When in Rome …

Stella

Christmas Day began in tears as I opened the one present I had brought with me – dedicating the name of a star to Dee from my daughter and her family. I shared that on Facebook to a phenomenally large and positive response. After breakfast I skype Tom and Caroline in Hong Kong – more tears but lots of laughter too.

Il Papa

Then as the morning progressed it was time to head for St Peter’s Square to see the pope do his Christmas message. The crowd was huge but perhaps not as big as his Easter performance. I did manage to see him through a 300mm lens (600 would have been perfect) and seeing people drop to their knees in prayer and then applaud him like a rock star was quite an experience.

Waiting for the pope
Waiting for the pope
Pope addressing
The pope’s Christmas message
Amen - Copy
Amen

Roaming

Busy Spanish stepsI then went back to the metro and went to Spagna to see the Spanish steps and have my first proper coffee – 95 cents for a good shot of strong espresso. Excellent preparation for the day ahead. In my trip schedule I had nothing booked for today and decided to discover Rome on foot. It was after all as I told too many people clear, blue, sunny and 14 degrees. Ideal for a stroll. I made my higgledy piggeldy way to the  Tiber and crossed into trendy Trastevere where there are book stalls and bad art lining the river promenade.

In many of the tourist hotspots there’s a smell of cellulose in the air as aerosol spray painting seems to be the big thing here. Time for a beer and to read a misdirected email from our friend Erika in Boston who was in my thoughts for the trip as her father Bob who Dee and I got to meet both in the US and London wrote the definitive book about Bernini who not only designed St Peter’s Square but lots of Rome’s most famous fountains and sculptures. About six weeks ago she replied at length to mine but sent it to herself not me.

Castell Sant AngeloHer knowledge of and love for the city spurred on my feet as I wandered further down the river swapping banks by the huge Castel San Angelo and on down the left bank to the Jewish quarter, through to the Capitoline Hill with the huge Victor Emanuele vanity project (I was told off by the guide the next day – it was not just for him but to commemorate the reunification of Italy – right) which caused great controversy among Romans at the time. It destroyed a whole medieval neighbourhood, took loads of taxpayers money and was derided as ‘the wedding cake ’, ‘the false teeth’ and ‘the typewriter’. The massive equestrian statues confirm it as a vanity project for me. Beyond it I strolled along to get a first sight of the Forum and the Colosseum due for a guided tour tomorrow. This route was along  wide boulevard created when Mussolini order a whole medieval neighbourhood to be bulldozed for this prestige route – HS2 sound familiar?

Victor's cake
Victor Emanuele monument – you decide!

The Road Home

Military everywhere
Entrance to Piazza del Popolo

My final saunter was the length of the Via Corso which goes straight as a die (Roman roads again!) north to the Piazza del Popolo. One thing I noticed on my walk was the frequent presence of the military with armoured vehicles and gun-toting personal at the entrance to every square.   What had been surprising was how many shops were open and how many people were shopping.

Christmas Day is not the biggest deal here – or anywhere else really except the UK I suppose. Things were beginning to close up and the metro stopped at 21:00 today so I made my way back to the hotel choosing the correct exit and arriving within the six minutes promised and with no police intervention.

I have to say that after eight hours of mostly continuous walking my ancient feet did feel they’d done their time. So to my room for a slightly mad skype with the Addison family up in Manchester for the festivities. The hotel’s main restaurant provided some interesting fruit combinations I hadn’t had before but which worked really well. My starter was smoked salmon served with blueberries and rocket and my main was steak with cantaloupe melon and rosemary potatoes both extremely tasty and helped down with a Sicilian Nero d’Avolo. And so to bed exhausted.

Hong Kong stopover

32 sushi pink After a bad day                                  

              can we find tranquillity                                  

              out in brash Hong Kong?

Sorry for the hiatus any anxious readers but family fun in Hong Kong,
travelling back to London and going straight back to work have interrupted
the blogging process. This one will describe the four days we spent in 
Hong Kong and then there will be occasional posts and new pages with 
extra photographs and details of some of the highlights of the trip.

So after a Thursday to forget (except for home cooked dinner by Tom) we wake up at their amazing apartment on the 27 th floor with views to the harbour on one side and over the whole of the Happy Valley race course and sports area from the living room. I was impressed by Hong Kong thirty years ago. Now most of the buildings I saw have been demolished and replaced by even taller ones. It is  a truly phenomenal city in the sky. If you’ve ever played SimCity you’ve been  to Hong Kong! We spent the morning exploring Central – walking through the clammy streets, up the huge travelator that swoops up to the Mid Levels and then through the air conditioned malls and walkways that enable you to survive in the city. 27 degrees and 97% humidity make air conditioning not a luxury but a necessity. And by careful planning you can go most places in comfort. Tom, now a HK veteran of two years has it all sussed so we move through the city cool, calm and collected. We then make our way back to Causeway Bay to see a Hong Kong institution – the Noonday Gun. This is a tradition carried out since the 1860s when Jardines, one of the major Hong Kong trading companies was ordered by a British naval officer to fire a one gun salute at noon every day as a punishment for insulting the navy by saluting a civilian.

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Synchronizing watches                                                      and bang!                                               

We arrived and took up our positions, watched the gunners carefully check their watches and then jumped like mad when a very loud report and a big puff of smoke issued forth. Even though you know it’s coming, it’s still a real shock. We then walked round to the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club one of the most sought after memberships in the territory. We are very lucky in that Paul Dalton, a good friend of Tom and Caroline, whom I had met in London, had invited us for a relaxing elegant lunch. Feeling very privileged, we enjoy fabulous views of Victoria Harbour and partake of food from an interestingly mixed buffet and menu which combine British colonial favourites with local specialities. Lunch was unhurried, conversation flowed and ranged over many issues and the whole was presided over with graceful charm by Paul. As we left, the famous Hong Kong rain came down, hard and vertical and, as elsewhere in the world, dissolved all trace of taxis from the streets. Eventually one parted the curtain and took us away for a little light sightseeing and then back to the apartment for a break which included watching the most incredible clouds pour down over Happy Valley.

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We then changed for the evening which was at an equally interesting venue – the China Club. It appears not to have a working website but has an intro and picture in its sister club’s site for Singapore. Set in the former headquarters building of the Bank of China it’s a retro eye-opener with stair and landing walls lined with modern art from owner Sir David Tang’s collection – an eclectic taste is displayed. There’s a roof terrace with fabulous views over night time Hong Kong and a vast dining room with superb food and a series of fascinating shows – a torch singer who whispers jazz classics, not always quite in tune but certainly the centre of attention. She is followed by two guys – one doing amazing things pouring tea from a very long teapot into cups that he’s juggling while contorting his body; the other makes fine noodles from a massive slab of dough by repeated slapping and pulling. Amazing. IMG_3388  Chanteuse China Club Teapot man China Club   Noodleman China Club  IMG_3418

Apart from the club’s entertainment, a highlight was the chance to catch up with Steve and Michelle Resco. Dee and I had worked closely with Steve in helping to establish the Watford Supporters’ Trust ten years ago. It was Steve who engineered our viewing of Watford v Leeds in Roppongi the week before and it was great to catch up with lives lived all over the place since we last spent time together. Home for a nightcap and a lengthy sleep. Saturday took us for a wander through the wet markets of Causeway Bay an easy walk down from the apartment. Eyeballs were stretched by the sheer volume of food of every kind being chopped, skinned, sliced and in some cases slaughtered right there on the street. One aspect of Hong Kong eating became abundantly clear – whatever you selected it was amazingly fresh – fish still flopping not frozen – one even jumped off the slab and was retrieved by an unfazed Chinese senior citizen.   IMG_3431  IMG_3445

We walked on to meet up with Caroline who had to go to work in the morning but was able to join us for a splendid lunch at one of their favourite restaurants Din Tai Fung. Of Taiwanese origin, it serves a mixture of dim sum style dumplings, buns and wan ton, excellent dan dan noodles, cucumber with chilli and garlic and the best ever egg fried rice as Tom had promised. I had loved Hong Kong’s trams thirty years ago so we took a ride along to the Star Ferry.

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Crossing the harbour on the ferry is an essential part of any visit to Hong Kong and once again it didn’t disappoint. We made the journey across to Kowloon, passing the large inflatable Rubber Duck  – Florentijn Hoffman’s installation which has mysteriously deflated since our visit – not guilty m’lud. We then make our way to the ICC Tower and go up to the observation deck. Despite a certain murkiness in the distance the views are fabulous and we were reminded that at 484 metres high it’s the tallest building in Hong Kong and the fifth tallest in the world rather dwarfing London’s Shard at 309 metres. We also look down on one of the most densely populated areas of land in the world.

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On descending I caught the Airport Express out to Chep Lak Kok to collect my phone, miraculously delivered to Hong Kong from Tokyo through the combined efforts of Japan Rail’s Narita Express, China Eastern Airways and Jardine handling staff in Hong Kong. I sign for it, switch it on and, goodness it works. So I text Tom to tell him I’m homeward bound and he advises the subway and a brief walk when I make it back to Hong Kong island as the traffic is mad and they are not even home yet. The MTR – Hong Kong’s subway – seems very efficient during my brief encounter with it. The only problem as in Tokyo, was that you seem to have walked at least far enough to reach your final destination but you’ve just been travelling through a vast underground interchange. My next walk was a little warmer as I followed Tom’s excellent texted directions to get myself from Causeway Bay station back to the Leighton Hill apartment to be rewarded with a cold beer for my efforts. After a brief rest and a change we set off by taxi for another fabulous evening. Tom and Caroline won’t be able to be in the UK in July so very kindly took us for a joint birthday dinner at Spoon, Alain Ducasse’s Michelin starred restaurant at the Intercontinental Hotel back in Kowloon. A brilliant tasting menu with matched wines proved a great choice as course after course arrived with delicious aromas and tastes. The whole occasion was enhanced by our prime window table from which we could watch the nightly Victoria Harbour Light Show. Produced by Hong Kong Tourism it was eagerly anticipated by the crowds below us on the waterfront. The light patterns on individual buildings and the lasers flying between them make it look as if the city is holding a conversation between the huge towers that line the harbour. What a fabulous birthday present!

Sunday meant an early rise to go to Deepwater Bay to support Tom and his dragon boat racing team The Seagods. Tom took up dragon boating soon after moving out two years ago and has international medals for his efforts. And what efforts they are! Watching twenty men and women striving to move this great boat through the water from a standing start shows raw energy at work at its best. And it pays off as the Seagods comfortably win their first race with the A boat. An hour later Tom again plays a part in bringing the B boat in as runner up in a further heat. The sight of the beach covered with team tents, paddlers and their supporters is colourful and constantly moving as teams make their way to and from the start and finish pontoon.

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Tom had made his apologies to the Seagods for only completing two races out of a possible five today in order to take us to explore the island further. We went to Stanley which feels much like Brighton, with narrow-laned markets, a promenade with pubs and restaurants and a pier which was reconstructed here from its original position in Central in 2006 along with the Murray House also originally built in Central in 1844 as Murray Barracks. They fit the landscape well and look as if they might always have been there.

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We had the opportunity to share a drink with Katie, Tom and Caroline’s friend, who had given us so much good advice for our trip which was great as we were able to thank her in person, not just by email, for her insights. Katie had to go off elsewhere and so couldn’t join us for lunch in Saigon, an excellent Vietnamese restaurant in the Murray Building. After lunch we wandered around the headland to the Tin Hau Temple commemorating the goddess of the sea. It’s cut into the rock and was obviously a popular pilgrimage destination. We then returned to the much larger Man Ho Temple on the edge of Stanley Plaza where Lamborghini’s 2013 Cow Parade has raised considerable sums for charity.

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After a great day out by the sea we decided on a simple dinner at home and a serious spell of packing for Dee and myself so we went back to Happy Valley taking in architect Frank Gehry’s first residential project in Asia Opus, a fabulous twisted tower that looks as if it has survived an earthquake. Its lines flow out of the steep hills that characterize Hong Kong island and for those wealthy enough to be inside must provide stunning views. After a trip to the butcher we then walk home through the middle of the Happy Valley racecourse which is busy with sports activity of all kinds. IMG_3681

IMG_3690It’s great to spend another evening at home with  Tom and Caroline not least because Tom managed to find a website streaming Sky Sports coverage of the second leg of Watford’s play off against Leicester. And what a match that was with what has been termed “the greatest comeback ever in the world of football” with its double penalty save and brilliant counter attack for the winning Watford goal. Having missed out on the end of the season at least we’ll get one more game this season – at Wembley. Come on You Orns!

I don’t know what it is with travel days but, as we retired early ahead of a six o’clock taxi departure for the airport, I confidently set the alarm on my newly recovered phone for 05:00. To our horror we are rudely awakened very soon after retiring. We get up, shower quietly and attend to final bits of packing. As I go to make a coffee I notice the kitchen clock blinking 04:20 at me. My phone was still on Tokyo time – an hour ahead of Hong Kong. Oops again. We set off as planned, are seen off by Tom and have excellent flights with Singapore Airlines back to Heathrow. The leg from Singapore to London was on the A380 double-decker plane about which Dee had worked on a documentary a few years back and had actually been in Toulouse for its maiden flight. The upper  deck is all business and first class and they wouldn’t even let us go up and peek but never mind. A pre-arranged taxi met us at the airport and whisked us home in time to see that our Wembley opponents will be Crystal Palace, retire and prepare for work the next day.

It has been a wonderful month and one we won’t forget with its food, friendship and fascination allied with our quest to find out more about Murakami’s Japan. I think the trip can be called a success. We’ve enjoyed sharing it and getting your reactions and comments.

Not enough time … there’s a surprise!

28 sushi pink Once again too much

         fun seems to have stopped blogging.

         But how can this be?

OK. Last three days in Tokyo. Last three days in Japan (sad face). But off to see Tom and Caroline and other friends in Hong Kong tomorrow (happy face).

There will be a full account of trips to Chiba in search of art, Kamakura in search of the Daibutsu (big Buddha), a fantastic tea ceremony, a brilliant if chilly night at the baseball – Swallows 6 – 0 Dragons – and a final day with new views of Fuji-san, a mind blowing lunch, a brilliant river trip and a last supper in Ginza to remember.

Forgive us for we now have to pack for a very early start tomorrow. I hope to write lots on the flights and post on arrival in Hong Kong.

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!

Friends and festivals

3 sushi pink.  Will our friends’ advice 

   suffice to make our raw plans

               any more than half-baked?

Well then, it’s decided. The first flight and the first hotel are booked. It’s also clear that we can’t afford an agency to do all our bookings so it’s a plea for help. We are very lucky that my daughter-in-law studied Japanese, is based in Hong Kong and has lots of friends who are knowledgeable about Japan. She very kindly emailed them our outline schedule and to my amazement – these are high powered businesswomen – we had wonderfully detailed and informative responses including, and I quote, “my dorky walking map of Kyoto” which is quite the most useful thing I have ever been sent. Real insider knowledge set out clearly on a series of maps we can follow when we get there. So it was onto the tablet straight away with those. It also helped us to resolve a travel issue that was proving very perplexing.

Kyoto Kate 1             Kyoto Kate 2

Hiroshima is an important place to visit for anyone with an interest in history – my wife, or anyone with an excessive sense of guilt – me. But it’s a very long way to travel and if we do include Hiroshima we have to drop some other Murakami or garden locations. Do we not go from Kyoto to Nara for the day? Do we miss out on the wonderful sounding Naoshima Art Island which we’d seen in a leaflet from JNTO and was highly recommended by one of our experts above. On balance and with a memory of a glazed look from an admittedly very young lady in the tourist office when asked whether she would make the long journey – it’s a no for Hiroshima. I know there will be a little regret at not standing in the peace garden to reflect – especially with Garden of the Evening Mists’ Japanese war in Malaya setting fresh in our memories – but apart from the peace park the Japan Guide lists the next three attractions as a garden (not one of Japan’s top three), a concrete reconstruction of the nuked castle and downtown. On balance it looks like the right decision.

My daughter-in-law had always said that festivals in Japan were manic, wonderful occasions and as luck would have it I discovered in the trusty japan-guide.com that Takayama has its Spring Festival on 14-15 April when we had planned to be in Tokyo but hey it’s not far so a quick schedule shuffle and the Takayama festival is on the itinerary. After all japan-guide.com says:

   “Takayama is considered one of Japan’s best festivals”.

The citizens of Takayama are greedy in that they have another festival in October but given the proximity to the Northern Japan Alps maybe spring is the better option.

With my excited enthusiasm of course I’d only done a boy look at the guide. Later I discovered the hard way what it told me quite plainly had I bothered to read it:

 “The festival gets especially crowded if one or both festival days fall on a weekend or national holiday. As a result, hotels in    central Takayama get booked out many months in advance of the festival.”

Never in my life have I clicked on booking site hotel flags with increasing lack of concern to their proximity to the centre of town to find every single one with the legend “SOLD OUT”. Ooops! Ooops! Ooops! Spread the net to 20 miles from Takayama and a room is available. I’m usually sceptical of the exhortation “only one left book now” but in this instance my click is very firm. Who knows what the Pension Green Lake will be like? It’s not far from the festival, it has a bed, it’ll accept my booking. Tripadvisor had two high starred good reviews – but in Japanese and Google translate didn’t help much.  However it’s only an hour from Shirakawa Mura the UNESCO World Heritage Site with its steep sloped, thatched-roofed houses which we want to visit anyway and we can get to Takayama.

It’ll do.

We’re there for two nights – it had better do.