Culture vultures

41 sushi pink Now back in London, 

          back at work, can we find the

          soul of Japan’s art? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

shunga_2

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

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

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

M at Lacock
Mike in the gloom at Lacock

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

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

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

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

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

Dee and Mike taking in the Baths

 Bath lights  Assembly room real thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japan in London

33 sushi pink    Three weeks back at home

                how, where can we hope to find

               Japan in London?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Training Day

29 sushi pink  Can a holiday

            in golden week deliver

            all our varied goals?

Monday 6 May

This is a public holiday and golden week when all Japan is on the vacation move. So we elect to travel to Chiba in search of the Ushiku prints that are reportedly in their collection. Chiba is a prefecture to the east of Tokyo and takes about an hour by train. On the way we pass through Funabashi where Murakami used to live so there’s a Haruki element as well as an art quest in today’s schedule. The second part of the day involves a trip to Kamakura to see the famous bronze Buddha – Daibutsu. That’s about an hour south west of Tokyo so during the day we’ll make a big triangle around Tokyo Bay.

It’s a fine and sunny day again with Hokkaido snow a faint memory. The train is on time of course – we have seen a couple of apology notices for delay in trains displayed on their LCD screens. “passenger injury” was one; “smoking on the track” the other. We do stop at Funabashi but there’s no time to get off and explore. Chiba is a pleasant city and the Art Museum is in an amazing building which also houses City Hall. As is so often the case with the majority of museums and galleries they confirm that they have his work but regret that it’s not on display because of special exhibitions which of course bring in visitors and money. They also kindly confirm with their colleagues at the Sakura Museum that the Ushikus that they have are also not on display so we are saved an extra trip there.

What we do see however is a painting very like some other watercolours we have at home which I bought on the same trip thirty years ago. He is Sagai Hoitsu an important member of the Rimpa movement. I’ll do more research on those when we get back – I’d thought they were Chinese but the similarity in technique and subject matter make me think I might have displayed a degree of taste in my purchases all those years ago.

In chatting to the helpful ladies in the museum shop we discuss hanko and hon as there’s a sample one which has photographs and narrative alongside the shrine and temple stamps. I admired it and showed it to Dee and discovered that one of the ladies had actually compiled it for real on a trip to Izu prefecture. She then suggested we visit Chiba’s shrine which we do and it is very beautiful and has a memorial gathering and some baby ceremonies which we would refer to as christenings but need to find out what they are actually called.

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Back to the station via Chuo Park where music, dance and food stalls are out in force to celebrate the holiday. There’s a very festive atmosphere which leaves us with a brief but fond impression of Chiba. They also have a fun way with police boxes.

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We are fortunate to find on arrival that there’s a train which goes through Kamakura without us needing to change in Tokyo as we had expected. So we settle down for a fascinating ride through the suburbs, a little countryside and the cities of Tokyo and Yokohama before we reach Kamakura and can smell if not see the sea. Our journey musings are rudely interrupted by the ingress of a group of ten year old soccer players who were keen to try out their English. Great fun and some lovely lads who took the mickey out of Eric who was part-English but wouldn’t speak to us.

On arrival in Kamakura, our first trip is through Shopping Town to the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. It never fails to surprise me how the route to sacred sites is always lined with hundreds of retail and food outlets. We finally make to the shrine – an important site in a lovely setting in wooded hills above the town. It’s a real struggle to make progress through the streets as the Japanese on holiday have only two speed settings – amble and dawdle. Our thrusting western strides are frequently forced to a shuffle as blocks of ditsing humanity prevent our progress.

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The shrine is great and we then make our way back down to the station and take a further branch line train two stops down the line to Hase the station for the giant Buddha. I need to check my photographs from 30 years ago but my recollection is of this huge and beautiful bronze statue standing alone in a clearing in the woods, not surrounded by buildings as it is now. The Buddha is still as wondrous as it was then – 35 metres high, symmetrical in form and smiling enigmatically clasping the most wonderfully moulded hands. It’s 700 years old too.

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We leave the Buddha and walk to the beach where waves are pounding the shore and people are enjoying surfing and windsurfing in what are obviously quite difficult conditions given the number of crashes. We walk along the beach back towards Kamakura when I suggest that if we turn left we’ll come to the station before Hase and can then go back to Kamakura from there. My companion expresses some doubt and is pleasantly surprised when my sense is vindicated. It’s a one track station so has only one platform. It is suggested that we get on the next train down to Hase anyway, stay on it and be sure of a seat. Not such a good plan as there are a further four stations after Hase! So we wait at Hase again and then re-board the train for Kamakura and then onto a JR train back to Shinjuku. Dinner is in a fine shoes-off restaurant Imaya in the centre of Shinjuku. Again a few new taste experiences were on offer: gingko nuts, smoked radish, and chicken thighs with pickled ginger shoots which came with a warning not to eat the red bit.

Chasing food and unicorns

30 sushi pink   Will inspiration

              come to us at the Jingu

              as to Haruki?

Tuesday 7 May

Today is another big Murakami location chasing day beginning in Shibuya where we have immense trouble getting out of the station surrounded as are most Tokyo termini by huge malls and department stores – a different brand seems to own different stations. Wecare also going to the Jingu Baseball Stadium where he decided to become a writer. Many of the novels involve people eating, drinking and shopping on Aoyama-dori so we walk up that taking in a number of possible locations before arriving at a definite one, the Kinokunia International supermarket which features in A wild sheep chase. Most appropriately given the amount of pasta consumed in Murakami books they have an Italian Week special feature.

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We then go past the baseball stadium to check our gate for tonight and a photo op. Then a walk to the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery to find the unicorns featured in Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Disaster as there is no sign of any unicorns on or around the building until a cry of “behind you, behind you” from Dee causes me to turn and espy a pair of unicorn statues on the other side of the road. Job done we now set off to be tourists and experience a tea ceremony.

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In the middle of Nihombashi, the finance and business district, on the second floor of a standard office tower is a traditional Japanese teahouse operated by Koomon a cultural organization dedicated to keeping traditions alive in a significant way for contemporary Japan. It is a truly amazing hour and a half in which we learn about the traditional tea gathering and the ceremony that surrounds preparing the tea for guests. I participated in a tea gathering thirty years ago when we sat cross-legged in appropriate manner for over an hour and then immediately fell over when I tried to stand up as my legs were completely numbed. This time they kindly allowed us a stool and reassured us that lots of Japanese use them too. It certainly helped us to take on board the four concepts of respect, harmony, purity and tranquility which might have been difficult through the pain. Our tea mistress Yukiko left us with the excellent  thought about our session based on the name of the tea scoop she had chosen: “one chance, one encounter” the Japanese equivalent of seize the moment I guess. It worked for us.

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We then went from tea house to coffee shop and having failed to lunch today (not for the first time I’m told) we took tea in a branch of Henri Charpentier. This small and exclusive chain was started in Ashiya where Murakami grew up and he is reported to have taken would-be girlfriends there in his youth. This is a very impressive chat up location with delicious cakes and confectionery. Then the train back to Shinjuku and change into baseball watching attire.

It had been a brilliantly clear blue day all day and you know what happens at night with clear skies – it gets cold. The stadium had the usual hawkers of beer, snacks and popcorn we are used to from Fenway Park and the swallow family mascots go wild when the second run is scored.

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Haruki may have had his light bulb moment in the same stadium watching the Swallows and exclaimed, whether internally or aloud we don’t know, “I can be a writer!” After six rather desultory innings with 4 hits and 2 runs for the home team, Yakult Swallows, all I could exclaim was “I can be an icicle!” remembering those metre long shards from Hokkaido. We chickened out, repaired to an English pub just down the road and watched the four-run eighth on the big screen with circulation returning to my blue finger tips. No score in the top of the ninth meant a 6-0 win for our team and a successful outing all round.

We dined in Touan down some steps next to the pub and had an initial disappointment that most of what we had selected was off. However they more than made up for it with an amuse-bouche of fish cakes with edamame and azuki beans and some superb smoked duck.

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.

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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.

Travel day – crew half rate, production carries on

26 sushi pink  What surprises and

           delights will we find as we

           return to Tokyo?

We have time for a brief look at downtown Asahikawa before taking the car back to the rental company at the airport. It’s pleasant enough with a long pedestrianised shopping street through the middle and another large mall underneath the station – best place to go today with temperatures still only 4 or 5 degrees and sleety drizzle starting. We did have an interesting encounter with a Buddhist monk who offered to show us round his temple – an offer we had to decline with a flight to catch. An uplifting moment – he had been to London a couple of years ago and reported that the people had been extremely friendly and that he found London a beautiful city.

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As we filled up with petrol just before the airport – at a selfo – the garage man came rushing out as I was about to get back into the car and presented me with two boxes of tissues. Although this was our last five minutes with a car it seemed churlish to decline so we left one for the next renters and brought one with us.I had limited expectations of Asahikawa Airport which were totally overturned after the quickest return of a rental car ever and transfer to the terminal. I guess it’s because of the skiing at Furano and other resorts around that Asahikawa is now an international airport with flights from Beijing, Hong Kong and Taipei already. The terminal is a shiny glass building that reminded us of Cork where we went for Watford FC’s pre-season tour back in July. What a season it’s been! And what a finale tomorrow with playoffs assured but a chance of automatic promotion if we win against Leeds and Hull lose or draw with already promoted Cardiff. And we’ll be watching it in the Hobgoblin Roppongi.

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Check in was swift and slick with my credit card used for the booking printing boarding cards and baggage tags from bright yellow machines – an omen perhaps. We managed a light lunch in the departure area before getting on to the plane to our delight in bulkhead seats with added legroom. The one drawback was that I was sitting next to a trainee sumo wrestler so spent most of the flight leaning at a forty-five degree angle. While we were flying I took to musing about a question that had cropped up several times during our periods of driving. I’m sure someone knows the answer or has the time to Google it. The question:

Does Japan have the greatest number of kilometres of road enclosed in tunnels of any country in the world? Not the longest tunnel but the most stretches of road aggregated together that are in tunnels. It may apply to railway tracks too.

All the times we were driving on Honshu, Shikoku and Hokkaido we could scarcely go for fifteen minutes without going through a tunnel some of them 5 and 7 kilometres long. I’ll Google myself one day but if anyone knows the answer I’d be glad to have a comment with the answer.

The  last half hour of the 90 minute flight was excellent with great views of the Sendai area and the coast to the east of the capital with massive areas under rice paddies, glinting in the sun. Quickly out through domestic arrivals and onto the Narita Express again with its excellent LCD progress, weather and news reports – among the ads and sponsors’ messages – to Shinjuku. Old hands now at baggage wrangling we were soon at the taxi rank and asking for the hotel. What a laugh! A one minute taxi ride and there we were just round the corner from the station. However walking our cases through Friday rush-hour legs (or shins) could have been painful for the good people of Shinjuku.

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In my planning I’d pushed the boat out a bit with our last hotel as we are here for six nights. Not huge extravagance, you know, just £70 a night instead of the £40-50 we’d routinely been paying. Oh wow! A proper hotel – huge lobby, ten check-in clerks, four lifts, a restaurant and a bar. This was hotel number 15 and was the first with its own bar. We got to our room and decided that Dee deserved a G&T and me a malt whisky. However as the bar served a magnificent martini plans were changed while we had a planning meeting and marked up the many, many parts of Tokyo we need to visit in search of Murakami’s locations over the next last days in Japan.

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Then it was out to what looked like a local basement dive but actually produced a repast of brilliant lightly marinated aubergine (eggplant) slices, tuna, avocado and crunchy yam, pig’s cheek skewers and a subtle teriyaki pork dish. As Dee wrote at the time a veritable feast with again staff reaching for their phones to look up ingredients for us. There’s an app that gives the Latin names for plants and fish which has proved very helpful. Then back to the hotel for a nightcap and plans firmed up for tomorrow culminating in a trip to Roppongi to watch Watford v Leeds. Come on you ‘Orns!

Hokkaido high plains drifters

25 sushi pink Can Sapporo penned

         sheep be surpassed in the wilds

         of north Hokkaido?

With apologies today to Clint Eastwood and his writers.

We leave Sapporo as we found it – in light drizzle. Asahikawa next stop. We could belt straight up the expressway or we could make a detour via Furano the source of last night’s red wine. There might even be a tour. So we dawdle out through Sapporo’s enormous suburbs stopping at a Lawson Market for an in-car breakfast of hot coffee from a dispenser – yes they do hot and cold drinks at the majority – a soft gooey bun flavoured with green tea and filled with azuki bean jam. Texture a little odd but the jam delicious. We also had doughnuts. After half an hour we finally entered the countryside. What a contrast! This is a massive plain with intensive agriculture seemingly based on hundreds of small farms. We drove along admiring hip-roofed barns, hard-working tractors and supply-bending backs planting the crops. We are not sure of all we saw but certainly rice – lots of rice – potatoes, azuki beans, cabbages, onions and fields of very small unidentifiable green shoots. We passed through large fields stretching away to the mountains, criss-crossed by small roads and irrigation ditches. It was mostly very flat but the occasional rolling hillock and wide river made for variety. After a while we saw a sign for a Wayside Station which turned out to be a small service area with loos, a temple, pitch and putt golf, a little park, a cafeteria and a small farmers market of about eight stalls. We bought some fabulous fresh strawberries to strengthen us for the ride ahead.

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And riding is big in Hokkaido. At the rest stop we saw a lady doing dressage practice across the road and as we journeyed on there were many stud farms and riding schools. After some gradual ascent and then some awesome passes we arrive in Furano where we obtain the usual impeccable information from the Information Office next to the station – always head for the station in any Japanese city because the tourist office is nearby and a shopping mall is underneath – which suggests an ace cafe for lunch. The owner-chef and his lady speak good English and provide us with a rare British style lunch – a rich beef stew and fragrant herby grilled chicken. Wonderful but a bit odd in the middle of Hokkaido. However we linger and chat as you do and then had to decide on a winery or cheese factory tour as we could only fit in one. Well we’ve done wineries in the Rioja and the UK and we’ve eaten virtually no cheese so the cheese factory it is. Stunning building but sadly at 3.30 the only activity is cleaning the vats ready for knocking off time. However there are good photo displays, samples – two a bit bland, one delicious Camembert style really tasty and now in our fridge. There’s also an ice cream factory and we sample cheese and separately asparagus flavours. Cheese works really well, asparagus needs a little time for the palate to adjust. Eating ice cream against a mound of snow is also in interesting experience but Japanese ice cream is an unexpected delight.

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We wanted to get to the Shiokari Pass mentioned in A Wild Sheep Chase and now needed to hit the road for Asahikawa and beyond. Light starts to drop, panic starts to set in, a section of expressway speeds us up but then a map reader’s off piste moment literally sets us at the foot of a ski lift in deep snow. One of Murakami’s characters gets snowed in – in this territory we see how easy that can be.

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We regain our route and make it to the pass, scary enough now but for nineteenth century Ainu immigrants real tough territory. It’s a reminder that while the page-turning nature of much of Murakami’s writing skips you through the plots there is also a great deal of thoughtful discussion of issues such as treatment of minorities here, mental health in Norwegian Wood and the earthquake in After the quake and reportedly the tsunami in his latest novel. On the sign board at the pass announcing it as a ‘cherry blossom’ route it’s also interesting to see it called the Dream Route as so much of his writing confuses the boundaries between dream and reality. So pictures done we go back to Asahikawa, check in and repair to a restaurant and micro-brewery (we get lucky some times!) for a local speciality the Ghengis Khan – vegetables cooked on an iron hotplate accompanied by what else? – succulent Hokkaido lamb. And so to blog.

Thursday is off to find the Ishikari River also featured in Sheep Chase.  It also involves passing through the Sounkyo Gorge near where the characters chasing the sheepman find a dead sheep. We find the river and shoot lots of fine sections of it not least on a teeth-clenching section for Dee when the driver insisted on ploughing on down an unmade road which was bound to be tarmac again soon. Fortunately it was or I might not be here to tell the tale. The Gorge is surrounded by new hotels and buildings housing onsen hot springs and footbaths. We don’t see the likelihood of sheep dead or alive so we press on through magnificent scenery of the Daisetsuzan National Park, stopping off at an unexpected coffee shop with roasts from Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras and Tanzania – will Japan ever cease to amaze? – and three foot long icicles from its eaves as the car showed 1 degree at midday.

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Descending to the high plateau we stopped off at the Higashitaitetsu Nature Centre, a fabulous display of local geological, flora and fauna aspects as well as having an insect collection from around the world. We thought it looked very new and on asking the curator Yasuyuki Oppata how long it had been there, he replied “We opened yesterday.” What a stroke of luck. He was able to tell us what the ubiquitous lime green plants lining the roads were – Fuki-no-tou – which apparently translates as butterbur sprouts. The leaves are boiled and the flowers usually done as tempura. One for the list to try if we see them. While photographing some of them and some lovely wild arums we came across this sign.

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On down the mountain and back to the high plains when an excited shout of “Billy Goat!” causes me to screech to a halt – after checking the mirrors of course. I jump out camera at the ready and result, result – this is no goat it’s a ram. We have found our wild sheep. As it happens the ram is shackled outside a farm but it still counts. And by chance the words ram and shackle describe a lot of Japanese rural countryside and not just in Hokkaido. Dilapidated barns sit next to smart new houses, rusty sheds are collapsing and derelict vehicles are just left. The neat and tidy image of the cities doesn’t permeate to the countryside. You get the impression that it’s no easier for Japanese farmers to make a decent living than in many other parts of the world where they are literally, thanks to the supermarkets, at the bottom of the food chain.

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We move on back towards Asahikawa and another cry results in a shuddering halt and crafty U-turn. With the mountains now concealed in cloud on one side but bathed in sun on the other and snow flurrying around us there’s a farm with a paddock and four lambs – might have been five but for last night’s dinner. Our Hokkaido wild sheep chase is declared a complete success and we return to the hotel and confirm our flights back to Tokyo tomorrow. It’s a bit disconcerting but I’ve never taken a plane before where all you have to do is rock up 20 minutes before departure and show the credit card you booked with. They say it’s all OK. We’ll see tomorrow.