As many of you know, and the name of my blog probably gives away, I’m a big fan of the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. He’s just published a new non-fiction book about his extensive collection of T shirts. The publishers Vintage – part of Penguin Random House – ran a competition for a signed copy of the book and a unique T shirt commemorating the title. You had to submit your favourite Murakami-related T shirt photograph and explain why.
So I’m in Tokyo in 2013 buying the first copy of his then latest novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage in Japanese on launch day at Kinokunia Bookstore in Shinjuku, wearing an 1Q84 T shirt I’d obtained by queuing outside Foyles in London for the midnight release of the trilogy 1Q84 in 2011. Dee and I even appeared in an Evening Standard feature about the launch. Well it demonstrated my Murakami credentials and I won a prize! I never win prizes.
And then it had to be added to the extensive collection of Murakami titles which are fully referenced in the Our Murakami library section of this blog.
The book itself is a marvellous revelation of some personal aspects of Murakami’s life which he seldom reveals. It’s generally known that he has a massive collection of vinyl albums – estimated at 10,000, but who knew he also gets T shirts wherever he goes. There is a chapter on record shop T shirts of course but also on surfing shirts. In one great anecdote he tells of his delight but also shyness at meeting a famous surfboard designer Dick Brewer whose boards he’d used for a long time. Richard Brewer was now working as an estate agent showing Murakami round a property in Hawaii. “So you have the same name as the surfboard designer,” Murakami observes. “I am Dick Brewer but my wife said I’d never get anywhere surfing all day, so I had to get a proper job.” There’s a good plug for Guinness too alongside a T with the famous badge:
Travelling in Ireland I’d stop at local pubs and be amazed that the temperature and amount of foam in the glass would vary and the taste would be different too. I continue to order Guinness in all sorts of towns – in fact I could down a Guinness right now – but I’d better finish writing this first.
Well Cheers Vintage and Cheers Haruki. I finally won something and something I’m very pleased to add to my (comparatively) tiny T shirt collection. And if you’d like to know more about this fascinating book go here.
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.
Sorry for the hiatus any anxious readers but family fun in Hong Kong,
travelling back to London and going straight back to work have interrupted
the blogging process. This one will describe the four days we spent in
Hong Kong and then there will be occasional posts and new pages with
extra photographs and details of some of the highlights of the trip.
So after a Thursday to forget (except for home cooked dinner by Tom) we wake up at their amazing apartment on the 27 th floor with views to the harbour on one side and over the whole of the Happy Valley race course and sports area from the living room. I was impressed by Hong Kong thirty years ago. Now most of the buildings I saw have been demolished and replaced by even taller ones. It is a truly phenomenal city in the sky. If you’ve ever played SimCity you’ve been to Hong Kong! We spent the morning exploring Central – walking through the clammy streets, up the huge travelator that swoops up to the Mid Levels and then through the air conditioned malls and walkways that enable you to survive in the city. 27 degrees and 97% humidity make air conditioning not a luxury but a necessity. And by careful planning you can go most places in comfort. Tom, now a HK veteran of two years has it all sussed so we move through the city cool, calm and collected. We then make our way back to Causeway Bay to see a Hong Kong institution – the Noonday Gun. This is a tradition carried out since the 1860s when Jardines, one of the major Hong Kong trading companies was ordered by a British naval officer to fire a one gun salute at noon every day as a punishment for insulting the navy by saluting a civilian.
Synchronizing watches and bang!
We arrived and took up our positions, watched the gunners carefully check their watches and then jumped like mad when a very loud report and a big puff of smoke issued forth. Even though you know it’s coming, it’s still a real shock. We then walked round to the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club one of the most sought after memberships in the territory. We are very lucky in that Paul Dalton, a good friend of Tom and Caroline, whom I had met in London, had invited us for a relaxing elegant lunch. Feeling very privileged, we enjoy fabulous views of Victoria Harbour and partake of food from an interestingly mixed buffet and menu which combine British colonial favourites with local specialities. Lunch was unhurried, conversation flowed and ranged over many issues and the whole was presided over with graceful charm by Paul. As we left, the famous Hong Kong rain came down, hard and vertical and, as elsewhere in the world, dissolved all trace of taxis from the streets. Eventually one parted the curtain and took us away for a little light sightseeing and then back to the apartment for a break which included watching the most incredible clouds pour down over Happy Valley.
We then changed for the evening which was at an equally interesting venue – the China Club. It appears not to have a working website but has an intro and picture in its sister club’s site for Singapore. Set in the former headquarters building of the Bank of China it’s a retro eye-opener with stair and landing walls lined with modern art from owner Sir David Tang’s collection – an eclectic taste is displayed. There’s a roof terrace with fabulous views over night time Hong Kong and a vast dining room with superb food and a series of fascinating shows – a torch singer who whispers jazz classics, not always quite in tune but certainly the centre of attention. She is followed by two guys – one doing amazing things pouring tea from a very long teapot into cups that he’s juggling while contorting his body; the other makes fine noodles from a massive slab of dough by repeated slapping and pulling. Amazing.
Apart from the club’s entertainment, a highlight was the chance to catch up with Steve and Michelle Resco. Dee and I had worked closely with Steve in helping to establish the Watford Supporters’ Trust ten years ago. It was Steve who engineered our viewing of Watford v Leeds in Roppongi the week before and it was great to catch up with lives lived all over the place since we last spent time together. Home for a nightcap and a lengthy sleep. Saturday took us for a wander through the wet markets of Causeway Bay an easy walk down from the apartment. Eyeballs were stretched by the sheer volume of food of every kind being chopped, skinned, sliced and in some cases slaughtered right there on the street. One aspect of Hong Kong eating became abundantly clear – whatever you selected it was amazingly fresh – fish still flopping not frozen – one even jumped off the slab and was retrieved by an unfazed Chinese senior citizen.
We walked on to meet up with Caroline who had to go to work in the morning but was able to join us for a splendid lunch at one of their favourite restaurants Din Tai Fung. Of Taiwanese origin, it serves a mixture of dim sum style dumplings, buns and wan ton, excellent dan dan noodles, cucumber with chilli and garlic and the best ever egg fried rice as Tom had promised. I had loved Hong Kong’s trams thirty years ago so we took a ride along to the Star Ferry.
Crossing the harbour on the ferry is an essential part of any visit to Hong Kong and once again it didn’t disappoint. We made the journey across to Kowloon, passing the large inflatable Rubber Duck – Florentijn Hoffman’s installation which has mysteriously deflated since our visit – not guilty m’lud. We then make our way to the ICC Tower and go up to the observation deck. Despite a certain murkiness in the distance the views are fabulous and we were reminded that at 484 metres high it’s the tallest building in Hong Kong and the fifth tallest in the world rather dwarfing London’s Shard at 309 metres. We also look down on one of the most densely populated areas of land in the world.
On descending I caught the Airport Express out to Chep Lak Kok to collect my phone, miraculously delivered to Hong Kong from Tokyo through the combined efforts of Japan Rail’s Narita Express, China Eastern Airways and Jardine handling staff in Hong Kong. I sign for it, switch it on and, goodness it works. So I text Tom to tell him I’m homeward bound and he advises the subway and a brief walk when I make it back to Hong Kong island as the traffic is mad and they are not even home yet. The MTR – Hong Kong’s subway – seems very efficient during my brief encounter with it. The only problem as in Tokyo, was that you seem to have walked at least far enough to reach your final destination but you’ve just been travelling through a vast underground interchange. My next walk was a little warmer as I followed Tom’s excellent texted directions to get myself from Causeway Bay station back to the Leighton Hill apartment to be rewarded with a cold beer for my efforts. After a brief rest and a change we set off by taxi for another fabulous evening. Tom and Caroline won’t be able to be in the UK in July so very kindly took us for a joint birthday dinner at Spoon, Alain Ducasse’s Michelin starred restaurant at the Intercontinental Hotel back in Kowloon. A brilliant tasting menu with matched wines proved a great choice as course after course arrived with delicious aromas and tastes. The whole occasion was enhanced by our prime window table from which we could watch the nightly Victoria Harbour Light Show. Produced by Hong Kong Tourism it was eagerly anticipated by the crowds below us on the waterfront. The light patterns on individual buildings and the lasers flying between them make it look as if the city is holding a conversation between the huge towers that line the harbour. What a fabulous birthday present!
Sunday meant an early rise to go to Deepwater Bay to support Tom and his dragon boat racing team The Seagods. Tom took up dragon boating soon after moving out two years ago and has international medals for his efforts. And what efforts they are! Watching twenty men and women striving to move this great boat through the water from a standing start shows raw energy at work at its best. And it pays off as the Seagods comfortably win their first race with the A boat. An hour later Tom again plays a part in bringing the B boat in as runner up in a further heat. The sight of the beach covered with team tents, paddlers and their supporters is colourful and constantly moving as teams make their way to and from the start and finish pontoon.
Tom had made his apologies to the Seagods for only completing two races out of a possible five today in order to take us to explore the island further. We went to Stanley which feels much like Brighton, with narrow-laned markets, a promenade with pubs and restaurants and a pier which was reconstructed here from its original position in Central in 2006 along with the Murray House also originally built in Central in 1844 as Murray Barracks. They fit the landscape well and look as if they might always have been there.
We had the opportunity to share a drink with Katie, Tom and Caroline’s friend, who had given us so much good advice for our trip which was great as we were able to thank her in person, not just by email, for her insights. Katie had to go off elsewhere and so couldn’t join us for lunch in Saigon, an excellent Vietnamese restaurant in the Murray Building. After lunch we wandered around the headland to the Tin Hau Temple commemorating the goddess of the sea. It’s cut into the rock and was obviously a popular pilgrimage destination. We then returned to the much larger Man Ho Temple on the edge of Stanley Plaza where Lamborghini’s 2013 Cow Parade has raised considerable sums for charity.
After a great day out by the sea we decided on a simple dinner at home and a serious spell of packing for Dee and myself so we went back to Happy Valley taking in architect Frank Gehry’s first residential project in Asia Opus, a fabulous twisted tower that looks as if it has survived an earthquake. Its lines flow out of the steep hills that characterize Hong Kong island and for those wealthy enough to be inside must provide stunning views. After a trip to the butcher we then walk home through the middle of the Happy Valley racecourse which is busy with sports activity of all kinds.
It’s great to spend another evening at home with Tom and Caroline not least because Tom managed to find a website streaming Sky Sports coverage of the second leg of Watford’s play off against Leicester. And what a match that was with what has been termed “the greatest comeback ever in the world of football” with its double penalty save and brilliant counter attack for the winning Watford goal. Having missed out on the end of the season at least we’ll get one more game this season – at Wembley. Come on You Orns!
I don’t know what it is with travel days but, as we retired early ahead of a six o’clock taxi departure for the airport, I confidently set the alarm on my newly recovered phone for 05:00. To our horror we are rudely awakened very soon after retiring. We get up, shower quietly and attend to final bits of packing. As I go to make a coffee I notice the kitchen clock blinking 04:20 at me. My phone was still on Tokyo time – an hour ahead of Hong Kong. Oops again. We set off as planned, are seen off by Tom and have excellent flights with Singapore Airlines back to Heathrow. The leg from Singapore to London was on the A380 double-decker plane about which Dee had worked on a documentary a few years back and had actually been in Toulouse for its maiden flight. The upper deck is all business and first class and they wouldn’t even let us go up and peek but never mind. A pre-arranged taxi met us at the airport and whisked us home in time to see that our Wembley opponents will be Crystal Palace, retire and prepare for work the next day.
It has been a wonderful month and one we won’t forget with its food, friendship and fascination allied with our quest to find out more about Murakami’s Japan. I think the trip can be called a success. We’ve enjoyed sharing it and getting your reactions and comments.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
OK. Last three days in Tokyo. Last three days in Japan (sad face). But off to see Tom and Caroline and other friends in Hong Kong tomorrow (happy face).
There will be a full account of trips to Chiba in search of art, Kamakura in search of the Daibutsu (big Buddha), a fantastic tea ceremony, a brilliant if chilly night at the baseball – Swallows 6 – 0 Dragons – and a final day with new views of Fuji-san, a mind blowing lunch, a brilliant river trip and a last supper in Ginza to remember.
Forgive us for we now have to pack for a very early start tomorrow. I hope to write lots on the flights and post on arrival in Hong Kong.
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 here we are finally after faffing around at the Shinkansen gates expecting to be whooshed to Hokkaido while we slept but are redirected to Track 13 – not a bullet train line. All the paparazzi are still lurking about and a guard comes running down the platform to get us underway.
He checks the signage – as do we – and the insignia on the train.
Both look fine but this is our train.
Not the post modern express we’d hoped to help us through the night – rather less elegant inside than that in Some like it Hot as it happens. The Hokutosei seems to use rolling stock from the fifties.
However, we installed ourselves, the train set off and after organizing our bags in this tiny space we set off for the dining car. Oh, oh, no. Reservations only and must be made three days in advance. Why did nobody tell us this when we booked our berth at considerable expense above our JR Passes? A cart came by with some provisions and we had a few bits and pieces so we were able to construct an amuse bouche and then dinner.
Fish biscuit amuse bouche Dinner
After this wondrous repast and a few rounds of “Take Two” there being no electricity for blogging except by standing in the washing area – and dear reader some lines have to be drawn. So anticipating an early (06:35) arrival in Hakodate we prepared for bed. As we finished our ablutions the train stopped. We looked through the window to see a solitary figure on the platform opposite photographing us. Ironically, or perhaps necessarily, we were at Fukushima and expressed our solidarity as best we could.
Not a great deal of sleep was had by either of us before dawn broke and we emerged from the Seiku the world’s longest undersea tunnel (53 Km; 33 miles) into Hokkaido. We soon had our first glimpse of Mt Hakodate, arrived at the station and saw the train depart for Sapporo. Off for a day of enforced sightseeing as we can’t check in till 4 pm.
As the song says “Oh what a night!” But not quite inn the same way. Do the sums: Osaka – Tokyo 570 km in 3 hours; Tokyo- Hakodate 830 km in 11 and a half hours.
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.
So I have an itinerary, the hotels are booked and we know what they will cost. I know the basic cost of a Japan Rail Pass and I discovered that you can actually buy them online from JRPass.com. The passes are great as they show huge savings over the rates for all our journeys as a few enquiries on the web soon reveal. They come in 7 day, 14 day and 21 day versions. Japan Rail Passes are only available to non-Japanese citizens and you have to buy a voucher before you travel and exchange it for a pass once you arrive in Japan or when you need to start using it. In our case we’ll start to use it in Kyoto for the remaining 21 days of our trip since the first few days are in Tokyo or in a rented car. So, that cost can be added to the spreadsheet.
Next, car rental. When I first looked at this back in February I couldn’t get anywhere since most of the car hire companies hadn’t published their spring and summer rates – ominous. Nissan Rent a Car did have rates on their site and so I entered dates and places to get an estimate of costs for the Hokkaido leg of the trip. In my inbox next morning was a confirmation and a request for payment so I had to reply that I wanted to cancel the booking as I had not yet decided on whether and when we were coming to Japan. Hope it doesn’t leave a black mark against my name on file should we need to use Nissan for real. However it did give me a good idea of a daily rate including English SatNav, unlimited mileage and insurance which I could then use to calculate the rest of our trips for car.
But once we are in the car how to calculate time and cost of journeys? I fiddled around with Google Maps and various other sites and eventually came across Navitime‘s Journey Pro where you can enter your start and end points – in this case our first day of car hire to go from Shinjuku in Tokyo to Mount Fuji. Based on picking up a car at the station the site was able to locate our hotel in Fujiyoshida. It provides a complete stage by stage route – and marvellous device – it tells you distance, time it’ll take and toll costs. Interestingly it also tells you how much it would cost to do it by taxi! Maybe long distance taxis are common in Japan – we’ll find out perhaps. I had an idea of average fuel consumption for the class of car we’ll be renting and fuel cost so I could now work out all our road travel costs. What is brilliant as you’ll see in these two screen shots is that it shows the route on toll roads or on national roads. In our case it’s a significant difference 1 hour 40 minutes and ¥3600 (£25) or 4 hours and 9 minutes. I think we’ll take the expressways especially as they are marginally greener too – oh yes the CO2 emissions are on there too. The byways might be more fun but we will get to drive on several non-expressway segments of our route later on.
Navitime expressway route
Navitime national general road route
So with lots of fuel consumption, mileage and currency conversion formulae in Excel I was able to ascertain a pretty good idea of costs for the least predictable part of the trip. Just hope the decimal points are all in the right place because the spreadsheet shows we can do it for nearer what we wanted to spend than what we were told we could expect to spend. Only time will tell but we go into the next phase with some degree of confidence. Up until now everything I’ve booked has been able to be cancelled without charge. However the time has come to say: