I wound my way back past a lawn with a concert stand and a lake spotting my first birds despite the constant squawking, chirrupping and fluting coming from the canapoy, Not some exotic sunbird but a hen foraging for her chicks for grubs in the leaves. I took the subway back a few stops to another of the recommendations Little India. The Tekka Centre has a massive food court with food of every (Indian) description on offer which are enjoyed at communal tables. I was very pleased to see that the goat meat had not walked here and was excited by the noise and savoury odours. A beer, samosas and curry puffs made for a good light lunch during which I was admonished by one diner for mixing beer with oil. It would make me burp he said as the two gas and oil don’t mix. He was not wrong.

I then went to look around the rest of the streets in the area when another Indian characteristic arrived. It may not be the rainy season but Little India was having it;s own monsoon.

I went upstairs to the sari floor dazzling in the colour arrayed in stall after stall with people ready to run you up a sari or jacket on the spot.

There was no sign of let up so I eventually made a dash for the station and went back to the hotel where my thoughtfully packed and as yet unused umbrella was waiting. I had’n’t taken it out with me on the cab driver’s advice. I took a chance on getting off at Esplanade which if the rain had stopped would give me a pleasant walk round Marina Bay. I had walked through the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands (sic) where there’s a boating lake inside the mall in Singapore’s most distinctive hotel, For the brave there’s a roof terrace linking all three towers. It had slowed to a drizzle by now and at least it’s warm rain. I saw a building called the Red Dot Design Museum and decided it would be worth a look.

It’s full of mostly photographic panels about innovative design approaches with an emphasis on ecology and sustainability. It was interesting to note how few of the exhibits were from Europe to the US but I guess its location would lead one to expect an emphasis on work from China, Korea, Taiwan and Japan. There were wearable items that turned into tents, chairs made form recycled paper and a host of energy saving efficient devices. It also had a bar to provide respite during another downpour where I was able to pour a Foxes Rock IPA brewed in Northern Ireland – proper craft beer at last. 

It cleared up a bit in the evening and I walked down one side of the river passing the stately buildings of the Victoria Theatre, Parliament and the Old Hill Street (Yes) Police Station with its mult-coloured windows and on to Clarke Quay.

I then crossed the rainbow Bridge and back up Boat Quay which has a fine array of eateries although many were closed on Sunday. Surprise, surprise I ended up in a Japanese restaurant which fed me tempura oysters and blackened cod in soy and yuzu sauce and miso soup with clams to end a real fishy delight.

My Monday plan started in the Gardens By The Bay a must on everyone’s lists. I did take my umbrella this time and while juggling it and the camera to document the garden I discovered the the lens had completely steamed up and I had a blank white canvas in the viewfinder, I somehow managed to deploy a lens cloth and images started to appear. Much of the early part of my route was out of bounds for remodelling and I wasn’t allowed to feed or add to the livestock of the lake but I did manage to make my way to the massive artificial sky trees (high level walkway closed for maintenance), well they have to get it ready for the high season and apparently they close it if there’s a chance of a thunderstorm which we had had and more were to follow.

The big attractions you have to pay for are a Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. The flower bit was devoted almost entirely to a display of tulips sponsored by KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. There were some other nice areas: a Mediterranean Garden, South African and South American Gardens with some interesting plants but I was soon heading through the Gift Shop to the Cloud Forest. This has a stunning waterfall against a towering green cliff of plants. You then take a series of steps and elevators to get to the top and walk down a slope admiring lots of tropical plants on the way. It was fun and had good views over the bay. Oh and following Osaka’s Lego giraffe here we had Lego pitcher plants among the real ones.

Gardened out I took the subway to Dhoby Ghaut passing the fine sculpture of the Jelly Baby family to walk along the retail paradise of Orchard Road the central shopping street with umpteen malls. There’s a lovely white picket fence on the right which looks like the entrance to a park so I head towards it only to be assailed by shrill blown whistles and waving batons indicating I should go away. I persevered close enough to confirm what I was coming to realise was the Presidential Palace. No entry for me.

A023D581-5BD2-4FF9-ACC4-865A58844104There were some good colonial and vernacular buildings hidden among the glass palaces of commercialism with all the usual suspect brand names abounding – I think there were three Lois Vuitton and four Chanel shops in a mile. One outlet that did take me by surprise was a Crate and Barrel an old Heal’s style favourite from Boston that I’ve not seen overseas before.

 

I popped into Takashimaya to see if the Japanese department store food hall translated to Singapore, Nothing like as impressive and with the food court an upmarket take on Little India yesterday. there had been intermittent big showers and warm drizzle for much of my walk so I dived back underground and emerged at a dry Raffles Station and went to admire the Merlion, a small replica of which you put on your bed at the Fullerton if you want to be eco-friendly and not have your sheets and towels laundered every day. Merlion Park is at the end of a strip of bars called One Fullerton which afford good views over Marina Bay and seemed very popular for late afternoon drinking. With One, the Hotel and The Bay Hotel the whole area seems owned by the Fullerton clan.

B1FD1BFF-2929-4359-8CE1-91769C841689However I had work to do in sorting out packing for tomorrow’s trip home for which I need to leave the hotel a 06:30. So I pop into 7Eleven for a couple of cans to ease the sorting of clean and dirty clothes and cramming them into suitcases. Mission complete I set off for Duxton Hill an area of eateries recommended by my son. It’s pleasant area with about twenty eating options in a short space. Seduced by a real Spanish leg of bellota ham on the counter I entered a tapas bar and my first glass of wine for ages = it’s been beer and sake all the way.

As my taxi took me to Changi Airport in fifteen of the thirty minutes I’d been advised to allow, dawn broke and by the time we took off at nine fifteen the skies were clear and blue. I’ll try to lose my role as rainmaker.of Singapour.

Osaka Culture Quest

Saturday dawned bright and warm and I set off to find a post office as I had bought some postcards to send to my grandchildren. I usually do when travelling and thought I would do so now they were back in the UK. The front desk handed me a map with three post offices circled so I chose the one nearest to the subway station I planned to use for my trip to the waterfront. Cards successfully posted, I headed for the nearby Namba Ninja shrine. We remarked before and with the family how it was always something of a surprise to find shrines down side streets in the midst of normal city life. This one was no exception and in Kyoto I’d looked out of my bedroom window onto this bijou rooftop shrine.

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As with many, the Namba Ninja would be home to a flea market from 11 am, but I didn’t wait for that. I purified, donated and had my hon stamped and signed and then went for a coffee to start the day proper. Osaka subway is classified just like Tokyo’s with colour-coded lines and numbered stations so it was easy to get to Harborland where I wanted to see Tadao Ando’s Suntory Building. We’d admired his work on Naoshima Art Island and elsewhere on the previous trip.

 

It’s an impressive piece with great reflective curves and a calm contrast to the rest of the area which houses Osaka Aquarium and Legoland in a series of rather more garish edifices. I’m just sorry the grandchildren missed the giant Lego giraffe! The Suntory building itself has an auditorium with an IMAX cinema, a gallery and eating area and of course a museum shop. The exhibition was of the work of an artist I confess I’d never heard of but who is apparently big in publishing and film in Japan Kiyoshi Nakashima. My one-day subway pass gave me a discount so why not? The first part was filled with increasingly fey and whimsical pieces obviously drawn with great skill and speed, given the vast number of works on display. It was always windy in his pictures and thet feature bears and other cuddly toys along with slogans such as ‘Cheer Up Japan’ and other encouragements for optimism.
1636B787-787D-4F1F-BF0E-95CA3C074C27Then suddenly in another room were grotesque succumbs-like figures engaged in scenes of bloody torture and horror such that I even checked with an attendant that they were by the same artist.

ABECA023-5EC5-4454-B849-589124700DA8I think even Bosch and Brueghel would have been shocked. I guess too many pretty children with their favourite toys can only go so far and your inner vision of hell needs an outlet. I can’t say I was moved to bring any prints home but I was glad I’d been. As I left a large school party was being lined up to enter the aquarium. Health and safety here has kids wearing hard hats.

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Next on the culture trail was a subway ride back to  the centre and a walk through the Nakano Rose Garden beside the canal we’d visited before – again not in flowering season – to the Museum of Oriental Ceramics. Sadly this had a special exhibition of Sevres of which I’ve seen a bit and am not a huge fan. However I had to agree that the modern factory is turning out some exciting pieces. My real delight was in the elegance and subtlety of some of the earliest oriental pieces from China, Korea and Japan. Sinuous shapes and simple glazes on some of the pots did make me want to open a case and secrete the odd one in my camera bag.

Just nearby overlooking the gardens was a restaurant that looked like it had beer and food so a brief stop had me engaging in diversionary hide and seek and silly face games with a ten-month old baby at the next table where mother and her friends thanked me effusively for entertaining him so that they could catch up. I then walked along to the National Art Museum and Science Museum, the amazing structure of which we’d admired before at a time when it was closed. What I hadn’t realised is that the steel carapace is the only part of the museum at street level, the actual galleries are in three basements.

I had read of it excellent permanent collection of world and Japanese art and was eagerly looking forward to it. Damn and blast though. It’s forty years since it was established and they have a special anniversary exhibition of curators’ picks. Some were impressive, others less so. For my taste and time available there were far too many installations that involve 11 hours of video or a 90 minuets silent film that suddenly erupted into wails and screams. There were also lots of photo series many of which were well shot and framed but had whinge-inducing titles attached – too clever by three-quarters for me. However there was a nice Calder mobile and a fine Henry Moore. Am I turning patriotic?

We didn’t make Osaka Castle last time so I headed off there on the subway and was not disappointed. It had the Hokoku Jinja which provided me with my second hon stamp of the day before I walked up to the castle itself.

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The first thing you see is a massive shopping mall in red brick in a strange warehouse building style.Sadly I was too late in the day to walk up to the top and I’m not sure the legs would have made it. There are lifts actually it seems and it’s a good museum I’m told later. This didn’t start out as a walking holiday but soon turned into one. For once I was able to leave the castle by a different route – not through the gift shop either. Instead I was able to walk down and cross the Okawa River and head for the subway at Temmabashi just as everyone was heading home from offices and shopping sprees. Complete chaos and very full trains but not quite needing pushers to get us all in. 

Back at the hotel to put my feet up and plan the journey to Osaka’s Kansai Airport tomorrow morning, I idly turned on the TV to find the Hanshin Tigers playing the Yakult Swallows in Nishonomiya only 20 minutes away. If only I’d prepared better! But then there would be the dilemma of who to support. The Tigers are from this area where Murakami grew up but the Swallows’ home is the JIngu Stadium in Tokyo where he had his lightbulb moment about becoming a writer and where Dee and I attended a very cold game. I chickened out at 2-2 at the bottom of the ninth (Swallows nicked it 2-3 in the tenth) as hunger called and there are some good restaurants in Shinsaibashi where I was staying and there was another of those long malls with lots of competing choices. Given the memory of our successful night in Asakusa, teppanyaki won out and more fine Kobe beef was enjoyed.

It transpired that the best way to Kansai International was from Namba Station a short cab ride away. I could have caught a train but opted for the Airport Coach service which resulted in a fascinating journey through Osaka’s docks and harbour area most of it on reclaimed land and the airport itself on a specially built island in the bay. The industrial landscape fascinated me with old fashioned looking factories, a highly modern cruise terminal and massive distribution warehouses among the oil refineries. Great journey concluding with a massive bridge across to airport island.

I had changed my name with JetStar for my flight to Singapore via Taipei so boarded fine and because of delays at take off with air traffic control in Taipei, had to scuttle through security to get back on the same speed-cleaned aircraft. So although I’ve technically been to Taiwan, I can’t tell you much about it except that as we came in to land there appeared to be many communist era China style buildings – maybe ideological differences don’t affect intrinsic architecture using available resources.

From sea to shining sea

With apologies to Jonathan Raban, but I am also going from one side of the country to the other, just not quite as far as across the States. Check out from the New Otani in Tottori was routine and I set up satnav for the day ahead. Adachi Art Museum and Garden has been voted Japan’s No 1 garden for 15 consecutive years since 2003 so given our enjoyment of Kenrokuen and Korakuen on our last trip this seemed an essential visit. Tottori’s sprawling suburbs, strip malls and industry behind me, I was again on Route 9 which hugged the still beautiful coast.

I stopped for a coffee and croissant at a Lawson Station along the way and sat with my breakfast looking at this beach.

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img_3008I was quite glad I hadn’t elected to stay at the Camel Hotel – wonder if they paid to rip off the cigarette logo – it might be OK in the season but it looked rather down at heel now.

 

The route soon branched off onto Route 432 to Hirose where the garden is situated. On the way we climbed again away from the coast but not for long without being up among the mountains still holding snow at their peaks despite a very dry and snow-light winter. The fact that the mountains often run right to the coast leads to some of the dramatic scenery of Japan’s coasts.

The garden was a work of art. Incredibly beautiful areas with different classical elements. The problem is you view it through glass like a work of art. I wanted to walk among the stones, feel the moss and hear the water but apart from a tiny area you are inside the museum. So I’m glad I went but it will never replace the gardens we saw last time as my favourites.

The art on display was interesting a mixture of imitation of the traditional woodblock and scroll images we know so well and rather fey children who’d be fine on Hallmark greetings cards – that’s probably me being highly unfair but it wasn’t the exciting start to the day I’d hoped for. However the drive back to Kyoto more than made up for it. Routes 432 and then 314 to Tojo are highly recommended for anyone who enjoys a mountain drive. It delivered delights like this weir with a convenient lay-by for me to jump out and photograph it.

In the valleys there were also some great patches of cherry blossom, later here because of the height above sea level – I thought we were quite high yesterday but the Makijotao Pass (?) was 727 metres up.

A little further on I saw this massive red suspension bridge and was shocked to glance at the satnav and see that we were going over it via the Mina Bridge Loop which was like going up in circles into a very lofty car park. (Sorry for pic quality – trying to drive as well).

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The descent was also quite a fun drive through Okuizumo City down to Tojo at which point, given the need to return the car and get to Osaka, I took the Chugoku Expressway back to Kyoto. I was expertly guided to a petrol station so as to return the car full. I decide to walk to Kyoto Station to catch my Shinkansen to Osaka – they are so close the train hardly got up to speed. A taxi to the hotel and a local okonomiaki restaurant provided a proper Kansai version which I order entirely from an iPad and which offers regular, lots and lashings of mayo and brown sauce – well that’s my translation.

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.