Tioga Road and the Northern Sierra

IMG_5501We decided not to go back into the valley next day but to drive the Tioga Pass eastwards through the sierra. It is an amazing road but not for the fainthearted. It is very mountainous with twisting roads, vertical drops of 2000 feet with no Armco or stone barriers – just my kind of drive except for two twenty minute hold ups for road works which made the already narrow road single track and short bursts of alternate flow didn’t seem to be on the agenda. I think the 4×4 just in front of us were contemplating getting out their portable BBQ at one point!IMG_5494 Olmsted point

Half dome from Olmsted

As we travelled on passing Tioga Lake, Tuolumne Meadows and Olmsted Point the out-turn that gives a great view of the Half Dome from the east we were very pleased with our decision.  As we paused there we thought of our trip to Walden Pond with Pat and Joe. Joe is an expert on and admirer of Olmsted who as well as co-designing Central Park in New York and the “Emerald Necklace” of green spaces round Boston was one of the architects of the national parks movement. Route 120 which is the Tioga Pass Road is the highest paved road in the US apparently and is closed from November to May each year so we felt privileged to enjoy this true wilderness, much as we had in Shikoku and Hokkaido last year. To be so far from any signs of habitation, enjoying fabulous views and the sounds of wind in the forest, birds overhead in beautiful sunny conditions was just great.

Mono LakeWe exited the road at Lee Vining on the shores of the weird Mono Lake which appears to have a significant number of clones of Lot’s Wife. It is a saline lake and the accumulation of salt rises up in tall pillars a bit like outdoor stalagmites. We had a lunch stop at the gas station and rest stop which was fine and took the decision to turn left and go north on the interstate 395 and then head west and back to San Francisco on the 108 through the northern sierra as an alternative to retracing our steps via Merced.

Good decision or bad decision? Probably the proverbial curate’s egg. As we swung off the sun-drenched interstate and started the climb towards the mountains we noticed the temperature drop (despite A/C in the car) quite dramatically, wondered why the blue sky was now jet black and were soon in the middle of the mother of all thunderstorms.

This was literally half an hour after the picture above and half a mile away

It only lasted about twenty minutes but was really scary. No other vehicles in sight, a twisty mountain road narrower than the Tioga Pass Road of the morning and torrential rain with sky-splitting forks of lightning – even I had to admit these weren’t the happiest moments of driving in my life. However we soon made our way to a high pass which acted as a sort of celestial watershed returning us to the sunny blue side of the mountain and leaving all that black wet stuff behind.


The drive was if anything more spectacular. Massive forests including the Stanislaus State Forest with isolated shacks, sudden flower strewn meadows, streams and lakes, the occasional camp and adventure centre and certainly no road works and the weather stayed good throughout the rest of the route apart from a quick shower as we entered Stanislaus. Route 4 crosses the Sierra Nevada through Ebbett’s Pass which as you can see is quite high up. This road is again usually closed from November to May because of snow. All the words that can be used to describe landscapes of this magnificence have become clichéd. So I’ll just say that we both descended from the sierra feeling refreshed, rejuvenated by the experience and extremely glad we turned left not right.

The SatNav decided on a rather unusual route back to San Francisco which involved a tour through the suburbs of Modesto before getting us back on the 385 and into San Francisco – an early evening journey we weren’t looking forward to as we had decided to change hotels just for this one last night and go from Japan Town to Union Square right in the heart of the city.

As it happened it wasn’t too bad and we found our hotel, parked the car in a parking garage just round the corner and checked in in time to listen to the last knockings of a jazz gig (who finishes jazz at nine pm?) and eat at the highly rated hotel restaurant, the Burritt Room. It was pretty good too even if the service le a little to be desired from a rather bossy maitresse d’.

A day of two halves and day

27 sushi pinkWhy do dismay and

       delight  so often mix in   

       one and the same day?

So I’m writing this after a Saturday that was not quite what we had hoped for. All things being equal however we should get to go to one more soccer match this season and see Watford promoted through the play-offs instead of automatically. What a horrific game to watch with Jonathan Bond seriously injured by a Watford player Ikechi Anya after a deliberate push by on him by a Leeds player. Sheer nerves gave away two unfortunate goals (sadly it was Jack Bonham’s first appearance as keeper for the first team after the injury to Bond) and we now have to do it all again with possibly only a rookie keeper. Ah well.

First disappointment was to discover that you can’t actually visit the Imperial Palace except on two days of the year. We had been hoping to have a touristy morning starting with a trip across town to Tokyo Station and then a stroll to the Palace gardens at least. Well Tokyo Station which we’d only ever seen from inside is a true delight of a building and an exhibition was being held to celebrate its twinning with Grand Central in New York and its centenary next year – a year after Grand Central. Outside – after the traffic control crash barriers and so on – there is a great open space with fountains and granite benches. Granite is cut and polished so beautifully throughout Japan as seating and ornamentation in public spaces, as indeed is wood.

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Tokyo Station                                                                       Us at the “Imperial Palace”

We made our photostop at the point where you can glimpse an outbuilding above the impressive high walls and wide moat and then crossed over to the first surprise and delight of the day – Hibiya Park – forty acres of endlessly changing green spaces right in the heart of the government and business district. It was Japan’s first European style park and opened as such in 1903, having previously been a military manoeuvre and parade space for the shoguns. From the first little hill we encountered with its replica of Philadephia’s Liberty Bell, past tennis courts, rose gardens, lawns, lakes, fountains and performance spaces the park revealed its clever landscape. It’s an obvious venue for glorious wedding photography as we saw and has a hint of Central park. From time to time you would see cars driving around the perimeter but noiselessly in that weird sound barrier parks can sometimes erect.

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We next caught the subway to Akasaka to look for a number of key locations in several Murakami books. However it was time for lunch first which after inspecting several back street establishments behind the station we elected for a stand-up bar where the only offer was tako yaki octopus balls – precision grilled by the chef and served by a smiling host. They needed careful consumption as the interior was volcano hot. They came with a choice of three toppings and were delicious – excellent serendipitous street food. Then off to the police station, the Nogi Shrine and Park – yet more ceremonial photography – and some streets on the Akasaka-Roppongi boundary. A brief stop was in order at a smart cafe near Suntory Hall called “Randy, Beverly Hills and Tokyo” which also had a display of tempting craft items on sale. The Ark Hills development here is stunning with apartments, offices, concert halls, open spaces and of course shops and cafés.

IMG_2581  IMG_2626  Randy's cafe IMG_2650

Then finally we set off for the Hotel Okura where heroine (?) Aomame undertakes a seriously important mission in 1Q84. It also happened to be where I stayed in 1979 and 1981. Funny how when the Japanese Government is paying you get to stay in a top hotel at a current rate of £250+ a night and enjoy its facilities but when it’s on your own personal budget the Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku seems perfectly adequate. My recollections of a really chic, smart hotel were dashed by the exterior which is unprepossessing to say the least. The vast lobby is unchanged and the pink clad elevator attendants are as I remembered them. There was a bonsai exhibition as part of a bigger gardening show. Now neither of us are great enthusiasts but these were truly works of art with their shaping – perfect cones, leaning layers or cascades. Back to the hotel to change and off to Roppongi to watch the sad game of football and eat chicken wings, ribs and fries which I’m afraid to say felt totally alien after only three weeks away. The staff kindly assisted in our efforts to raise the Orns but you know what happened.

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Sunday started with a lengthy browse around a flea market at the Hanazono Shrine which we had visited on our first day in Tokyo. Lots of kimonos, jewellery, fans, prints, household objects and the usual mix of real antiques and not-so-real “antiques”. A few small purchases were made before we took the subway north to explore Waseda University where Murakami studied. It had a real Oxbridge/Ivy League feel and wandering between buildings old and new in a mixture of expressive and utilitarian architecture which, as at so many universities, reflects the periods in which construction took place. Many people are also of the opinion that Waseda is the model for Toru Watanabe’s unnamed university in Norwegian Wood so it was interesting from that point of view as well.

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Next big question: where to get lunch in Waseda on a Sunday with few places open in this classy suburb. We got lucky by penetrating the blue curtains of a sushi bar where a venerable chef prepared a plate of superb authentic sushi – no extra wasabi was even hinted at. They also very kindly recharged my camera battery as we ate. Such service.

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A scampering afternoon of visits to Ikebukuro to find the Traditional Japanese Crafts Centre only to discover it’s relocated to Aoyama. So we enjoy briefly the mad atmosphere of Ikebukuro with stilt walker, performance artist, pavement painter and jazz combo – just like being in Covent Garden then off to Aoyama where the boulevard features in several of the novels and we do find the craft centre which holds a wonderful display of regional work from all over Japan. A great collection but a little on the expensive side for our pockets, if not our taste.

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Ikebukuro Square                                                                 

Another domestic early evening at the coin op laundry in the basement, map finding and precision timetabling for tomorrow’s planned trip to Chiba Art museums and Kamakura and then dinner in a restaurant Maimon not far from the hotel. As well as some delicious yakitori with leeks we had a dish new to us bagna cauda which was fresh raw vegetables which you dip into a fondue-like bowl of a sauce consisting of soy, garlic, milk, sesame and anchovies – oishigatta as we say repeatedly – and so good for us too.