Mike’s superannuated, extra belated, hyper birthday blog

35 sushi pink

When a birthday’s big

It is good to eke it out

But four months, come on!

I've been meaning to do an update on my amazing big birthday for ages 
but work has intervened as have football (great start to the season)
cricket (Ashes won and Hampshire in T20 finals again) and a social life. 
Just before my birthday an advertising agency Maverick asked me to go 
in for an extended interview as a writer and I ended up staying there 
all day and apart from my birthday itself, most of the next three weeks.
It was an interesting experience being in a big office after years of 
working on my own or with just a small team and I thoroughly enjoyed 
it and look forward to more. So here it is - only a month late!

So the big trip to Japan was my birthday present from Dee and from me. That started in April and was – as you’ll have seen if you’ve read earlier blogs – something of a success. It exceeded our expectations by a serious factor, included a birthday dinner for both of us  at Alain Ducasse’s Spoon in Hong Kong with my son and daughter-in-law and was quite enough excitement for an oldie.

Writing about it, editing the photographs and video clips kept the memories alive for May after we returned and most of June. Then some serious work for some extremely pleasant publishers from the Netherlands intruded – but hey, it’s all got to be paid for somehow.  We had loved Leandro Erlich’s swimming pool in  Kanazawa and managed to get to the Dalston House installation. His immersive (no pun intended) art is great fun and at the Dalston House we were amazed by several groups with carefully rehearsed and choreographed routines for their five minutes of fame. Our were more modest and tentative but great fun and a reminder of good times in Kanazawa and it was as hot too. Then we had a wonderful birthday dinner with Ilse at La Luna di Luca in Richmond where owner Martina prepares a menu of regional Italian food – Sicily in our case – and course followed delicious course during several delightful hours.

Dalston M&D Dee on the sill Dalston Mike shooting Dalston House WS

Glyndebourne picnic And so the celebrations went on and on – and suddenly we were in July and the birthday itself was upon us. On a day of most propitious sunshine and light breeze, my daughter and son-in-law took us to Glyndebourne for a performance of Hippolyte et Aricie an opera by Rameau that I’d never seen (you can see it online on the Glyndebourne website). We had an afternoon tea picnic on the lawns – proper stuff: cucumber sandwiches, scones, strawberry jam and clotted cream complemented by a fine bottle of Nyetimber Classic Cuvée, appropriately grown, made and bottled in Sussex.  Glyndebourne terrace

The week before I had had an email from Majestic Wine Warehouses to tell me I’d won six bottles of this fine wine which outperforms many champagnes in wine tastings and competitions. I think I’d had to enter my email address and tell them where Nyetimber was. Very nice competition – thank you Nyetimber, thank you Majestic. And we could tell why it wins medals – it was oishii (delicious in Japanese) – very crisp on the tongue, nicely dry but with good fruit flavour. The opera was brilliantly staged and sung and with William Christie conducting the OAE the music was always going to be outstanding. A fabulous dinner in the interval, a glass of wine afterwards and being driven back to London – what more could anyone ask for on their 70th?

But that was only phase two. Saturday was spent opening a huge pile of parcels from friends and relatives the generosity of which was astounding. I won’t do an exhaustive list but a Neal’s Yard cheese experience, whisky and a whisky tasting, books about jazz, Japanese architecture, Japanese cooking, a sushi making kit and the most beautiful proper old fashioned watering can, huge quantities of garden Shoe horn rightvouchers, theatre tokens and a cellar full of wine and beer demonstrate the skill of all concerned in matching their gifts to my tastes – although I suspect collusion with my wife in some cases especially when it came to a long handled shoehorn which I have so admired in hotels in Japan – you don’t have to bend down!

Saturday afternoon and evening was spent in the company of more than 80 friends and relatives with ages ranging from one to 85 and it was wonderful. The excellent Union Club in Soho had been booked as the venue by Dee and they pulled out all the stops to make it a brilliant occasion. We’ve had so many emails from people who also enjoyed it that I now know it wasn’t just me. The food was excellent, liquid refreshment flowed and I had a chance to catch up with everybody – if only briefly with any one group. The young people present did a brilliant job getting everyone to sign a giant birthday card. I even had birthday cakes and the real surprise for me – my face on the label of a case of Harvey’s 1943 Birthday Ale specially commission by the mastermind of the whole occasion, Dee. Wow have you set the bar high for yours! But thank you for an absolutely fabulous continuing birthday celebration.

SOME RANDOM BIRTHDAY PARTY PHOTOS
A calming beer to start with.
Before the storm  E, M, M before 
Early arrivals in the bar

Bar early  Bar busy  Union in the bar

Food was served upstairs

Dining upstairs  Chris and Daisy  Dining upstairs 2

There was a speech and kind words from absent friends and the mega birthday card

Dee absent friends  Birthday card aloft  Card 2

Fun was had with friends, family and neighbours

Dee, Jac, Toddy  Mary, Jo, Mike  Upper Woodyates crew

And then there was the big surprise

M Beer shock   M with beer]
Sunday morningOf course many more people had brought gifts to the party so Sunday morning was spent with a glass of champagne to celebrate our wedding anniversary while opening the remaining presents which continued to surprise, amaze and delight. We set off – Dee and myself, her sister, brother-in-law and nephew for a late lunch where I, at last, was allowed to contribute by providing our anniversary celebration. We went to Chapter One, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the strangely named Locksbottom, travelling ecologically on the 261 bus. I was trying to get its website up on my phone to call to say we were running a few minutes late but the mobile site wasn’t working well so I couldn’t. However I did get an inaccurate look at the dress code which caused me to panic about all three males being in shorts, natural we thought, on a very hot Sunday afternoon, but it is quite a posh place. Mild Mike panic ensued but fortunately they allowed shorts if they are ‘tailored’ which ours obvious were – well sort of. Relaxed and seated at a good table, we had another gift. Because of an error at the bar our aperitifs arrived after our first course and were announced to be on the house. I do like it when people who make mistakes don’t argue but just take it off the bill. The rest of the meal was as good as you’d expect from a Michelin-star-worthy chef and a fine afternoon was spent out in the wilds of Bromley.

So apart from the trip itself, a definite Japan theme was evident in many of my birthday presents. We chose to extend this the next weekend with a trip to Hyper Japan at Earl’s Court. We’d never been before but were amazed by the size and scope of the displays and activities. Computer games and manga we’d expected, food stalls of every kind too, but the huge numbers of people in costume as manga characters was astounding. It was a bit, I’m told, like a sci-fi convention with people posing for photographs, chatting in bizarre groups and generally having a great time. We’d seen a bit in Japan but had no clue as to just how big cosplay was. There were martial arts demonstrations too and some fabulous drumming – Eisa from Okinawa I discovered with shimasen players and dancers as well as the drummers.

P1020941On Sunday 28 we went to the Olympic Stadium to see the paralympic athletes in action. It was the first visit to the Olympic Stadium for Dee and me and we understood why everyone had been so enthusiastic in 2012. It is a great space with a better atmosphere than at Wembley for the playoff final. What is proposed for its future is a travesty and should be stopped. I note there is a page on Facebook and an e-petition to the DCMS but neither has much support so I guess West Ham and the philistines will march on with their annihilation of this iconic space. As we tried to settle up with Elaine who had organised the tickets we were told they were a present too – so on and on it goes!

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Chery tree with highlight

I went to see my daughter and the grandchildren the next day to drop off Daisy’s birthday card and wish them a good holiday trip to Boston and Cape Cod (only slightly jealous!) and came home with yet another present – a cherry tree so we can have our very own hanami season at home in future and have no further need of going to Japan to see cherry blossom.

However I’m sure we’ll find some other excuses.

Strawberries, salad and okonomiyaki in London

34 sushi pink         Garden strawberries –

                      Oh the joys of eating in

                     Japan and London!

Strawberries 1

It was while picking these beauties in the garden last night that I recalled that we had been in Japan at the peak of their strawberry season and had enjoyed many while we were there. It also brought to mind a delicious dessert at a London restaurant and so after a rather busy period of proper work I thought I’d share a few more random thoughts about Japanese food in London.

During our planning for the trip we received some very good advice from a friend who knows Kyoto very well: “Do not miss out on the okonomiyaki in Kyoto,” she emailed. “You really need to fill up on this most fabulously umami creation on the planet.” Well we didn’t miss out and were not disappointed in a small restaurant, Kyo-Chabana, not far from Kyoto Station. We were extremely pleased to discover that okonomiyaki is available in London at Abeno in Museum Street and Abeno Too in Great Newport Street very convenient for us after seeing Britten’s opera Death in Venice  at the Coliseum. We had already decided to we decided to keep it simple with a starter of summer vegetable tempura while the okonomiyaki cooked. It proved a good choice. Since coming back from Japan we’ve been very disappointed with the tempura batter in many restaurants. It’s often too soggy, too heavy and spoils the taste of the vegetables or seafood it envelops. But at Abeno Too the batter was crisp and light around delicious asparagus, edamame , cherry tomatoes, onion and broccoli.

The Abenos claim on their joint website to be the only authentic okonomiyaki restaurant in Europe and in our limited experience it may be a fair claim. Our young server/chef arrived with a bowl containing the batter, eggs, dashi and cabbage that form the base of the dish which she mixed up and poured and shaped into a disc on the teppan hotplate in front of us on the counter. We had decided on the Kiso mix from the dozen or so variants on the menu so we had bacon, mushrooms, cheese and lotus root as the other elements bubbling away on the grill. In some restaurants they bring ingredients for you to cook yourself but here it was expertly cooked for us. It takes about ten minutes including a mid-cook flip to have it thoroughly cooked and then mayonnaise, okonomiyaki sauce – a sticky brown tangy concoction – ginger and bonito flakes are added to the top. The bonito flakes curl and waft in the heat in the most fascinating way that makes you almost forget to eat.

We didn’t forget though and just as well – it was delicious and we had to have a little sake – served in traditional wooden boxes – to provide the full Japanese taste experience. Neither of us is a great fan of desserts but had been very impressed by ice cream in Japan so I was seduced by the maccha– green tea ice cream – so refreshing – and Dee by a kinkakuji from the summer specials menu. This was a box of sake jelly with a strawberry (see above) embedded in it and gold leaf on the surface with a mouthful of azuki bean jam filled doughnut on a cocktail umbrella. We shared and were both amazed by the delicate flavours and the elegant presentation.  A great evening of Japanese tastes just off St Martin’s Lane.

Cucumber, wakame and prawn salad (Raggett) smallWe also had fun making our own wakame, prawn and cucumber salad for a competition run by the Japan National Tourist Office (no there’s no link this time as WE want to win it). Here’s what it looked like and it was a subtle blend of flavours which we think were enhanced by our addition of the ever so on trend pea shoots as garnish. With a little sake in the Bizen pottery cup which was a gift to us from Mr Yamamoto at the Hotel Koraku in Okayama it made for very pleasing starter.

Earlier in June we had a chance to catch up and share impressions with a good friend who visited Japan a couple of years ago at the elegant Watatsumi on Northumberland Avenue. We’ve been there a number of times before but were able to introduce Ilse to its delights. They serve superb food and also some excellent cocktails especially their Japanese fusion cocktails. The “small nibble” dishes of edamame, crispy spicy calamari and baby prawn tempura made for excellent tapas style sharing dishes and we followed it with their mixed vegetable tempura where the actual vegetables will vary with the season but are in a light batter with a very tasty dipping sauce. The restaurant is in an old banking hall with high intricately plastered ceilings and makes for a relaxing and peaceful atmosphere in which to share food and conversation.

So June was a good month with Japanese food made at home on several occasions – a particular hit were some salmon, prawn and wakame fishcakes with tangy ponzu sauce – and eaten out on five evenings which included one old favourite and what we are sure will become a new one and three others that were OK but not special. And in July we have HyperJapan to look forward too – our tickets have arrived and we are contemplating a feast of Japanese food and culture. We are also hoping to get to Leandro Erlich’s Dalston House installation – we loved his swimming pool in Kanazawa and the London project looks great fun too.

Now back to work.

Shiragawa-go, Kanazawa and beyond

15 sushi pink  Can we get away

        with making a post for three days

        and catch up with sleep?

So the Pension Green Lake turned out to be a little gem. In a farmhouse inn the countryside with the kindest, friendliest hostess who after all had driven out to pick us up when lost last night. Our room was great, the bathing capsule perhaps a little small but great power in the shower which is all that matters when you’re up for breakfast at 7.30. Again a delicious home-cooked scrambled eggs with crispy bacon, half a grapefruit, fresh salad and brioches with real strawberry jam. Fabulous! And Megumi, as is the wont of hosts and hostesses stood and watched us eat – we may feel it’s intrusive, they are ensuring ichi-ban service. We set off for Takayama for the spring festival or matsuri and for once had an uneventful drive except that we had to stop five minutes into the trip to photograph a family of monkeys running across the road. Amazing!Monkeys

Our route took us to a conveniently placed car park close to where it was all going to happen. The attendant insisted on giving us a city map and marking our route to the centre of events. We walked along the riverside. And what a lovely walk along the riverside where being up in the mountains the cherry blossom is in good fettle – so we haven’t missed it altogether.

The main parade was due to start at 12:30 so we an hour or so to explore Takayama’s famous morning market. There are stalls with vegetables from the countryside, crafts from the town and a great candle stall where a young lady was individually calligraphing candles. Several more take home gifts, some excellent rice crackers and sesame snacks were also purchased as well as a kebab and a beer. What a kebab! You may have heard of Kobe beef as being the best and most expensive but where we are now in Hida thinks it outdoes it. Superb, delicious, phenomenal – we had to order a second and learn the words oishi katte, absolutely delicious to express our thanks.

IMG_0312  IMG_0332     IMG_0322  IMG_0344 The festival itself was fantastic – a procession throughout the old part of town by townspeople in robes representing different lodges with drummers, flute bands and then 12 magnificent red and gilded floats with fabulous paintings, wood carvings and also carrying flute and drum bands. We’ll put a couple of pictures up but once we’ve sorted through the several hundred photographs and dozen video clips (probably not till we’re back in the UK given the schedule) we’ll post a separate page about the Takayama Festival. We concluded the day with bowls of soba noodles topped with a large slice of uncooked Hida beef which slowly cooked in the warmth of the broth. Oishi katte again to our second encounter with the area famous beef.

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The drive back to the pension was a bit of  a problem as Mike decided that Route 73 was heading south and must get us back more quickly. Raggett off piste is not a good thing. One of the problems in mountains is that roads tend to go down valleys between them and then back up again. So an extra 50 km and ¥650 in tolls finally saw us back at the ranch. Slapped wrist but no major trauma as it was a glorious ride. Megumi welcomed us back and introduced us to her niece Yuki-e who had returned from New Zealand where she’d been studying in Christchurch at the time of the earthquake and soon was hearing all about Japan’s problems too. Her English is great and over breakfast next morning we looked at our photos and videos of the matsuri, which Megumi had never been to as she’s usually booked solid at festival time. We had a brilliant chat about this and that and plan to keep in touch via our blog and her webpage. We would recommend her pension totally to anyone who wanted to explore the area in spring, summer or autumn when the colours will be fantastic. Lots of walking, brilliant scenery, monkeys and the promise of bears. Great place and to think I was worried.

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Yuki-e, Mike, Dee, and Megumi outside Pension Green Lake (courtesy husband Shigeru Yanase) and its fabulously peaceful setting

No monkey business this morning as we drove back up Route 156 to the Shiragawa-go UNESCO National Heritage Site. This is a series of traditional thatched houses with extremely steep pents against the snow. It’s a fascinating place in which heritage site exhibits exist alongside homes of ordinary working people. Again we took loads of photographs and a few video clips and will post more fully on our return. A wonderful insight into Japanese life 300 years ago and how for some it has changed little. Visiting did make me wonder about the value of World Heritage designation – yes we can all go and admire the heroic efforts of people in times past but how does it affect the few real people still trying to live their normal lives? No answers, just musing.

IMG_0503 IMG_0530We then drove on seamlessly to Kanazawa and checked into our hotel before walking to the Kenrokuen Garden one of the big three of Japanese strolling gardens. It out performed all my expectations – such variety, so many things of beauty, some many places to contemplate – sheer delight! Again the 300 photos will need some editing before we post a page devoted to Kenrokuen but if you can’t wait try here. Somewhat tired we walked back to the hotel, gathered our thoughts and went out for dinner. We had some of the best sashimi ever and no we didn’t eat the head however “goodo head” with great pickled vegetables some of which we recognized.

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Oh and on the way back to the hotel we just happened to shoot this sign – it’s warm – at last! 25 degrees at six o’clock. Love it!

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Wednesday morning in Kanazawa started with a trip through the Ohmicho Market just across from the hotel. We discovered by pointing and asking “what’s that” many of the things we’d eaten – lotus root, bamboo shoots – well they’re good for pandas – shiso a wonderful aromatic leaf and several more. It’s a great colourful display of crabs (local speciality), fish, veg and fruit. Magic.

We then went to the museum of gold leaf. Now most of you probably don’t know that 99% of Japan’s gold leaf is produced in Kanazawa. The process of makinh 1kg gold ingots into 1 micron thick sheets of gold foil is brilliant and they had a video that showed it clearly. A few purchases ensued of course at the nearby Golf Leaf Shop – well why wouldn’t you? A quick walk through the old geisha district – still a bit red lighty at night we’re told but this was 10 am. Our next visit was to the contemporary art museum where we were intrigued, amused and provoked by an exhibition called Borderline. Several great exhibits including a scary Anish Kapoor but the most fun was  Leandro Ehrlich’s Hockney-like pool. It looks like a normal swimming pool but is a brilliant trompe l’oeil with only 10 cm of water and a glass platform beneath which visitors can parade. James, we think you’ll love this as we did – imaginative, thought-provoking and fun.

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We had hoped to drive down to Kyoto along the coast but it didn’t quite go right. Instead of the bright blue of yesterday we had grey humid mist. However we arrived here and saw the sea. It is Cape Kasa, the westernmost point in Kaga Prefecture. We also met a local gardener who was determined to offer Dee some vegetables to take home to cook. Dee’s now excellent Japanese enabled her to persuade her that sadly we were in hotels and going to Kyoto with no cooking facilities and had no friends to whom we could give them.

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The Hokuriko Expressway, a super road, sped us to Kyoto where, being worried about delivering late the excellent Hiro from Times Rentacar talked us in, sent us to a local filling station and then helped us to the hotel. We then managed to find a restaurant serving okonomiyaki as recommended by Katie in her Kyoto advice. Stupendous! Katie, Arrigato, goseimasu.