25 January 2019 sees the arrival on Amazon of my book with thoughts about Japanese life and culture:
It consists of short essays about things that have amused or interested me about Japan, ranging from Anime to Zen all illustrated with, largely, my own photographs. The book is available as a Kindle ebook (best with a colour screen Kindle) and as a paperback. You can buy them here:
I’ve chosen to self-publish this after a couple of travel publishers expressed interest but then sat on their hands for months. So with the possibility of interest from new visitors to Japan for the Rugby World Cup this year and the Olympics and Paralympics in 2020, I got fed up waiting and decided to investigate Kindle Direct Publishing which proved pretty straightforward. The only downside is that it has to be an Amazon exclusive and they have minimum price scales for paperbacks which they print to order.
It has been great fun to write and the readers of first drafts have said some complimentary things about it. It’s brought back lots of very happy memories of my visits to Japan which started way back in 1979. I hope if you’ve enjoyed following my blogs over the years you’ll enjoy this slim volume which has obviously used the blogs and my travels as a source but with lots of added research to present a more helpful and insightful guide.
Please spread the word to anyone you think might be interested in going to or just reading about Japan. I’d welcome feedback from anyone who does read it and, of course, if you happen to like it reviews on Amazon, Good Reads and Tripadvisor can work wonders. Thanks for all your support in the past – and I hope – the future.
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.
Everybody 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?”
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.
Following 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.
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.
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’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.
Then 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.
Finally 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.
The 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.
We’ve had a great time, quiet, nine mainly sunny days by the pool. Eating at home because everywhere else means one of us not having a drink so as to drive home along the roads that cry out “mind the eggs”. But we’ve eaten well on local produce and drunk well on local Ciro wines. There have been a few moments of thunder and a couple of quick downpours but on the whole it was just what we needed. There was a well designed garden area with a stone bench that reminded us of Japan and lots of lizards and a few geckos for company.
So we leave our villa today passing what was maligned in a previous post as a wayside fruit stand. It is of course a full blown supermarket with everything we could have wanted and had we looked harder we could probably have avoided our fraught trip to Vibo Valentia last Sunday.
We are going to spend the day and night in another town up the Calabrian coast called Pizzo. We’ve booked into the hotel for one night and reminiscent of early arrivals in Japan earlier this year we have expectations of leaving baggage at the hotel and wandering about until official check in time at 15:30. Pizzo is a warren of undulating winding streets but eventually we hit a free parking space in Piazza Mussolino (note the last vowel) which is walkable to the hotel. However we arrive – sensibly deciding not to take our bags – to find the front door open but a sliding glass door impenetrable. We ring the bell. Niente. We walk about and knock on windows. Niente. We telephone and leave a message on the voicemail and so to the Piazza della Repubblica for a coffee. We’ve not quite ordered when the hotel phones and says we can come now. So we apologize to the patrone, head back to the car and pick up out bags and wheel them along a street of roadworks to the hotel.
Magic! Our room is ready. The hotel is beautiful. The staff are apologetic – they were serving breakfast on the roof terrace and couldn’t get the door – sounds good for tomorrow as breakfast’s included. It’s called the Piccolo Grand Hotel and it’s a perfect description. It has all the elegance and style of a grand hotel but in a converted palazzo that only has 12 rooms.
We ask about parking and are advised that we are best where we are and set off to park up for the day as there’s not much call for driving in Pizzo.
Now you can only buy parking by the hour on a card on which you scratch out the year, day, hour and minute on a foil covered card. And you can only buy cards by the hour. So having decided to stay put we need ten of them at 50 cents each so we sit and scratch and display the whole array in the windscreen. They say it’s OK in the tabacchi where we buy the cards – we’ll see tomorrow if there was a hidden sign saying “No return within one hour”.
Hey ho coffee calls. Il Patrone is pleased and maybe surprised to see us back but we have good coffee and a chocolate croissant for breakfast before exploring the town.
It is a pleasant place with some nice churches, grand – if rather run-down – palazzi and wonderful views of the sea from narrow, angled street corners. The area is famed for its liquorice so we buy a few packs to take home for offices and friends as well as some limoncello flavoured biscuits we think will go down nicely for Friday treats. We go for a prosecco and a beer in the main square before meeting Beata to give her the keys and retrieve our breakages deposit. She arrives, flustered and with many other visitors to attend to and we decide on a local produce shop-cum-restaurant Le Chicche di Calabria for lunch. What a good choice!
We had the Calabrian tasting menu which kept coming – a plate of four or five different cheeses, then a platter of salamis some mild, most quite fiery. For the first time we were presented with our cutlery and napkins in a paper bag. These first courses were the precursor to four bruchettas again two tomato-eyd and the others really hot with the chillies they love so much down in the south. Finally there was the steak – almost a comparable tenderness to the Hida beef we’d tasted in Japan earlier this year. Accompanied by a rosato wine from Ciro region just to the north and finished off with coffee it was an excellent way to spend several hours. We buy a few more bits and pieces from the shop and when we decline a large bottle of local liquorice liqueur our explanation “Ryanair” is greeted with a sage nod of acceptance. Their meagre baggage allowances go before them everywhere it seems. We retired to the hotel which has a lovely small roof terrace for some embroidery in Dee’s case and some reading in mine.
One of the great things about this static, relaxing holiday is that for the first time in ages we’ve been able to read all six of the Booker Prize shortlist – well nearly as according to Kindle I’m 18% through the sixth. For what it’s worth here are some brief observations in order of reading just before the winner is announced:
Ruth Ozeki A tale for the time being A bias has to be admitted because it deals with Japan and Canada in both of which I have an interest but it’s an imaginative look at post-tsunami Japan with further insights into zen and the Japanese character. The writing is not always quite as balanced as I would have liked but it was a compelling read.
Colm Toibin The Testament of Mary My winner by a short head. A beautifully crafted novel with a vivid sense of period and the politics of the birth of Christianity. A stunning concept brilliantly delivered.
NoViolet Bulawayo We need new names Startling and distressing but compelling and for me at least very educational, her stories of kids growing up in Zimbabwe are fresh and have an authentic feel. I found some of the US-set chapters a little less well done but it’s a book I’m very glad to have read.
Jhumpa Lahiri Lowland Again I was always going to enjoy the next book from a writer I already admire and with its settings in Kolkata and New England another two of my interests were featured. A heartbreaking series of stories unfold from her silky pen and I loved it.
Jim Crace Harvest How have I gone all these years without reading Crace? This is my second favourite – unusual for me in that it’s historical again set around the time of the enclosures but it’s love of the land, the politics of medieval poverty and the restless energy of the characters made this a wonderful introduction to an author who will be the subject of multiple downloads soon.
Eleanor Catton The Luminaries This will win because I can’t stand it. I must be the one person in the world who just can’t do Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell offerings which have twice won the Booker and this over-researched, over-written introduction to intrigue in New Zealand’s gold rush falls into the same category. The fastidiousness of the writing with immense effort to achieve a sense of “written at the time” I find very alienating. It leaves me completely frustrated with its lack of energy and I can’t say now that I’ll even bother to finish it. So put your money on this one and ignore my opinions above.
We had been told by several people that La Lampara was the best restaurant in Pizzo and the helpful staff at the hotel called ahead to make sure we could get a table as it is a) small and b) popular. It was great with a shared starter of smoked tuna followed by ricciola for Dee and swordfish for me so we had sampled the three fish the area’s most famous for. Wine choice not brilliant, a not quite dry enough local white but a very pleasant evening in excellent surroundings before retiring to the hotel to blog and discover that England had managed to qualify for the World Cup.
Next morning dawned very wetly. A veritable stream flowed by the hotel’s front door and it was impossible to distinguish sea from land from sky as everything was a uniform grey. Good preparation for our return to London.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
So we are at Hakodate Station bright and early – two hours till tourist information opens. So we take a cab to the hotel – not far but dragging all those cases at this hour does not appeal. The hotel is friendly, allows me to charge the gear enough to post my apology, gives us coffee for free and a map but is quite adamant that check in is 4 pm. So a morning’s kip is out of the question – it’s only 8 degrees so a park bench is rejected as an option. We’d read that the Morning Market is a popular attraction so off we set, coffee buzz overcoming the yawns.
As we walk down the main street we muse: if Kobe felt European, Osaka like being in New York, Hakodate feels like the US mid west or provincial Canada. There are big wide streets with low buildings and the most prominent feature is the electricity and telephone cables and their supports. So clearly significant are they that the tour guide we got later lists the first concrete telegraph pole in Japan as a sight to visit. I think we missed it. It does have beautiful manhole covers though – a feature that you can find in many Japanese cities representing their specific identity.
We reached the market area to be truly astonished. So many shops, three big indoor market areas, tempting free samples being offered at every corner. The Morning Market is superb and helped us spend our first two hours revelling in the sight of fresh fish, massive crabs and vegetables and filling our hungry mouths – remember last night’s train dinner! A first for both of us was sea urchin – orangey-pink, smooth with a bit of grain and delicious if a bit rich – the idea of eating a whole one was a bit daunting.
Armed with our map from the now open tourist office we set off to explore the town on its excellent streetcar service. As one of the first cities in Japan to opened for trade in 1854 along with Kobe and Yokohama, it has a lot of European and American influences mixed with its vernacular architecture, especially near the harbour. We met a Texan who had married a Japanese lady and after much globetrotting had come back to settle in her hometown. He was cycling with a couple of Japanese friends on the first decent weekend of weather. There’s still lots of snow about and with a brisk breeze we didn’t exactly find it balmy.
A big attraction is to go up on a cable car to Mount Hakodate to see the magnificent view over the isthmus that forms the main part of town. Sadly the high winds caused the service to be suspended but you can see what we didn’t here. So after wandering around the harbour area and the old colonial region we took the streetcar to Goryokaku Fort, an unusual five-pointed star shaped structure designed in 1855. Its shape apparently gave opportunities for more gun emplacements and better protection. In three weeks time it will be one the the country’s top cherry blossom viewing sites – today we saw swelling buds. It has an observation tower with great views and made for another pleasant if chilly garden stroll.
Back into town for lunch, check-in and a much wanted shower. Dee did a bit of online research for dinner and came up with a recommendation from several sites for a restaurant Uni Murakami. Clearly there was nowhere else in town we could eat. It was a struggle to find and only average when we got a table after a lengthy wait. Shame.
When travelling by car it’s difficult to keep blogs up to date so at the time of writing this on Tuesday evening 30 April, we have just had the most amazing news via good friend Steve Resco in Hong Kong that the Hobgoblin Bar in Roppongi in Tokyo will show the Watford v Leeds game on Saturday. Guess where we will be!
As so often, Monday morning dawns bright and clear as we go to pick up the next car and head off north. Our first problem with Mazda/Times Car Rental occurred with no trusty, copiously booted Axela available despite being specifically requested. An hour’s delay after declining a Nissan Note – name, shape and size all totally unacceptable – we eventually set off in a seven-seater people carrier which is OK but not ideal with no cover over our bags in the back (however, with such a low crime rate and vigilant car park attendants it’s not really a problem). We decide to drive on national roads along the stunning coastline which was a mixed decision. It was a great drive but it was slow. We had failed to note that Monday was Greenery Day – a public holiday welcoming spring and, as all over the world, everybody takes to the road on bank holidays. We stopped off at a viewpoint called Panorama Hill which was a great place to eat, look at the sea and the mountains and let kids let off steam. Lunch was a couple of pancake-like slices to make a sandwich. Dee had savoury vegetables. I thought I was getting cheese only to bite into custard – delicious, but I’ve had pudding, now where’s lunch?
Next stop Noboribetsu a region of hot springs and geysers. There’s a rather ugly spa development with a shopping street of questionable value, but the lakes and streams themselves were fascinating and bathing our feet in warm flowing water was brilliant. I’d never done fumaroles, geysers and hot springs before so it was a great experience and we found a monument to a famous haiku writer, Kyoshi Takahama, so I had to go pay my dues for bastardizing the form on a daily basis.
A remote country road took us back to the main road along the coast and suddenly we were confronted with this:
It knocks anything on Route 1 in Saugus into a cocked hat – crab, salmon and bear – and lit like a Hopper. Awesome! On to Tomakomai for the night with a good dinner immediately opposite the hotel. Result!
A taxi delivered us to Takamatsu Station bright and early – too early again for the train we’d selected with the fewest interchanges but at the gate they insisted that if we took the 09:33 Marine Liner we could get a direct train to Shin-Kobe soon after arrival in Okayama. Soon after we were seated the train attendant, as they are called, came up to us with this piece of paper with times and platforms for our interchange – without being asked and in English.
It was just another example of the superb service we are receiving from all quarters. The train ride was under grey clouds that nearly touched the roof. So going back across the Seto-Ohashi bridge on the train was interesting as we took the lower deck which would have afforded views but for the grey. We were very impressed that a journey from a different island across the bridge and round the coast of over 150 miles had been accomplished in under two hours door to door in a combination of local train and shinkansen. Drizzle turned to a downpour as we arrived in Kobe, dropped our luggage of at the very stylish Hotel b Kobe and set off on a circular city bus tour to get our bearings.
We got off the bus to visit a lovely little museum of glass bead work. We are just not used to finding a museum on the second floor of a smart downtown office block but that’s where the Kobe Lampwork Glass Museum is. With an excellent display on the long history of using glass beads for decoration it then reveals the many styles and techniques used by modern beadworkers. With the rain lessened a little as we made our way out after a fascinating hour, we then got back to the real work of the day. Just round the corner is the Higashi Yuenchi park which is home to memorials to the great Hanshin earthquake of 1995.
Murakami wrote a collection of short stories called after the quake which feature people affected in various ways by the after effects of the massive earthquake. Being in the park with it’s monuments showing the scale of the disaster and expressing the hope and determination of the people of Kobe to overcome it was extremely moving especially with the latest Tohoko tsunami so fresh in our thoughts. Juggling camera, bags and umbrella was not easy but I hope we can give some indication of what it meant.
The 60 cm drop at the left edge of the trellis A flame of hope burns Memorials line the parkshows the effect of the earthquake
As the rain worsened, we decided there was only a choice of two places to visit next – the aquarium or a sake brewery tour. Hey we’ve seen lots of fish on our plates and in ponds and have only a vague notion of how sake is made so the truly educational option wins out. We hail a passing cab, opining that it’s much too far to walk – and how. The driver was a bit confused but kept on heading north along the shore road with yen flipping over alarmingly on the meter. However he did take us to the right place even if he wasn’t quite sure and hovered at the gate getting wet until an official was able to reassure him that this was indeed the Kaku Masamune Brewery which we had selected on the map we obtained from the Tourist Information at the station because our coupons gave us a free tasting and a free sake vessel each. The tour was fascinating as we followed a group of Japanese visitors who were led round by an obviously hilarious guide as sides were frequently split with laughter. It was a potentially hazardous tour evidently- and that was before any sake was consumed. A young lady came to our rescue and took us to a viewing room where a ten-minute video helpfully put into context all the equipment we had just seen.
We took a train back into town and with light drizzle replacing the torrents we walked around Sannomiya, the central shopping and entertainment area of Kobe, had a beer or two and dinner of cook- it- on- the-hibachi Kobe beef and vegetables. Heresy we know, but on this tasting – admittedly not in a gourmet restaurant – Hida beef has the edge. Then drawn as always to a bar with a Spanish flag and the promise of a glass of tempranillo we were drawn into conversation with three young people, two of whom had been to study English in Hampstead three years ago. It turned into a bit of a night of great hilarity – proving again how friendly and welcoming we have found people on this trip.
Thursday was a complete contrast with brilliant blue skies and temperatures well over 20 degrees and there are almost as many umbrellas in the streets, now taking on the role of parasol. The tradition of all those bamboo umbrellas in wood block prints is maintained today on the streets of modern Japan. We planned today to look for formative influences in Ashiya the Kobe suburb where Haruki lived from an early age. A couple of stops along the line to Osaka and we get off in a pleasant, probably quite affluent suburb. Did the sun always shine this brightly over the young Murakami? The reception desk staff at the hotel next to the station were wonderfully helpful in pointing us towards the library Haruki used to frequent, his Junior High School and the monkey cage which features in a story in the collection The Elephant Vanishes. The young ladies did inform us that the monkey was dead. In fact the park used to have parakeets and monkeys in cages but they were closed for economic reasons in 2010 – fate of monkeys unknown but probably properly transferred into alternative care. We strode through the elegant suburban streets and found the library with little trouble and the park was right next door. I’d have been happy to locate and photograph the exterior but we were warmly invited in, presented meishi and blog address and were introduced to a librarian who hadn’t met Haruki but had had some considerable contact with his mother. We asked about the house he grew up in to be told it had gone but there were some older houses in the area that are similar. His Junior High School was also just a few blocks along the road. In Uchide Park with a witty touch the council has added a panel to the cage with a monkey reading Murakami’s book Kafka on the Shore.
Leafy Ashiya The LibraryThe monkey cage Kafka-reading monkey Ashiya Junior High School
We looked for other connections and saw a few houses of the type he might have lived in. Coffee in a quaint coffee house served by a lady who must be in her eighties and back to the station to explore central Kobe further. As we’re actually on holiday too this involved a ride in a cable car to the Nunobiki Herb Gardens. The ride gives great views over the whole sprawl of Kobe and down to the port where we were headed next. Very well organized there’s a sloping path from the top cable car station to the middle point. It gave us an opportunity to indulge in some more Japanese ice-cream with fresh strawberries as they are at the height of their season and local honey. The variety of plants was excellent with many unfamiliar species and varieties among the more common and some beautiful flower beds displays gave us a restful and relaxing break.
There are a number of references to the Kobe harbour area so we caught the circular tour bus to Meriken Park and were met by an enormous dancing fish designed by Frank Gehry and construction supervised by Tadao Ando – being made of steelmesh it was of great interest to us David Begbie admirers. Just beyond it was another earthquake memorial with a whole section of the collapsed harbour wall to remind visitors of just how awesome the power of the earth can be.
The rest of the harbour area is devoted to retail and entertainment and we had a leisurely beer watching young and trendy people come and go in stylish, outlandish and downright weird wardrobe choice. Many Japanese people have real recognizable style. Others have style that’s sometimes hard to interpret. Back to the hotel to change and out for a quiet okonomiyaki dinner – Katie was right, Kyoto rules when it comes to this mix of rösti and vegetable pancake. This was OK but the previous one was much tastier. We’ve enjoyed a couple of days in Kobe getting close to the environment that helped form Murakami and therebyinfluenced his writings. It’s a very European feeling, lively city and it’s been a fun visit even if we’ve as so often only scratched the surface.
First of all I (Dee) would like to thank everyone for their birthday wishes and for the cards and gifts received before we left.
Although the train service is good we decided to rent a car in Okayama to drive to Takematsu, our next stop and one of the main places to feature in Murakami’s novel Kafka on the Shore. We checked the location with the front desk who sent us to Okayama Station. I’d seen a Times Rent a Car Office in a street about a minute from the hotel but their webcheck told us to go to the station. So we do. And the Times Rent a Car office says we’re just for returns, you have to pick cars up just round from the hotel. Well it’s sunny and it’s exercise, but then they offer to drive us to the pick up point. Our baggage is still at the hotel but we accept. It’ll save us some time and we are now entering a period of serious hunting for Murakami places.
Installed in another Mazda Axela with its copious boot we set off on another sunny morning for the delights of Shikoku. The first of these was a stop at a service area as several of these are referred to in Kafka. Not this particular one but we wanted to know what they were like – excellent facilities, mediocre coffee, but warm loo seats and a peaceful garden to gather strength for the next stretch. Lots of trucks were parked up to so it could have been a stop for Nakata and Hoshino. Our next pleasure was crossing the Seto-Ohashi Bridge, the longest double-decker bridge in the world. We’d seen it yesterday from the ferry to Naoshima and now we were on it, all thirteen kilometres of it. Splendid, flying from island to island across the Inland Sea was exhilarating and you can see from it, unlike a lot of expressway travel. The toll was quite steep at ¥4800 but there is a lot of bridge to pay for.
Once in Takamatsu SatNav Lady – new car but no better sense of direction – delivers us to the back of the hotel where there is no visible means of access so I drive forward and we find ourselves in a pedestrianized shopping mall – oops! Creeping across it amid startled shoppers and speeding cyclists we come to a road again and escape with some relief. It takes a few false turns down side streets before once again gaining access to the front of the hotel from the correct direction – U-turns are very rare and often prevented by central barriers or cones that even I wasn’t going to take on.
Our room wasn’t ready this time but we left our luggage and went off to garden number three on our hit list, the Ritsurin Koen which was about five minutes drive up the road and had good parking so we strolled for two hours in this fascinating mixture of the South Garden – a traditional Japanese strolling garden with the usual calm atmosphere, borrowed landscape, tea houses, lanterns and bridges and the contrasting North Garden which is in a more modern style imitative of European park layouts. On discussing it later we both agreed that the traditional was much more to our liking – so the lawn’s coming up when we get back.
After going back to check in we drove down to Takamatsu Station which features in the book and photographed it and several hotels of the type Kafka might have stayed in on first arrival. Then it was find Colonel Sanders and Johnny Walker – 50% success rate. Yashima Shrine is thought to be the model for passages of action in the book so we went there and then drove round the coast looking for Kafka’s shore. Many beautiful coves presented themselves but no fishermen came to talk to us. Lots of crows did however. (For those who haven’t read it the hero converses frequently with a crow.) As the sun goes down we make our way back to the hotel – front entrance first time, this time – and are parked from a turntable into a vertical rotary stacking garage for the night – good value at ¥1000.
An evening stroll through the pedestrian area resulted in us being approached by a gentleman who had probably had a few too many after leaving the office so we politely declined his offer to buy us a drink and shot some of the shady side streets where Nakata’s deals could have taken place. Dinner and back to blogging duties.
Tuesday morning sees us set of for Tokushima where Hoshino and Yakata arrive in Shikoku and stay at a hotel near the station. We find possible locations there and then head for the mountains behind Kochi where Kafka spent several bewildering passages in dense, steep, tumbling forest. We found plenty of that and some fabulous mountain scenery. The comparison with European mountains is interesting with the vista softened here by the presence of deciduous trees and bamboo so high up, particularly at this time of year with their fresh unfurling foliage. We passed through what appeared to be a ghost town but did have a working post office and phone box and parked cars so we assume life was present. It was all very Murakami again.
Descending from the mountains we stopped frequently as photo opportunities presented themselves to the amusement and extreme courtesy of a truck driver who repeatedly overtook us while we were stopped and then pulled in to passing places to let us go by him. It was another amazing display of generosity and selflessness. As we approached Takamatsu again we went off to find another temple alluded to in the book and saw one of the pilgrims arriving. Shikoku is famous, among many other things, for an 88 temple, 1200 km pilgrimage which many Shingon Buddhist followers make each year and this pilgrim was on foot and dressed in the traditional manner rather than in a coach party.
We had to get the car back by six as we resume rail travel tomorrow so down to the port area, another easy and friendly drop off and back to the hotel for an onsen visit on the roof while our laundry swirled around in the free laundry. The communal bath was a first – separate male and female baths here but the ritual of a thorough cleansing shower followed by wallowing in hot, briny water, cold tubs for a contrast and for men an interior and exterior option so you could see and hear the city go by while lying up to your neck in water.
We asked reception for a recommendation for dinner and they didn’t fail us with Kokon restaurant. The sashimi dish the chef prepared was a work of art in itself and he and his assistant combined our phrase-books and their mobile phone apps to tell us exactly what we were eating. Squid, mackerel, sea bream, tuna, abalone, cuttlefish adorned the dish of ice with radish, shiso leaf and an intricately carved cucumber. When our tempura arrived it was already accompanied by a note prepared with the ingredients.
Good morning Kyoto. A little later than intended after completing the three day blog, going to Yodobashi – an incredible nine floors of electronics, electrical, camera and computer gear with some stationery thrown in – to buy a bigger USB drive to store all the photographs we’ve been taking. Yes they are on the cloud but it’s always reassuring to have a physical backup for us oldies. Our late night activities were accompanied by a little whisky which may have accounted for a good night’s sleep.
There’s some admin to do today too. We need to exchange our JR pass vouchers for the real thing and reserve our week after next overnight train to Hakodate. Fortunately the hotel is right across from Kyoto Station so we don’t have far to go. JR passes were easy, the sleeper reservation not so easy as the train I had selected from Hyperdia online is no longer in service so we’ll have to go from Osaka to Tokyo and get an overnight from there to Hakodate. It’s booked and we’ll just rejig things a bit.
Kyoto station is stunning. A glass and steel facade with amazing angles, lines and reflections and an interior to challenge Grand Central for the classical railway station images of the future. And like the St Pancras redevelopment in London it’s making stations not just places from which to travel but places to be. It has a stage and stepped terrace for music gigs, more restaurants and shops than you can imagine and a green garden on the roof with some very clever eco planting that helps reduce heat transfer into the building – lots of summer days are over 35 degrees – 19 last year alone and it will probably rise. From the roof there was a great view of the Kyoto Tower and our acceptable but undistinguished hotel (the one with the white T up the front). And that’s where we headed next.
Having set out in jeans and jumpers we quickly found temperatures soaring to 25 and up. We didn’t pack shorts but fortunately did have some light walking trousers and sandals which were more appropriate attire for the day – thank goodness for the three day unpacking stay. We set off with Katie’s “dorky” maps to explore some small parts of this huge city. Mastering the simple two-line subway, we went first the Shinjo-dori the main shopping street to see if we could buy a Japan road atlas in English to help with our next stages of rentacar travel. We found a big bookshop with new Murakami book posters everywhere but no road atlas. Off the main street, which is the universal, global big city shopping area, are arcades crammed with little shops which are much more interesting. Then we came to another of Katie’s suggestions, Pontocho, which is a narrow street lined with bars and restaurants overlooking the Tama River. It was so warm that we just had to go into one to enjoy the air conditioning for a bit and of course a beer. We had a great view of a team who had dammed up part of the river to build a platform out over it which apparently many of them do for the summer season. We could imagine the delights of a glass of wine out on the terrace.
Refreshed we strode off to the Nanzen-ji Temple where we enjoyed the beautiful spring garden – the shimmering colours of acers in spring are almost a match for their autumn glory and of course so much fresher. Here we also obtained, as advised, our hon (pr. hone) a folding book on which temples stamp their insignia with a hanko (handwritten kanji combined with a special rubber stamp). They are beautiful and will give us a great souvenir of our trip.
We then set off on the ‘Philosopher’s Walk’ a canal-side stroll through eastern suburbs with stretches of complete calm and peace conducive to higher thought – I certainly needed that – and small craft shops selling locally produced goods. By the time we reached the end we were well away from train lines and subway but Dee had cleverly picked up a bus map and the next one to round a corner was the 100 bound for Kyoto Station. It was very crowded at shop and shrine closing time and we stood for most of the journey which was a shame as it passed several landmarks of which we could only see the bottom half.
The philosopher? … in pursuit of gesiha on the walk? … this is what Dee wanted by the end of it.
As we got back to the station, we decided to see if the Kyoto Tower had an observation gallery. It does, we went up. Dusk falling visibility hazy after the heat of the day but a fun visit nonetheless.
Shinkansen passing on the approach to Kyoto The Tower reflected in Kyoto Station
After a freshen up and a couple of much needed beers following a hot day on our feet we decided to head out to find dinner locally. I don’t know if you have the same problem but we are very indecisive when confronted with a street with five restaurants all of which look interesting. We walk up, we walk back, we look at menu pictures outside and then we decide we really are hungry and are going to have to plump for one of them. We did and it turned out to be a hibachi grill place. We were shown, shoes off of course, to a private screened booth with a footwell under our table and were served fresh vegetables and akta mackerel which we cook ourselves over a brazier with three red hot charcoal logs. Great fun and very tasty and we had chosen some excellent sashimi as a starter. We enquired of our server how she spoke such good English and it turned out that Mikita was coming to Brighton in June to study English and had been practising ahead of the trip. We have been struck by amazing meetings with people with existing and possible connections throughout the trip – there really are only six degrees of separation.
We left the restaurant and walked back towards the hotel and spied a rather lively and bright yellow-coloured bar (apologies to our Hornet friends that it is yellow AND green) – standing only and it had a great name. So given the deprivation of yellow as we are missing so much Watford football, we thought a sake night cap was in order. It proved a great people-watching place as late nighters popped in for a quick one on the way home and two ladies of a certain age stood consuming beer to our left until closing time – when we too were asked to drink up and depart – extremely politely. Busy, busy, Kyoto.
Masoho restaurant entrance The last orders bar
Friday dawned fresh, bright and breezy and it was back to jeans and sweaters big time. How can the temperature change by 15 degrees overnight? Well it did and we took the subway south to visit Higashi Inari Shrine. Sadly we missread the map and finish up at a station which is s forty-five minute walk from the shrine rather than the railway station that’s right in front of it. So a taxi was hailed and delivered us to the Fox Shrine which apart from amazing main buildings has a walkway of shrine gates or torii which stretch up to the main shrine on the mountain and involve 10 000 vermillion gates – awesome. We only walked the first three thousand as other sites called but a stroll to the top and back would make a great half day outing given more time. We were approached by a uniformed guard and were worried that we’d been photographing in the wrong place but he was a retired firefighter who had spent time in Sheffield and Liverpool on job exchanges and welcomed the opportunity to speak English. We next took a short train ride to Tofukuji Temple where the buildings are stupendous but the main attraction was a beautiful zen garden on all four sides of the main hall. A wonderful oasis of peace and contemplative strolling in the midst of busy, busy Kyoto. On our way back to the station we called into a small temple Doju-in where the attendant most beautifully calligraphed and then stamped our hon.
We then used our JR Passes for the second time on a train to Kiyazumi which is an amazing complex with superb views over the whole spread of Kyoto and then walked through quaint streets with fabulous little shops dotted about until we reached the Yasaka Pagoda and turned in to the Maruyama Park a popular open space with ponds and shady pathways – and a few ups and downs as we’re in the mountain foothills. After an increasingly chilly walk around the park as the wind got up we descended to the Chion-in Temple just in time to find it close. This is fortunately a short downhill walk from Gion the ancient geisha district which we wanted to explore. It’s lovely, weird and wonderful. We saw women buying kimonos and accessories, having their hair done and one of my favourite shops was a koto, shimasen and shakuhachi shop.
Yasaka pagoda Maruyama Park Old and new Kyoto meet in Gion
Some difficulties next after boarding a train at the first station we came to, Kawaramachi, where we showed our passes only to be told at the exit ticket barrier that it was a private railway and we’d need to pay. Kyoto – maybe Japan trains = confused.com. However we got back safely and did a load of laundry in the coin-op in the hotel, conveniently on our floor. Then repacking ready for the road tomorrow and what felt like a wimpy dinner in the restaurant beneath the hotel which was actually rather good – beef and potato stew for me and fried beef and rice for Dee occasioning slight food envy. She had made the right choice.
We’re are now in the very excited build up to actually going on this trip at last. It became even more exciting this week when Japanese currency arrived. I’d shopped around at banks, the post office and travel agents to find not very good rates. In a week when the Japanese government poured trillions of yen into the economy to kickstart inflation and recovery, the yen fell against the pound and the dollar. However exchange rates are slow to respond – a bit like prices at the filling station – quick to go up when oil prices rise, slow to come down when they fall. Rather warily I ordered them online – well there was a bank holiday weekend in the way but they turned up fine as planned. I had looked at several sites and found the best rate and excellent service from TravelFX.com who kept me informed of progress throughout the process. Here they are: ¥1000 somewhere between £6 and £7; ¥5000 about £34 and ¥10000 about £65 – well today anyway!
There were two other important pieces of preparation. Being a little unhappy to rely entirely on showing electronic booking forms to hotels and car hire desks we decided to print out all our booking confirmations and vouchers. Our good friend Toddy posted earlier that we would need a “sturdy binder” for all of them. He was right as you can see and thank goodness we’re not on Easyjet or Ryanair with cabin luggage weight restrictions.
The other sprang from some great advice from the superb practice nurse at our local NHS surgery. Dee is suffering from a bout of sinusitis at present and was a bit concerned about its effect on the ear and head pain she usually suffers during take off and landing. “Get ear planes,” we were told. So we did. They are little clear rubbery earplugs with a grometty spiral at the outer end which helps to balance pressure and prevent pain. Sounds great, we’ll find out in a day or so if they work.
And now I wonder if anyone out there can help me? When I was in Japan in 1981, I bought a series of four etchings which we’re extremely fond of and would like to find out a bit more about. I photographed them and took them in to the ever-helpful Alisa at the Japan National Travel Office in London to see if the titles or the artist’s name would provide any clues and maybe point us at the locations they depicted. The titles proved descriptive but non-specific in terms of finding out in which part of Japan they might be. Up in the Hills, Green Fields, Poplars and Red Bird are accurate but unhelpful. She was also unable to provide a secure reading of the artist’s signature so I’m posting the etchings and a close up of the signature below and if anyone recognises places or the artist we’d really love it if you could post a comment to let us know.
and the signature.
Thanks for your comments, feedback and suggestions. Now for the real fun!
So the sums so far show us that we can probably make our dream trip come true. Hotels are booked but all still cancellable up to a couple of days before we’re due. Some things will need to be bought and paid for now so it’s time to reach for the card wallet and do the job in earnest.
Talking of cards reminds me that business cards were very big when I was there before. This is principally a holiday but we do have a production company that can operate anywhere so after a quick discussion we agree that a joint meishi would be a worthwhile investment. In one of the quickest searches ever up pops the excellently named Japanese business cards dot com. I approach them and a couple of others and their costs seem reasonable so I set about designing our card English one side, Japanese on the other. They translate them as well and send a proof. I asked a Japanese speaking contact to tell me what I, Dee and the company did from just the Japanese side and the translation was spot on. So here we go handing out meishi – with both hands of course as etiquette dictates – to all and sundry. As it’s a joint card maybe we should hold one corner each as we hand them over. The guide doesn’t cover that. Here’s what it looks like:
That’s one task ticked off on the ever-growing Japan Trip Checklist that we both add to all the time. My next tasks are to try to sort out car rental and to buy our Japan Rail Passes. The former still proves rather tricksy – huge charges for one-way rentals, confusion over actual vehicle sizes because they are all called something different but we will get there.
The rail pass on the contrary couldn’t be easier. Buying online or in person are both possible. I opted for online, completed my form, paid the fees and received confirmation of both order and despatch. That’s when the trouble started. The letter needed a signature on a particularly wet Saturday when we were out. Red card from the postman to collect it from the delivery office. After two visits at which I was told “it hasn’t come back from the walk yet” I began to worry that our passes might not reach us but they were sent recorded delivery so insurance would cover them wouldn’t it?
Third time proved lucky although the muddy, torn envelope didn’t inspire confidence – “our post bags all leak” said the postie at the delivery office. Quickly home and open it up to find two gloriously sunny folders each with an exchange voucher each that will get us our actual rail passes in Japan. It feels like we’re on holiday already as the snow blankets the UK again.
So to car rental again. Given the different naming conventions of most vehicle manufacturers depending on the territory – who can forget the Mitsubishi Starion – we have no real idea what we are being offered in the quotations and whether our luggage will fit. I’d love to be backpacking and not have the bother but it might be a bit more of a struggle than either of us can cope with. So there will be suitcases and they need to be concealed within the boot when we’re on the road. We set off armed with a tape measure and case dimensions to visit local Nissan and Mazda dealerships. We have a Toyota Prius and know that we can fit them in there should we be offered one. But Nissan Tiida and Mazda 3 or 5 seem to be the most popular classes of vehicle on offer.
Having spent a lot of time filming in dealerships it was with a certain degree of embarrassment that I enter first Ancaster and then T W White and Sons with the sole purpose of checking out boot sizes (trunks for our US readers). The staff couldn’t have been more polite when faced with this odd request. It seems we don’t have the equivalent of the Tiida in the UK but that the Note is the most likely equivalent. At Mazda however the policy of naming by numbers pays off and we confirm that the Mazda 3 – considerably more economical in fuel and beneficial to our budget than the 5 or the Tiida – will fit the bill. We have a long chat to a self confessed boy-racer who reckons even he gets good fuel economy so the scales tip in favour of Mazda. One final email to Mazda Car Rental, which incidentally will change its name to Times Car Rental before we arrive, to get a re-quote for the Hokkaido leg and car hire can be ticked off the list.