The Obligatory Tourists

23 sushi pink  What can we expect

          from a very early start

          in Hakodate?

Apologies to Anne Tyler for today's title.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A remote country road took us back to the main road along the coast and suddenly we were confronted with this:

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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!

Day off in Osaka

21 sushi pink  Just one more day in

      the Kansai before we go

      north. Will it suffice?

[Apologies for a half post of this by mistake - finger trouble whilst tired.]

The one thing we’ve noted in our travels in the Kansai region – the mid section of Honshu Island – is that it’s a continuously built up area. It took half an hour to get from Kobe to Osaka and the train was going on to Kyoto in another half hour. We whizz through station after station with commuters in their neat rows waiting to board the local trains. Such a mass of humanity everywhere. We began the day with a final walk around Kobe including a visit to Daimaru Department Store. A memory from thirty years ago is of smartly dressed young people, mostly young ladies, greeting you to the store with genuine pleasure. They still exist with perhaps slightly updated uniforms and greet you with the same degree of enthusiasm. The top and bottom of ten floor Daimaru were real revelations. On top of the store is a garden and a garden centre. It’s a great space with views over the city. The bottom floor is the food hall of such immense scale and variety that you could browse all day, stopping occasionally for fresh drinks and snacks from the counters that pop up every now and then. It was good to see Fortnum & Mason and Daylesford Organics flying the flag in the midst of the oriental delights that abound.

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Arrival in Osaka was uneventful until we took a taxi to the hotel. We had the address written down but finally we had to resort to my suggestion that he use the phone number we also had. This worked – the hotel had changed its name – and we were able to get into our room ahead of check-in time at three, something we’ve been really lucky with. We planned to go to the National Art Museum to see if we could see any other prints by Kenji Ushiku who made the etchings I’d bought 30 years before. We asked the front desk for directions and they suggested a cab and wrote directions for us to give to the driver. We arrived at the back end of the building – is SatNav Lady interfering with other drivers too? – and found our way to the entrance under increasingly black skies. It was very hot when we arrived and I’d gone out in only a polo shirt which was now inadequate as the winds got up, thunder rolled and rain started to fall. Sadly the permanent display has been suspended for a Picasso exhibition and a seasonal Painters of the Kansai show. So no go on the print front. As we’re quite close we decide to go to Osaka Station to check our departure times for Tokyo tomorrow. We managed to achieve the walk of about a mile entirely underground, thus avoiding a soaking.

There was an astonishing amount of activity around the station, with TV cameras and crowd control in full swing Japanese style, which we found was due to the opening of Grand Front Osaka a huge nine-floor, vertical mall with offices, a hotel, 260 shops and many food outlets. It’s branded as “a new city centre” and they are expecting 25 million visitors in the first year. We approached, wavered and did not enter. Scary shoppers, megaphone toting security and the crowds made us think better of it – it was Bluewater at Christmas x 10. Judge for yourselves if we were right. We went instead into the, now deserted and peaceful, Isetan store with the intention of buying a jumper or light jacket for me but the prices made me wince more than the cold so we just took lunch on the top floor.

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National Museum of Art with imminent thunder    Crowds at the opening day of Grand Front

On leaving the new Osaka Station City area after our rather late tempura lunch cooked lovingly in front of us on the top floor of Isetan department store, we set off on the JR City Loop train to explore. We were approached on the platform by a diminutive lady who wanted to practise her English and presented us with an origami bird as a gift. We got on a train with her – going in the wrong direction as it happened and were regaled with the highlights of her language acquisition method. She had meticulous, cursive handwriting in an exercise book. It was crammed with lyrics of popular songs – many of them karaoke favourites. It clearly worked for her. After two stops we apologised and went back round the loop the other way, failing to find the area we wanted and retired via subway to the hotel. With a late lunch and mid-trip exhaustion we decided to have a rest, go out and have a few drinks and maybe a small snack and then have an early night. Phwoomp – art frustration, thunderstorms, cold and tiredness had me wondering whether coming to Osaka was such a good move after all.

Our early night was dramatically interrupted by what we correctly assumed was a fire alarm at about eleven and it was only after about ten minutes of yukata-clad peering along the corridor to see other confused guests wondering what was going on. It was ten minutes before reception managed a tannoy in English – after Dee had phoned to enquire whether they could tell us what was happening – to the effect that it was a false alarm, the alarm had been tripped accidentally and not to worry. Reassured, we were prevented from further sleep by an insistent, recorded message that the staff had obviously switched on but couldn’t stop. Annoyingly, despite hearing it at least 200 times we still couldn’t make out the words due to an echo in the system. Finally it stopped and we crashed.

Saturday morning Osaka was a far more encouraging place with bright warm sun and a bit of a breeze and the news that Watford beat Leicester away 2-1 – highly energising. We set off to explore an old style shopping street – 2.6 kilometres of Tenjimbashi-suji. It was brilliant. A chemist provided much needed hairspray, toothpaste and plasters – way too much walking! The best array of knives in one shop, cooking implements, fresh fruit and vegetable stalls lined the street in a dazzling and comforting, human display. Grand Front may be for some but this is what we came for. At the bottom end – we didn’t do all its length, shame on us – we visited an appropriate shrine that celebrates the gods of learning and the arts. Temmangu was one of the most interesting shrines we’ve visited with many small areas for private devotion, several child blessing ceremonies and, quote the hon scribe “lots of wedding ceremonies today”.

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After a refreshing coffee in a small coffee house opposite the shrine, we went to the Nakanoshima Park which is on an island between two branches of the river Dojimagawa. It was lovely to find rose gardens, picnic tables, recreation areas and space surrounded by the high rise of Osaka downtown. It took us back to the Esplanade by the Charles River in Boston. There were several groups of people sketching under the supervision of  a tutor, others doing group exercises. No time for loitering though with a three o’clock departure for Tokyo. Next stop was Namba Walk a modern underground mall which contrasted starkly with the atmosphere of Tenjimbashi-suji. You know which I prefer. However at the end of Namba Walk we arrived at Namba Gardens a truly stunning shopping mall and cinema complex famed for its high level gardens and views over the city. It was an incredible structure and worth the visit. It was also, as everywhere there are shops has been, rammed with people carrying bags with purchases not just window shopping. So maybe the latest round of quantative easing of the yen recently introduced is working. Note to Mr Osborne perhaps.

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Hotel, luggage, taxi, Shinosaka Station to take our first big Shinkansen trip – 3 hours to Tokyo via Kyoto, Maibara, Gifu and Yokohama. A box lunch at the station to eat on the train and an altogether more interesting ride with the ability to see landscape and cities whoosh by. As we took bends at high speed the tilt of the train was very noticeable with, on occasion, only water visible through one window and sky through the other. My geography lessons at school led me to believe that Japan was all mountains with extremely narrow coastal plains. Either the books were wrong or tectonics have achieved a lot in 45 years. Some of the stretches we covered were as flat as the proverbial pancake for as far as the eye could see.

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We arrived at Tokyo Station made the transfer to Ueno Station from which trains go to the north via Tokyo’s excellent Yamanote Loop line and after some confusion found our train bound for Hakodate. We were surprised to be met by a mass of paparazzi, kids with large Nikons and Canons and an atmosphere of something special. Now we know our blog is reaching a large audience but this did take us by surprise. What happened next is another story …

It’s not all about the beef

20 sushi pink  In two Kobe days

             can we find the real source of

             Haruki’s ideas?

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.

Train times takamatsu

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.

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The 60 cm drop at the left edge of the trellis       A flame of hope burns   Memorials line the park
shows 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.

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P1020184We 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.

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Leafy Ashiya                                         The Library
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The 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.

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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.

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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.

Booking, booking, booking

4 sushi pink   As the week unfolds

   what shall we now discover

                to threaten our trip?

With the little frisson of Takayama Festival safely behind us I settle down to the slog of going stage by stage, train by train, car hire by car hire through the whole itinerary. My daughter-in-law commented on an earlier post with a fine Japanese word for us – Ganbatte. Apparently a literal translation would be Exhaust yourself but it’s used as an encouragement to hang on in there, chin up, stick with it or come on my son. With this exhortation taken to heart and being of a thorough, and cost-conscious nature I start out consulting about four or five sites for each location. A pattern soon emerges – the Japan based sites with the extra hassle of converting yen or dollars to pounds soon start to fall by the wayside with fewer and fewer hits from me among the forest of tabs open across the top of my screen. Then there’s the tedium of consulting my master plan to see what dates to enter and the number of nights for each hotel and entering them in different formats on each site.

I discover that to select a hotel I think will be appropriate, bookmark it for ratification later in the day by Dee who doesn’t share my benefit of working from home and book it with a secure ability to cancel with no fee all takes about an hour to an hour and a half depending on the destination. Choosing the one hotel with a room near Takayama should have been speedy but I still had to look at all the SOLD OUT ones before I got there. Even checking the “show only available rooms” option is not infallible as it doesn’t filter for my choice of a double room so I look at a lot of hotels with only singles. It’s time consuming, frustrating and one day I’ll invent a proper booking site that meets all my criteria.

Oh do stop whinging! It may take a while but you are going to Japan! Get over it and get on with it! My alter ego always was most encouraging. Eventually it seems the best option for me is to use Trivago.com to do a comparative trawl and then as it transpires select the best option on either Booking.com or Agoda.com which always seems to have the lowest rates between them – sometimes one, sometimes the other with no real pattern, rhyme or reason.

Three days later, I finally manage to get a spare hour or so to show Dee my selections. She starts to glaze over after about the fifth but we plough on and agree that without her looking at all the available options herself I’ve done a good job. Well time will tell won’t it?

I’m fairly comfortable with e-tickets, showing my phone to go to the cinema, green about recycling and cutting down on paper but I can’t resist printing out each booking confirmation – being careful just to include the core information and not the other three pages of guff that incautious printing from websites always seem to include. At the top of each I write the hotel number and the dates we’re staying there. The last one reads “Hotel 15, 3 to 9 May Tokyo”. So we have accommodation for every night of the 29 nights we’ll spend chasing all over Japan except for one night on a train still to be booked.

There’s a map of our day-by-day schedule on the blog but the main stages are:

1 Tokyo 2 nights 2 Mount Fuji area 1 night 3 Kiso Valley 1 night
4 not too far from Takayama 2 nights 5 Kanazawa 1 night 6 Kyoto 3 nights
7 Okayama 2 nights 8 Takamatsu 2 nights 9 Kobe 2 nights
10 Osaka 1 night Train Osaka – Hakodate 1 night 11 Hakodate 1 night
12 Tomakomai 1 night 13 Sapporo 1 night 14 Asahikawa 2 nights
15 Tokyo 6 nights

And then Hong Kong for four nights where we hope free accommodation might be on offer.

So far so good – it looks like it will work but now to gauge the distances, train fares, mostly with a Japan Rail Pass – but the extras for sleepers – car hire, fuel costs and expressway tolls to give us an accurate estimate of what it will cost and whether I or the tour operator experts were right.

             

Planning a dream trip

1 sushi pink         Long planned, will this year

see a dream trip to Japan

be reality?

Ever since I was lucky enough to make trips to China and Japan in the late seventies and early eighties, I’ve dreamed about going back – especially to Japan.  Those trips were work – a party from the Inner London Education Authority was  invited by the Ministries of Education in Beijing and Tokyo to run a series of lectures and workshops for teachers. They worked us hard and I think we gave them value for money but there was only a very little time for sightseeing. But what I did manage to see of Japan in particular gave me a lasting hunger to return.

Then discovering more of Japan through its literature provided a way of staving off the hunger. An earlier Japan was evoked in novels by Kobo Abe, Akutagawa, Kawabata and Tanizaki who each brought the country to life through superb description and the painting of atmosphere. In the sixties there was a cult following for Yukio Mishima who gave completely new insights into a different Japan. And then I discovered Murakami (Haruki that is) and the desire to visit and explore grew stronger with every new book. The twin wishes to return to Japan myself and to share my excitement for the country with Dee who is equally hooked, have grown steadily. Time, budget and circumstances have contrived against it until now.

Somehow this year I will celebrate a major milestone birthday – my biblical span is up. I can’t really believe it but my birth certificate has inscribed in that beautiful, long-lost functionary script my date of birth in July 1943. So it must be true. We’ll actually be in Japan for Dee’s birthday but perhaps I’ll join in early and, who knows, just carry on until the due date.

Our Murakami pursuit will take us on a Wild Sheep Chase and a right old Dance, Dance, Dance in Hokkaido in the north, extensive forays into Tokyo and several other parts of Honshu and down to Shikoku to pursue Kafka, Nakata and Johnnie Walker from Kafka on the Shore. In addition to this we were both in the process of reading Tan Twan Eng’s Booker candidate Garden of the Evening Mists and an existing interest in Japanese gardens, reawakened on a recent visit to Tatton Park, became even stronger. So a lovely gift of a few years ago 1001 Gardens You Must Visit Before You Die came off the shelf and the itinerary expanded to include at least three of the country’s most highly regarded gardens: Kenrokuen at Kanazawa on the western China Sea coast; Korakuen in Okayama overlooking the Inland Sea and Ritsurin Koen in Takamatsu on Shikoku Island. Well at least we’d intended to go to Takamatsu since Kafka on the Shore is largely set there.

Early in 2013 it became clear that a space in our work schedules would permit a sensible length trip to Japan in April and May. It would also afford us an opportunity of visiting my son and daughter-in-law who are living in Hong Kong. We had been working for some time on an itinerary that would take in many of the locations we knew through reading – especially those of Murakami. We needed a month to do it justice. We’d picked the most expensive time to travel since we include Golden Week in our dates with no less than five national holidays and the time when all Japanese go travelling. It’s also of course smack in the middle of hanami – the cherry blossom viewing season.

Ah well, best bite the bullet (train) and see what can be done.

Then the other day walking to meet some fellow Watford supporters for a City ‘Orns monthly drinks and dinner I came across this in the middle of Bloomsbury!

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Cherry trees are blooming in Bloomsbury
March 2013

Who needs to go to Japan?