Publication Day!

25 January 2019 sees the arrival on Amazon of my book with thoughts about Japanese life and culture:

It consists of short essays about things that have amused or interested me about Japan, ranging from Anime to Zen all illustrated with, largely, my own photographs. The book is available as a Kindle ebook (best with a colour screen Kindle) and as a paperback. You can buy them here:

I’ve chosen to self-publish this after a couple of travel publishers expressed interest but then sat on their hands for months. So with the possibility of interest from new visitors to Japan for the Rugby World Cup this year and the Olympics and Paralympics in 2020, I got fed up waiting and decided to investigate Kindle Direct Publishing which proved pretty straightforward. The only downside is that it has to be an Amazon exclusive and they have minimum price scales for paperbacks which they print to order.

It has been great fun to write and the readers of first drafts have said some complimentary things about it. It’s brought back lots of very happy memories of my visits to Japan which started way back in 1979. I hope if you’ve enjoyed following my blogs over the years you’ll enjoy this slim volume which has obviously used the blogs and my travels as a source but with lots of added research to present a more helpful and insightful guide.

Please spread the word to anyone you think might be interested in going to or just reading about Japan. I’d welcome feedback from anyone who does read it and, of course, if you happen to like it reviews on Amazon, Good Reads and Tripadvisor can work wonders. Thanks for all your support in the past – and I hope – the future.

No frills and great thrills

After a lovely wedding of two neighbours who are also great friends on Saturday, Sunday morning saw me bright and early at Gatwick to set off for Spain for ten days or so. I’m flying with ‘no frills’ Norwegian who encourage you to check in at their automated terminals. So I enter my booking code and it is declined. I ask a helpful official who advises trying another machine as they “can be temperamental” – please preserve me from machines with mood swings! Next terminal is having a good day and so takes my details – careful to match my full name this time after previous Etihad experience – and prints out not only a boarding card but a luggage label. This is real DIY travel. Through lengthy security and off to the lounge for breakfast. But no, despite my pass I’m not allowed in as the lounge is completely full because of a number of delayed flights. Not a good start. However the Priority Pass is accept for breakfast at another cafe so complete grumpiness and rumbling tum are avoided.

We board quickly and I get a window seat, stow everything above except the Observer which Malcolm delivered just as I was leaving home. What a fool am I! It’s a lovely clear day and the view of the Isle of Wight from 10,000 feet or so was amazing but camera and phone were in the overhead locker and my B and C companions are asleep. It just filled the frame of the window perfectly and looked like a postcard. The Needles were a bit black from up here because of the low sun from the east but otherwise a great shot I missed. The Channel Islands looked good too. So onward to Madrid, pick up a car and get to Toledo in time to check in and enquire if any TV channel nearby is showing Watford v Tottenham. Negative. Annoying but thanks to Matchday Live on the Watford website I’m taken through the dull sounding first half by John Marks and Rene Gilmartin. Still 0-0 at half time is a result already. Then the mad second half begins with an own goal of freakish nature it seems and then we equalise and then go 2-1 ahead and the vocal level of commentary is such great I have to turn it down to avoid upsetting the neighbours on their balcony. Can we hold out for five minutes of added time? Yes! Wow – I need a lie down now! 5 games played, 5 games won.

As a friend of the Parador chain I get a free drink on arrival so I think this is the time to celebrate so I go to the bar, present my chit and down a beer as the sun starts to slide downwards and lights up Toledo with a wonderful soft light.

I’ve never been here before but look forward to exploring over the next few days – lots of El Greco to find, the massive Alcazar on the right and the cathedral in the middle look worth a visit and later at dinner – sorry vegetarians local venison with some suitable red wine – these were illuminated to look like beacons in a starry hillside. And so to bed ready to explore tomorrow.

Gradually last summer 13-18 June

Bostridge, Britten and the beach are all favourites and we decided to combine all three with a first ever trip to the Aldeburgh Festival in June. Festival-going had never been a big part of our lives but Aldeburgh and the Hay Literature and Arts Festival were ones we’d always wanted to attend but somehow never got around to. We set off from London on a drizzly Monday morning for a planned two-night stay at Seckford Hall at Woodbridge in Suffolk before travelling on into Suffolk for our first concert on Wednesday. We stopped off in Colchester, found a blue badge parking spot on the High Street and set off for a coffee and a look around. We found a fine coffee shop, Loofer’s that must have a special Monday mummy and buggy offer – they were both everywhere and babies too. Getting to the loo was quite a mission. The organic coffee was excellent and we scanned our map of Colchester and left for a damp explore. The curving High Street is attractive and the Castle looked interesting but we decided against that as the rain was getting harder. Maybe sightseeing could happen on the way back. Finding refuge in Debenhams, like you do, I acquired some polo and tee shirts thanks in part to some vouchers that Dee had thoughtfully put in that pink bag.

20160613_143503We took those back to the car, ambled about a bit more and then stumbled across a splendid looking microbrewery pub so it had to be time for lunch. The Three Wise Monkeys didn’t disappoint. There was a wide range of beers and a good menu. Service was delivered in a most friendly manner by the young staff and we left refreshed and ready to move on towards Seckford Hall.

However as we made our way out of town a further diversion beckoned as we saw signs to the Beth Chatto garden. As keen gardeners this was not to be missed so off we went. A very worthwhile detour – even with umbrellas aloft the variety of planting in the different styles of garden was inspiring. We knew plants wouldn’t survive in the car for the next five days so there was lots of noting of labels and mental additions to lists of plant to be purchased elsewhere. Especially impressive is the gravel garden established on the old car park which has never been watered but in which euphorbias, poppies, thistles and favourites like agapanthus, agastache, rudbeckia and verbena flourish. Determined to get our planting sorted out this coming summer we finally left for the hotel. We vowed that another time we’d explore the evocative places that were just names as we passed through Constable Country – Dedham, Flatford, East Bergholt – they’d look better with some sun.

Seckford Hall Hotel and driveThe driveway approaching Seckford Hall is impressive as is the Tudor manor house itself. It dates from around 1530 and alleges that Queen Elizabeth stayed there. Well we didn’t get the four-poster that she is supposed to have slept in but did have a very pleasant room in the old building – there is a new build/conversion courtyard near the spa which is where we headed next for a pre-prandial swim. We also booked a massage each for the next afternoon. A pleasant evening passed in the bar and restaurant and we decided that we’d go to Sutton Hoo next morning.

Tuesday dawned still grey but no longer raining so we breakfasted and went to the site of the famous Anglo-Saxon ship burial some 4 miles away. The burial mounds – 18 of them – vary in size and impressiveness. They are thought to be the cemetery of Anglian royals named the Wuffingas which all sounds a bit Roald Dahl to me but was confirmed by the plaques in the excellent National Trust visitor centre as kings from about 600-750 AD. The replica helmet is truly stunning and the recreation of the burial interior extremely well done. We walked out to and around the burial grounds with a few stops along the way including a double take at this rather ominous sign.

IMG_6907We came back via Tranmer House from which a guest in the 1930s saw the ghostly vision that inspired the dig that found the ship burial. It has an apartment that you can rent through the National Trust which we thought might be fun one day. The house is full of stuff you can actually touch and included a typewriter that became the main background image for our new enterprise Verbalists.

The next great discovery was The Unruly Pig a great gastropub not far away. Lunch was so good we even booked for dinner later that night. After snacking our way through the cold cuts and cheese board we drove around the Suffolk Heath Area of Natural Beauty, well named, into Woodbridge to visit a couple of antique shops and then back for a 5pm massage. Having seen the Pig’s wine list we took a cab from the hotel and were not disappointed by dinner where food, wine, service and hospitality were all outstanding. A very good discovery – definitely not a pig in a poke.

Next morning as we checked out arrangements were being made for the start of what seemed to be a massive three-day Indian wedding, later confirmed by the reception staff. We decided to travel via the coast and visit Orford a place we’d heard of but never been to. More countryside of natural beauty surrounded us on the way and at Orford we made for the Quay and took a short stroll along the bank of the river Alde looking out across the estuary to Orford Ness, a long shingle bank with numerous birdwatching hides, the black clapboard radio beacon and the red and white striped lighthouse – proper coastline this. IMG_6942Back into Orford we ogled and couldn’t resist Pinney’s Smokehouse but having failed to bring the cool box and ice we reluctantly left the oysters and smoked mackerel in the shop. Lesson for the future – if you are going somewhere famous for fish take the cool box, the shop will provide the ice. Back in the centre of Orford it was time for a coffee admirably served by the Pump Street Bakery which had a tempting range of cakes and pastries on offer. Another antique shop beckoned but offered nothing we had to buy. On to Aldeburgh via Tunstall and Snape at whose famous Maltings Britten built the concert hall we were to visit that evening.

In Aldeburgh we were able to park opposite the White Lion Hotel right on the beach at the north end of the town. It’s a pleasant hotel, like so many others especially near a coast it seems to have evolved over time and have a baffling number of different levels with small flights of connecting stairs which no refurb will ever even out without flattening the whole edifice. Friendly staff, OK room – should have paid extra for a sea view – two restaurants and a bar it had all one could ask for. We checked in and took a stroll to the nearest pub for a light lunch and then walked down the delightful main street. Aldeburgh is a very pretty town with some fine old buildings and a few not so fine, but has a welcoming atmosphere. As townies up for the festival we felt neither regarded as weird nor ripped off as easy targets. We had a fun time. The one thing this pre-referendum trip did for us was instil a sense of impending doom. Driving through Essex and Suffolk on the way we saw only one Remain flag after passing by hundreds of Leave posters and banners. Clearly the London bubble sees things a bit differently from those out in the country and this despite the fact that half our farmers would be broke without EU subsidies. Ah well!

P1020134The Snape Maltings complex is a great place to explore and we arrived early enough for the concert to do so. The grounds have interesting sculptures and pathways beside the river. We’d booked a pre-concert dinner for the first night prior to being able to suss out other options. We sat at a window overlooking the river Alde as it winds through the marshes and felt totally at ease the with blue sky, green and yellow grasses in distinct layers and the odd splash of colour from walkers. It was like being in a painting.

20160615_185622I won’t go into detail about the concerts we attended over three nights but they were performed by musicians of the highest calibre, included two world premieres. some familiar and some unfamiliar pieces. The highlight was favourite tenor Ian Bostridge performing two of Britten’s song cycles and one of Tippett’s interspersed with a brilliant version of Britten’s first string quartet by the Arcadia Quartet. The concert hall and its environs are excellent and at the intervals there was an excited buzz of conversation between friends and in our case total strangers moved to discuss the music they’d just heard. Glasto for the Golden Agers you could call it I suppose. Three nights of concerts on the trot was just right and with lots of time to explore the area on the days in between we were very glad we’d finally made it to the Aldeburgh Festival.

During her enforced retirement Dee had become mildly addicted to late afternoon TV antique shows like Flog it!, Great Antiques Road Trip and the like. So we visited a couple of the places nearby which had been hunting grounds for participants to see if we could find those bargains that later at auction would pay for our trip. Heaven forfend that the production teams ever plant items, but we found very little of any interest in any of the places we visited and even fewer that we thought might make us a profit. But pootling around the Suffolk countryside was enjoyable – the strange purpose-built 1910 holiday resort at Thorpeness, traditional seaside with pier and beach huts at Southwold (and Adnams fine brewery) and towns inland like Leiston and Saxmundham.

The weather failed us at Southwold but one plaque on the pier made us laugh. Back in Aldeburgh itself one of our favourite things apart from huts with strange signs. was Maggie Hambling’s beautiful shell sculpture The Scallop on the north beach.

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P1020137At the other end of the town is the famous Aldeburgh Fish and Chips shop where you can buy your meal – great scoff – and take it to eat with a pint of Adnams – excellently kept – in the White Hart next door. We were there during the Rio World Cup and took in a couple of depressing matches among other England fans fortified with Adnams’ ales and wines.

Apart from the music, cultural highlights were a visit to the Red House which keeps the Britten-Pears archive and preserves the house as it was when they lived there together until Britten’s death in 1976 which gave fascinating insights into how mundane some of the pursuits of geniuses can be. In the Cinema Gallery back in Aldeburgh Dee spent a good time in painterly conversation with established local artist Delia Tournay-Godfrey who was fascinating in telling us how she was almost a smash and grab painter, going out with her oils in her car and often sitting in the car to grab scenes as they presented themselves. These were sometimes worked up into larger paintings in the studio but often left as they were – spontaneous art capturing a moment. For Dee, having just embarked on her watercolour classes at Blackheath Conservatoire and showing a real talent for it, the insights were very valuable and she later made several works from life very quickly.

We left Aldeburgh after a good top up of culture after spending too much of the year  in hospital clinics and with Dee too frail from treatment to walk far or go to theatre or concerts. For this and a later trip to Spain by managing our days sensibly and reining in my enthusiasm for fitting in just one more sight we managed to get by without exhaustion. This was a superb Suffolk break.

Travel day – crew half rate, production carries on

26 sushi pink  What surprises and

           delights will we find as we

           return to Tokyo?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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.

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.

Cards and passes and car classes

7 sushi pink     Deciding to go

            is all very well, but what

            about some action?

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:

meishi

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.JRPass wallet   JRPass voucher

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.

Now to get some currency, check in and off we go!