Travel day part 2

31-sushi pink How can the last day

            be such a disaster for

            us after such fun?

Thursday 9 May [no pictures – no time]

OK let’s get the worst bit out of the way first. We get up, check out and are on our way to catch the 08:02 Narita Express from Shinjuku Station. It’s morning rush hour and negotiating the crowds with four suitcases was not easy. We arrive at the barrier and the clerk looks at our JR passes but says we also need a reserved seat ticket for the N’Ex. I go to look for the office and discover acres of white sheeting covering building works. I return but he’s adamant I have to go further and get a ticket. Beginning to worry a little now with ten minutes to spare, I scoot to the ticket office and get our tickets. Back to the entrance and we are let through. As we scuttle towards the platform, Dee says “Where’s the camera bag?” Ooops! That’ll be in room 601 at the hotel where I packed and prepared it and then failed to pick it up.  I race back to the hotel with an outside chance of making it back. This vanishes when the receptionist quite legitimately checks my details before issuing a duplicate room key. The lift takes forever to arrive. Bag swiftly retrieved, key back to desk, shoot out of door, fly through the morning masses but to no avail. I find Dee, as ever, minding the luggage. So I leave her there, go to the ticket office and get a new N’Ex reservation – umm – from Tokyo Station not Shinjuku. So it’s down several escalators to the Chuo Line for the fifteen minute trip to Tokyo and then escalators and elevators to the Narita Express platform with ten minutes to spare. No problem then. The train gets to Narita at 09:55 and our departure is 11:55 so good time to return the portable wi-fi router and get checked in.

However on the train I check the tickets along with the wi-fi return location and discover that China Eastern Airways to Shanghai actually departs at 10:55, not when my memory told me it departed. However we still have an hour and all should be well. Part one is good – the rental company are happy to email me a receipt from the card details they took on arrival so we don’t have to wait for that.

But this is when I realize I don’t have a phone in my pocket any more. After frantic searching I conclude that I must have left it on the train when checking Tom’s phone number in Hong Kong. We go to the airport information desk and get a number for lost and found but it won’t connect. All I get on Dee’s phone is “NTT Docomo regrets to inform you that this line is not in service.” Oh well we have to go to through security and get to the gate now since my bonus hour proved illusory. We’ll try again at the gate. Here the China Eastern/JAL staff are superb. They call the number we gave them which works from one of their mobiles but gives them another number. They call this and confirm that a phone matching the description I’ve given them was indeed found in seat 11A and is now at the Narita JR terminal. As we are now minutes from departure time there’s no way we can get it but I think we agree that they’ll ship it on the next Hong Kong flight. We are both staggered that within ten or fifteen minutes of us leaving the train, the phone was already gathered in and available for collection had we been able to get there.

The flight to Shanghai is comfortable, has food and beer and gives us time to calm down a little after a mad start to our last day in Japan and get some blog written. Shanghai Pu Dong International Terminal is a vast soulless hangar of a building virtually devoid of life which makes it good for frequent fliers who can get through it fast but it did not appeal to me. Unlike Hong Kong’s new airport – on my last visit I had landed at the old Kai Tak where the plane’s wings scraped the skyscrapers and the runway ended in the harbour – scary. There’s a lot of water around Chep Lak Kok as with much of modern Hong Kong as it’s all built on reclaimed land. The terminal is elegant and efficient and we take Tom who kindly came to meet us, to areas he’s never been to to make a full report about my phone. [Between them, the train line and the airline contrived to forward my phone for collection in Hong Kong on Saturday. A bit of a result that!]

An exciting cab ride back into central Hong Kong island and to our Happy Valley home for the next few days. A celebratory glass of champagne and the joy of  home cooking after 28 days of eating out every night provided a wonderful relaxing end to what might for some have been a somewhat stressful day.

Up in the air and out on the river

30 sushi pink  From up in the sky

             and the  Sumida River

             how will Tokyo look?

Wednesday 8 May

When we first arrived in Tokyo a kind gentleman in the street suggested we take in the view from the observation gallery on the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building just a few blocks from our hotel. The views from the 45th floor observation deck were spectacular and despite an amount of haze we could see Mount Fuji. Fantastic!

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We decided to head back to Asakusa to get the hon stamped at one of Tokyo’s most famous shrines. We achieved this and as we wandered back towards the station and river bus pier we stumbled on the Kamiya Bar an astonishing establishment which is a cross between an English pub (they claim) and a German bierkeller (we think). You select a dish or two and a drink and then find at table and await your order. We sat down opposite a regular habitué who also happened to be a wine expert who spoke good English and was keen to practice it with us. This branch was the original founded in 1882 by Mr Kamiya who also invented the amazing Denki Bran. This is a fierce liquor containing – it is opined only as the recipe is secret – brandy, gin, curacao and herbs. It’s strong, 40% proof, and best taken with beer or water or both. We take our leave and reel out towards the pier for the half hour river trip to central Tokyo.

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We’d read that the river trip had disappointed many but it certainly provided us with a fascinating glimpse of this great city from another perspective. The final stretch before docking at Hanane Pier is awesome with huge vista down through the port area crossed by elegant bridges.

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We made our way back to Ginza to experience again a bit more of the retail brand madness that pervades the area and have our final dinner in a small bar with a charcoal grill that gives us great broccoli, edamame and grilled pork with tohu sauce followed by sushi. The walk back to Tokyo Station gave us some great shots of Tokyo by night.

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A day of two halves and day

27 sushi pinkWhy do dismay and

       delight  so often mix in   

       one and the same day?

So I’m writing this after a Saturday that was not quite what we had hoped for. All things being equal however we should get to go to one more soccer match this season and see Watford promoted through the play-offs instead of automatically. What a horrific game to watch with Jonathan Bond seriously injured by a Watford player Ikechi Anya after a deliberate push by on him by a Leeds player. Sheer nerves gave away two unfortunate goals (sadly it was Jack Bonham’s first appearance as keeper for the first team after the injury to Bond) and we now have to do it all again with possibly only a rookie keeper. Ah well.

First disappointment was to discover that you can’t actually visit the Imperial Palace except on two days of the year. We had been hoping to have a touristy morning starting with a trip across town to Tokyo Station and then a stroll to the Palace gardens at least. Well Tokyo Station which we’d only ever seen from inside is a true delight of a building and an exhibition was being held to celebrate its twinning with Grand Central in New York and its centenary next year – a year after Grand Central. Outside – after the traffic control crash barriers and so on – there is a great open space with fountains and granite benches. Granite is cut and polished so beautifully throughout Japan as seating and ornamentation in public spaces, as indeed is wood.

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Tokyo Station                                                                       Us at the “Imperial Palace”

We made our photostop at the point where you can glimpse an outbuilding above the impressive high walls and wide moat and then crossed over to the first surprise and delight of the day – Hibiya Park – forty acres of endlessly changing green spaces right in the heart of the government and business district. It was Japan’s first European style park and opened as such in 1903, having previously been a military manoeuvre and parade space for the shoguns. From the first little hill we encountered with its replica of Philadephia’s Liberty Bell, past tennis courts, rose gardens, lawns, lakes, fountains and performance spaces the park revealed its clever landscape. It’s an obvious venue for glorious wedding photography as we saw and has a hint of Central park. From time to time you would see cars driving around the perimeter but noiselessly in that weird sound barrier parks can sometimes erect.

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We next caught the subway to Akasaka to look for a number of key locations in several Murakami books. However it was time for lunch first which after inspecting several back street establishments behind the station we elected for a stand-up bar where the only offer was tako yaki octopus balls – precision grilled by the chef and served by a smiling host. They needed careful consumption as the interior was volcano hot. They came with a choice of three toppings and were delicious – excellent serendipitous street food. Then off to the police station, the Nogi Shrine and Park – yet more ceremonial photography – and some streets on the Akasaka-Roppongi boundary. A brief stop was in order at a smart cafe near Suntory Hall called “Randy, Beverly Hills and Tokyo” which also had a display of tempting craft items on sale. The Ark Hills development here is stunning with apartments, offices, concert halls, open spaces and of course shops and cafés.

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Then finally we set off for the Hotel Okura where heroine (?) Aomame undertakes a seriously important mission in 1Q84. It also happened to be where I stayed in 1979 and 1981. Funny how when the Japanese Government is paying you get to stay in a top hotel at a current rate of £250+ a night and enjoy its facilities but when it’s on your own personal budget the Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku seems perfectly adequate. My recollections of a really chic, smart hotel were dashed by the exterior which is unprepossessing to say the least. The vast lobby is unchanged and the pink clad elevator attendants are as I remembered them. There was a bonsai exhibition as part of a bigger gardening show. Now neither of us are great enthusiasts but these were truly works of art with their shaping – perfect cones, leaning layers or cascades. Back to the hotel to change and off to Roppongi to watch the sad game of football and eat chicken wings, ribs and fries which I’m afraid to say felt totally alien after only three weeks away. The staff kindly assisted in our efforts to raise the Orns but you know what happened.

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Sunday started with a lengthy browse around a flea market at the Hanazono Shrine which we had visited on our first day in Tokyo. Lots of kimonos, jewellery, fans, prints, household objects and the usual mix of real antiques and not-so-real “antiques”. A few small purchases were made before we took the subway north to explore Waseda University where Murakami studied. It had a real Oxbridge/Ivy League feel and wandering between buildings old and new in a mixture of expressive and utilitarian architecture which, as at so many universities, reflects the periods in which construction took place. Many people are also of the opinion that Waseda is the model for Toru Watanabe’s unnamed university in Norwegian Wood so it was interesting from that point of view as well.

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Next big question: where to get lunch in Waseda on a Sunday with few places open in this classy suburb. We got lucky by penetrating the blue curtains of a sushi bar where a venerable chef prepared a plate of superb authentic sushi – no extra wasabi was even hinted at. They also very kindly recharged my camera battery as we ate. Such service.

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A scampering afternoon of visits to Ikebukuro to find the Traditional Japanese Crafts Centre only to discover it’s relocated to Aoyama. So we enjoy briefly the mad atmosphere of Ikebukuro with stilt walker, performance artist, pavement painter and jazz combo – just like being in Covent Garden then off to Aoyama where the boulevard features in several of the novels and we do find the craft centre which holds a wonderful display of regional work from all over Japan. A great collection but a little on the expensive side for our pockets, if not our taste.

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Ikebukuro Square                                                                 

Another domestic early evening at the coin op laundry in the basement, map finding and precision timetabling for tomorrow’s planned trip to Chiba Art museums and Kamakura and then dinner in a restaurant Maimon not far from the hotel. As well as some delicious yakitori with leeks we had a dish new to us bagna cauda which was fresh raw vegetables which you dip into a fondue-like bowl of a sauce consisting of soy, garlic, milk, sesame and anchovies – oishigatta as we say repeatedly – and so good for us too.

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 …