Thursday, May 03, 2007

Ambitious JAPAN

Arriving in Japan is like a breath of fresh air. Suddenly everything is clean, well-organised, people are polite and respectful. The flipside is that there's hardly an undeveloped spot on the whole island (Honshu, which is the main island, the other large ones being Kyushu in the south, Shigoku forming the inland-sea, and Hokkaido in the north). The journey in from Narita Airport gives a flavour of what is to come - despite it being an hour by super-express train into Tokyo Station, that is to say that the international airport is a fair distance away from town, there's not a moment on the train when one cannot see houses, a factory, or a concrete river-bed blotting the landscape.

Fun with train boards

There are two airports in Tokyo, Narita, which serves most international flights (BA fly here), and Haneda, the older airport which handles domestic traffic. Woe betide those needing to change planes between the two - think Heathrow to Gatwick. Apparently there is a large US military base somewhere near central Tokyo which, if the Japanese can kick the US out of, would be ideal for a new super-airport close to town.

The subway one is even worse

Slight environmental aside: Obviously there is plenty in the news about climate change these days. Some interesting points or suggested actions I've picked up from the debates are as follows:

1. Duty-free on planes. No one particularly wants to have to lug bottles on aeroplanes, and how much fuel is used carrying all this liquid unnecessarily? Let people buy duty-free on arrival. Think this was a Green Party suggestion.

2. Trains. If you spend more than a couple of days in Japan, the state of the UK railways will upset you so very much more than it undoubtedly does already today. About 30-40 years ago, Japan decided that with ever-increasing demand for rail, and a need for good infrastructure to drive the country forward, they would invest in a new high-speed railway, the Shin-kansen, quite literally 'new-tracks', or what we know in the west as the "bullet trains". The significance is not in the trains themselves, though they are lovely, clean, very wide and comfortable (makes me laugh to think of South Eastern 2 by 3 seats that used to run out of Cannon Street), however the important difference is the tracks themselves. The high-speed trains run on completely different lines to local trains, raised high above the ground, maintained to the nth degree, as you don't want anything interfering with a train going well over 300km/hr. And fly they do. This morning I was standing on the platform at Sakudaira when a non-stopping one went through. My goodness! Despite being protected by barriers that line the platform, it was fairly intimidating.

Anyway, the point of this is that there should be no such thing as domestic flights within the UK. We are a small country, yet every time I go to visit my chums in Edinburgh, I find it cheaper and more convenient to fly! This should not be the case. If one looks at equivalent distances all over Europe, there are very few examples where people would routinely fly. Zurich to Geneva? Berlin to Frankfurt? Madrid to Barcelona? If you have decent high-speed frequent services, you kill the airline market, whereas the economics of the tickets suggest we are encouraging it, with zero-tax on kerosene etc. What proportion of flights still exist between London and Paris compared with pre-Eurostar days? The problem is investment, this is what is lacking in the UK. Japan are now looking at a maglev new high-speed link between Tokyo and Osaka, whilst the UK is just raising prices to keep people off the already-saturated lines. And just watch those ticket prices rise and supersaver validity cut back now that the Government is trying to claw back some of the enormous subsidies provided to the private companies – see Stagecoach profits from the past several years.

What we need is a forward-thinking government, with me in charge (just for long enough to sort things out and bring Maggie back). Transport in London should be made completely free, a new high-speed network should be built between London, Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow and, err, a couple of other places - Whitstable perhaps. Double-decker trains with new wider tunnels to accommodate them. Per-mile road pricing needs to come in. All unprofitable branch lines to be reopened. Crossrail just needs to be built, Thameslink 2000 finished (started?!). Come on the reds!!! Okay, calm down, who keeps slipping this copy of the Guardian into my bag?

3. Housing insulation subsidised. We are a nation of central heaters. This makes perfect sense, but currently the price, and therefore payback period, puts it beyond most households, especially those who would benefit most from the savings.

4. Energy saving bulbs… sounds like this is going to happen already. Someone work out how to make dimmer switches work with the things though, or will this go away when we switch to LED bulbs in a few years? If only I knew about Physics… something to do with electronics jumping about?!

5. Taxing structures adjusted to encourage "green" approaches. This is something the Tories have already proposed (go Cameron!). Business is already latching on to the possibilities with regard to green products. This will really push things forward. In general once things are priced according to usage, you change behaviour. If one has a water meter installed, every time a flowing tap is on, the thought goes through one's mind "that is money flowing down the drain". Marc and Jessica, in water-starved Melbourne, have interesting breakdowns of their water usage by month on their bill, comparisons with the same period last year etc, and a simple relationship shown between usage and cost. It brings home the realities of consumption and makes it easy.

Favourite new music: Bic Runga. A NZ-based girl that Tony in Perth introduced me to, belting out laid-back sweet tunes. As Eri says, "good for going to sleep", which I suppose is a complement. Also in the UK look up Monkey Swallows the Universe, who are about to release a new album I think, and are ab fab, so it's bound to be good!

Travelling with the gang
So this trip to Japan my little brother Lewis, cousin Pippi, and old flatmates Will and Sandy are all coming out to meet me here (alright they're coming out to see Japan and I just happen to be their excuse!). I'm particularly looking forward to receiving all the King of the Hill episodes that I've missed so very much, Will is bringing them for me. No he's not, I learn on meeting up. Chubi. At least Pippi's brought me the new Air album. It turns out to be.. not bad, just very… Air. I've only briefly listened to it, but there was not much to get the heart pulsing. We rendez-vous as my hotel, the Toyoko Inn.

If you're ever planning to visit Japan, Toyoko Inn is the place to stay.

The Toyoko draw

It's a budget hotel chain, with everything you need - free internet in the room (although they block outbound SMTP even via Google’s dodgy high SSL port, why oh why?), vending machines that are very reasonably priced, laundry facilities, small but clean rooms, and an internet reservation system that makes it fairly easy to find hotels and work out where there's availability. I'm staying in the Kabuchi-cho hotel, which is Tokyo's red-light district, a short walk from Shinjuku station.

We meet our friend Eri then eat Korean food (kinda funny to be eating Korean as our first meal in Japan!) in Takishamaya Times Square, I order a pork bibimbap and some gyoza.

First meal in Japan.. err.. Korean food!

Incidentally, over the next 10 days I notice that there are very few dishes here, i.e. in Japan, that are not either seafood or pork. This comes to light because Pippi isn't eating pork for some reason and it actually makes things surprisingly hard.

Captured the 'haribo' moment

Most restaurants in Japan have big shop displays at the front showing all their dishes, with very realistic plastic imitation dishes. Apparently there is a shop in Tokyo somewhere that sells all these bits of plastic, I must pop along some time, as it must be fairly interesting! Plastic buckwheat noodles with a plastic fried egg on top anyone?

Next we hop in a cab to the Park Hyatt, of Lost in Translation fame. As we get out about 5 people rush forwards to greet us, though unlike the film there are no gifts or faxes for us. In these sorts of situations I have learnt that honesty is the best policy, so I ask the girl inside where the "Lost in Translation Bar" is. She points us to a lift. Up in a lift to the lobby on the 41st floor, then across the hotel and up in another part of the hotel to the 52nd floor where we saunter in as casually as we can to the New York Bar.

Not a bad view. Wonder what it's like from the 1st floor rooms?

Lively discussion in the Park Hyatt bar

There is a Jazz trio playing, fronted by a sultry latin singer. We are taken straight to one of the best tables (of course), with an incredible view over the city and comfy sofas. We order cocktails. Will orders a Martini, shaken not stirred. It's fairly horrible! The experience is wonderful though, with high ceilings meeting the enormous windows looking down over night-light Tokyo, a vast metropolis of neon. The music is good and the murmuring conversation adds to the vibe.

Comfy sofas but no Bill Murray

Vending Everything
Vending machines abound here. There are over five million machines in Japan, taking a total of nearly 7 trillion yen (around $ 58 billion) a year. The worry is apparently that Japanese society is losing control over desires, as everything is available immediately. It takes a while to let go of the "I might be thirsty in a few hours, I'll buy some water now" instinct that is well-honed in South America. They usually sell coke, lemonade, a variety of teas, the infamous Calpis, various cans of coffee, some hot, some cold, perhaps beer, and of course water.

I can't fight my desires!

There must be a fantastic distribution network behind the machines, as it's rare to ever see any drink sold out. Prices are generally 100-150 Yen (50-80p) for normal drinks, or 210-300 (£1.50) for big cans of beer. Some of my favourites include Royal Milk Tea - an almost peachy aromatic tea, with milk and shocking amounts of sugar, served hot or cold, Oolong Tea, which I recognise because one of the characters looks like "Ma" horse character of Vivien fame, and occasionally a milk coffee, which is also invariably sweet. After sampling a few, Will and I decide that our beer of choice is Yebisu "The Hop" which comes in a Greene King style can, perhaps that's what draws me. I've never heard of Yebisu beer before, will have to investigate where it's from and visit. Not usually in the machines, but Lawson "convenience stores" can usually be relied upon, one of the chains of 24hr shops which are all over Japan, goodness knows how they all make money. Perhaps they don’t. Update: I found a Yebisu pub in Matsumoto, looked like a nice place. It was mid-morning though, and even I wait till mid-day to hit the bottle (or pint glass). Had a big sign saying "no monkeys allowed" - Will may have issues getting in ;)

Electronics Heaven
As Pippi asks one day, why is Japan so advanced when it comes to electronics? I don't know actually, I can only speculate that as the country was almost completely destroyed during WW2, perhaps it was being rebuilt and invested in at just the right time to catch the wave of technology innovation? Then you would assume that the same would apply to Germany. Perhaps it does to a certain extent. Anyway, one of my favourite haunts in Japan is Bic Camera, a chain of enormous electronics shops. This trip I add "Yodabashi Camera" to my portfolio!

Yodabashi heaven - the largest electronics store in the world allegedly!

They have a great in-store tune singing their own praises to "When the Saints go marching in" which I must get hold of, if only to make Eri's birthday present. Anyway, this trip I decide that my old laptop has to go, so I invest in a Sony Viao VGN-SZ48GN. It's a beautiful machine and thankfully is an "export model" as all of the local laptops have Japanese keyboards, with, amongst other irritations, an extremely short spacebar to allow for a couple of Japanese-specific keys. This would be rather annoying over time. Also it turns out getting my Sony P200 point-and-click fixed will be a lengthy process, so I dump that in favour of a Panasonic Lumix 28-280 DMC-TZ3. It's all good. If my bag gets stolen now I will be a very upset bunny. Time to update my travel insurance methinks.

Out of Tokyo

As will become usual, we fail to have breakfast in the hotel. In fact I'm ashamed to say that not on a single occasion in two weeks did I manage to have breakfast in the hotel, which is served a highly unreasonable 7 till 9:30am! In this instance this was because we were leaving too early (sheeesh I could feel the assumption you made then!). Anyway, getting up, when in Japan it's good to have the TV on, as you are bombarded with continuous sequence of yells, squeaks, intense adverts for everything, cooking lessons. Good for waking up!

Breakfast in Japan, assuming you don't go for the slimy (sorry but I save my culinary bravery till mid-day onwards) traditional Japanese breakfast, can be pastries, miso soup, or if one goes for a full English or toast, comes with the most incredible bread. Thick cut does not describe it - the bread comes cut about an inch and a half thick, which sounds like a mission, but it is lightly toasted and incredibly soft and fluffy inside. How do they do it? I must learn the secret for when I get back to my beloved bread-maker!

What a flattering shot. Me enjoying the comfy bullet train seats, thanks Lewis!

Training out of Tokyo, we are all so tired that we make do with brief glances at Mount Fuji in between sleep as we whizz past. I tuck into a Bento box for brunch. Bentos are compartmentalised boxes of food, usually including rice, perhaps some sushi, fish, eel (unagi). What amazes me is how they keep it all fresh. You never see food discounted because it's almost out of date. We change at Osaka, and end up in Hiroshima where we dump our bags at Toyoko and head out to Miyajima. This is one of Japan's 3 great sights, and involves a train to the outskirts of Hiroshima, then a 15 minute boat across to the island.

The famous temple gate at Miyajima

The tori, the gate to the temple of the whole island (the entire thing is holy) looks great when the water is up, but is surrounded by mud, Seasalter style, as soon as the tide is out. The cherry blossom on the island is beautiful, and we enjoy this and the numerous (yet somewhat mangy) deer, before taking a cable car up for a fine view over the Inland Sea to Shigoku, watched ourselves by the generally quite naughty, but tame in the hot mid-day sun, monkeys that live around the peak. Incidentally, on the way up to the cable car station, there was a woman selling tourist tat who offered us tickets. Naturally I was highly suspicious - why buy them here when we can get them 5 minutes walk on? She's clearly ripping us off! But of course, this is Japan, and she wasn't - they were exactly the same price as at the office itself.

Closest I've seen to a scam in Japan

Cherry blossom on Miyajima

Attacked by a marauding beast, he'll tell people later in the pub. As opposed to Bambi

Sad but beautiful Hiro-shima
Next morning just when we are at our most hungry and vulnerable, we come across the most wonderful cake shop! Of course there was no holding back. I went for a sumptuous pistacchio mousse cake with gold leaf topping. Yum!

Cakes like you've never seen before

People wonder why Japan is so expensive. As I understand it, their distribution networks for produce in general involve lots of middle men, which all adds to costs. There’s an article on this topic somewhere on the web if you’re interested. Anyway, this doesn’t have so much significance for the average tourist. What does make the place cost a bomb is that there are temptations every second of the day, which one wouldn’t be exposed to so much couped up in an office. However out and about with your rail pass, you walk past shops filled with treats all day, and there’s only so long one’s resolve can hold out.


My theory on this is that the Japanese generally have a fairly miserable work life – long hours and little appreciation, plus no more than about a week’s holiday for the year. In these circumstances I suppose when they do splash out, they don’t want to waste time looking for a nice cafĂ© or cake shop, hence why one is never more than about 5 metres from one!

We wander out into Hiroshima, and first visit the Contemporary Art Gallery. It's up a steep hill, and has lots of hands-on exhibits to play with, good for keeping Will amused. The main exhibitions were Echo, which featured the word echo in a variety of guises, including various hands-on musical exhibits, and Game Over, which was something to do with video games (!) and was rather spooky as they played a quiet, disharmonious chord throughout the whole show. I’m not overly impressed with the contents, but the gallery itself was a nice space.

Next out and down to Peace Memorial. I've been here before, and let me tell you, it's a very sad and depressing place, a large museum next to the spot where the atomic bomb detonated – not a political point, merely campaigning for global nuclear disarmament. I let the others go get miserable on their own, I'm going gadget shopping! It's strange that the spot above which the bomb detonated is now such a beautiful peaceful spot, with the cherry blossom along the banks of the river particularly lovely.

The place where the atomic bomb struck Hiroshima

In the evening we find Sam’s Bar! I have a picture from a previous visit to Japan when I found this place, so it was nice to actually have a beer inside.

Onwards to OSAKA
We have fun trying to find our hotel here - Osaka is such a big city that we have to take three trains to get to the place where we're staying, then more when we head out to enjoy the night scenes that were used for the cityscapes in Bladerunner, i.e. Dotombori and Ebisubashi.

We enjoy Ramen noodles at a restaurant I'm sure I've visited before (has an enormous dragon over the top of the restaurant, difficult to miss!). One orders the noodles at a vending machine, then hands the ticket over to the people doing the cooking. All good except if you can't read Japanese. Anyway, we manage to get roughly what we wanted, and I pile in the spicy condiments to the extent that my eyes water as I drink my way through the broth. The restaurant is interesting because it has low tables sitting on tatami mats, these themselves about a foot off the floor. So if you're with other people, the only solution is to sit at an angle away from the table. On your own you can cross-legs and sit straight.

Will has managed to invest in a Yebisu hop beers to wash the noodles down with, a fine choice. Lewis goes to the public toilet and pulls the alarm chain as he comes out, then finds you can’t stop it. A crowd of concerned types are waiting as he emerges.

We taxi back to hotel and do some washing (Toyoko Inn always has coin-machines). It takes a suspiciously short 38 minutes but we're so tired, does it matter? Longer than any handwash I would attempt would be, that's for sure (I probably max out at about 2 minutes!).

Osaka is also our base for exploring the other bits of the Kansai region, i.e. Kyoto, where we head next, and Kobe. Kyoto is the historic and cultural capital of Japan, and a good choice for celebrating hanami, or having a cherry blossom party. This we do in Nijo Castle, which very fortunately we hit when they are open in the evening, so we see the flowers at dusk, then lit up at night.

Girls strolling past Niji Castle

It is one of the lovely sights of Japan – that it’s fairly normal for women to wear traditional dress – kimonos and wooden slippers. The problem in many countries is that these sorts of clothes are only for touristy or special ceremonies, to the extent that one would be embarrassed to wear them at any other times. I’d liken it to wearing Black Tie in the UK – there should be no such thing as over-dressing.

Never recovered from the head injury, they whisper as he passes

Anyway, in to the castle, along with an almost-exclusively Japanese audience, which is nice. The light is failing, but as it does floodlights come on in the large grounds, showing us the beautiful colours of the blossom with a dark purple sky behind.

Traditional buildings in Nijo Castle grounds

Night falls over the cherry blossom in Niji Castle grounds

Emotions ran high under the sakura

Night blossom

We park up on a bench and enjoy our beers, which we later find out are not allowed. Too late then, and we get many appreciate looks from Japanese passing by – after all the principle of hanami is to find a nice spot under the cherry blossom then get drunk, usually on sake but I think beer is permissible. Pippi and Sandy have some sort of plum wine drink. We attempt some group shots, including leaping into the air mid-shot, which is rather difficult to capture in the dark!

Jumping straight into heaven

Our party over (or rather beverages exchausted), we head round the rest of the gardens, arriving in an area with tourist stalls selling souvenirs, traditional food, and three girls playing harp-like instruments, which are lying flat on the ground.

Pretty night scenes in Nijo Castle

Stalls selling traditional food and keepsakes in the grounds

Traditional music

Will takes a photo of schools taking photos of themselves, which prompts much giggling and group shots.

Attack of the school-girls

Time to head back to Osaka. We walk along Pontocho street, which is where one has a chance of seeing a real Geisha or more likely Maiko trainee, but it’s not to be today. The street is very pretty, with trees laden with blossom lining the stream that runs alongside.

Kyoto streets

On your bike in KYOTO
Next day we hire bicycles near Kyoto Station then head to the pretty Arashimaya area on the outskirts, taking an ambling route along lots of backstreets.

Ultra-modern Kyoto station

Touristy Geishas. Real ones are very rare

It's real!

We stumble across a place selling the absolutely divine "cherry blossom and green tea icecream" - unlike other places the cherry blossom flavour is subtle and delicious. Fueled by a few (as in each – 2 for us , 3 for Will!) of these, we whizz back via a shorter route to return the bikes and head to Kobe, with one thought in mind.. To try..

Kobe Beef in KOBE
For those who don't know, Kobe, or Wagyu Beef, is a meat produced by feeding cattle a special diet and taking incredible care of them, including massaging them regularly. This produces a meat with the fat distributed evenly across the flesh, with fantastic flavour and texture.

The book off

In order to try it, we meet my friend Mariko, whom I met on Easter Island, and is doing corporate training for Nestle in Kobe (Kitkat sales training. Imagine the class – Now everyone try to finish the sentence – “Have a break, have a … what?’. Together we find a restaurant and sit down to enjoy the feast. In fact it's fairly late, and we have trouble finding a place. The restaurant is called A-1, and is a chain recommended by LP as being quite reasonable. They staff seem friendly, and soon we are watching the chefs at work. We order medium-rare, and it comes wonderfully done - browned at the edge and pink in the middle. One hardly needs a knife to cut through the flesh, as a fork is almost sufficient.

My goodness the Kobe beef was good. Certainly not worth interrupting to pose!

Lewis proclaims it the best thing he's eaten in Japan. What, better than raw squid testicles? I think you've lost your sense of proportion, old boy! Anyway, it was good, washed down with some uninteresting wine. Cost was about 40UKP per person. Dessert was not necessary, but a little post-prandial drink was surely called for, so we went to the Five bar, a quiet joint, for a last drink before we all rushed to the station for one of the last trains.


Beautiful Himeiji Castle
Our final day in Osaka and surrounds, so we checked out, left our bags and headed off to Himeiji Castle, possibly the most famous of all of Japan's traditional castles. Again this is another cherry-blossom favourite, and it turned out absolutely beautiful.

Himeji's white stack

The Castle

Or fortress

Surrounded by cherry blossom


Perfect spot for a hanami party

You can see why the Japanese look forward to the cherry blossom season

Comfy seats in Muji

SexyCute boy

The happy gang under Himeiji Castle

Time to head up to Tokyo. We have a treat in store tonight. We're staying in a capsule hotel!

Capsule Hotel in Akihabara
What possessed us? Eri has organised for us all to stay in one of these places. Many will not accept foreigners (it’s still perfectly okay in Japan to make things “Japanese only” – one even finds shops with this up in the window, something for which the country comes under a certain amount of international criticism for), and more still will not take women.

Triple capsule?

Capsule hotel reception, the only room with enough room to breathe in

So, here’s how it works:

1. You walk in, take your shoes off, and put them in a numbered locker by the door.
2. Take this key, and go to reception, where in exchange for money and this key, you’re given another key, one for your locker upstairs.
3. Go to locker room, dump stuff in the locker, and put on your yukata dressing gown
4. Go shower (you dirty foreigner), then up to your room. Women have a separate floor with an extra key!
5. Find your pod, then work out how to open the door. Pull handle, press switch, look around to see if anyone else has solved the dilemma
6. Realise after a couple of minutes that there is no door, you’re not looking at ultra-clean glass, it’s air. Tentatively put hand in to check this is the case, then climb in through the hole
7. Pull down the small blind for privacy, perhaps enjoy some TV or just go to sleep!

About as private as the pod gets - the blind down

Stack 'em high

Overall it's a fun experience. You have to hope the people around you don't snore much, and I don't much enjoy going to different floors to take a shower, but it's worth doing once. Off you go, I'll meet you at the Park Hyatt after breakfast ;)

Man love

Next day, it’s time to say goodbye to Will and Sandy. Plus having “done” the capsule, I’m in need of a decent hotel so we head over to the Nishi Shinjuku Hotel, where Lewis stayed the first night. They have triple rooms, perfect for us (one lacking point of Toyoko).

Brothers on the move


Harajuku and Meiji Jingu
FAQ Stolen from Quirky Japan site: Why do so many Japanese women walk pigeon-toed?

A. Walking pigeon-toed is considered feminine in Japan, and is an affectation rather than a physical characteristic. Some people have suggested that it is because their legs are deformed from sitting in seiza (on your shins with your legs folded under you) but this is simply untrue. The real answer is that it is a holdover from the days when people still wore kimono. If you walk normally while wearing one, the kimono tends to comes open so for modesty people began walking pigeon-toed. Even though people no longer wear kimono, a shuffling walk with one's feet turned inward is still considered modest, feminine, and even cute.

Harajuku girls

Harajuku is a youth hangout area, which at the weekend is where people congregate engaged in “cos play” or dressing up. It’s absolutely strange to see kids posing in weird, often doll-like costumes, but most strange of course when it is grown-men in those same frocks. They’re all looking for attention, and are happy to pose for photos.

Downright frightening

More Harajuku girls

This area is the entrance for the Meiji Jingu shrine, one of the biggest in Tokyo.

Admiring corporate sponsorship at Meiji Jingu Temple

There is a large wall of Sake drums as one enters, which is some sort of offering to the Gods.

Lewis takes over photographer duties

I decide to kill Eri-berry. It’s been a long time coming, the courts will be forgiving.

This time we will finish this

Into the temple, and we are fortunate to see a traditional wedding ceremony. Don’t seem to be many smiles about though.

The happiness of the wedding day

Procession at Meiji Jingu

It’s tradition to write a message on a small board of wood, for a small fee of course. I wonder what happened to the one Eriko and I wrote all those years ago? It’s interesting to read them, as plenty are in English or other languages.

Writing messages of hope in Meiji Jingu

Next, out of the temple and into Ometosando, a fashion paradise. We go for lunch in a curry restaurant where one specifies the strength of the curry, on a scale from 1 to 100. The price increases with strength too. I want to try 50 but am told 30 is all I’m allowed. Owwwww! (31 and up is next price bracket). As it happens (though of course I’d never admit as much) 30 is quite spicy enough!! Cough cough, pass the water!

Curry. I went for 30 out of 100 strength (wasn't allowed more). It was rather hot

Why have we come shopping in Ometosando at the weekend?


Only kiss from a girl he's likely to get!

Other Tokyo
It’s worth noting that Tokyo to the Japanese means Tokyo station. Hence the confusion when I first arrived in Narita Airport. I want to go to Tokyo. Okay here’s your ticket. No, I want to go to Shinjuku. You said Tokyo. Ah sorry, I thought you would ask me which station in Tokyo.

Now we head down to Shibuya, trying to keep the girls from delving into too many of the boutiques and little fashion stores along the way (I take a back-street route to avoid most of them), we end up at the famous junction. I’m sure someone told me Starbucks had closed, but it’s not true. We head in, order Green Tea Frapps all round (except for Lewis who doesn’t like them), then take our seats with a commanding view.

Shibuya crossing fun

Sesame, coconut milk, pork and spice. A combination which it's hard to get wrong

Just as well it wasn’t open!

Some would say love is optional

Yokohama is an interesting place as it was, being Tokyo's main port, one of the first places to be exposed to foreigners. It has a good Chinatown, and the World Ramen Museum, but we're not going there today.

Can't take the emotion

Buzzing from Tully's Coffee in Yokohama

My Tokyo exhibition in Yokohama

We rush across in the pouring rain to the Yokohama Art Gallery, which is very very quiet, but has a few nice pieces. Other galleries we visited included one on the top floor of the Sony Building, the Mori Tower in Roppongi, the Aichi Gallery in Nagoya, and the Comtemporary Art Gallery in Hiroshima. Some good stuff going on in the Japanese art world, though I'm as sceptical as always about modern (read "talentless") art!

She can't juggle

Looking down over Yokohama from the Landmark Tower, Japan's tallest

What is it? Like Crusha milkshake gone wrong!

Curved escalators, whatever next!!

Final day for Pippi and Lewis
So last day, and we try to pack in as much as possible. First up - Imperial Palace, though apart from two days of the year, all you can do is walk round the outside.

Imperial palace outhouses

Family fun outside of the Imperial palace

Spot the difference

Art in the Sony Building in Ginza

Flip phones

In the afternoon we head to Akasaka, which is regarded as "old" Tokyo (Edo), and the Senso-ji temple, apparently Tokyo (and therefore presumably Japan)'s most popular tourist attraction.

Rain in Sensoji Temple in Akasaka

Walking in the rain outside of Sensoji

Luckily for me the rain curtails the souvenir shopping plans of Lewis and Pippi somewhat, otherwise I think it would have been a long old wait for me!

We go to meet Eri to eat..

Yummy eel

The enthusiasm bowls you over

The source of Pippi's enthusiasm! Sea urchin and fish eggs

Hearty bowl of noodles instead of raw fish muck please!

Yamanananananote Line. Actually it can't be as we have a seat!

And wrap the evening up by finding a Freshness Burger after days of searching. Only managed it by asking some policemen! Result!


It's eel past tuna

Wait a minute, that traffic cop isn't even real!

It's the rule!
One problem with Japan that foreigners don't often see is that Japanese are very rule-based and hierarchical, and, as someone put it to me once, can be very cruel to Japanese. Obviously the way PoWs were treated in WW2 still hangs around in the national stereotypes, but the truth is that they were just as unpleasant to their own troops during the war. Perhaps kamikazes had just had enough and wanted out? Anyway, I had my first experience of this with Eriko in 2004, when she asked for help in the mad Tokyo station on how to get somewhere. "Are you STUPID or something??" the uniformed station guy barked at her in Japanese. Luckily for him, she didn't tell me until afterwards, otherwise he may have felt the wrath of my fist for being so rude. Just because Eriko speaks Japanese - she grew up in the UK and has no more idea than me as to how to get around. How rude!

So, the next time I get this is when I try to buy a laptop in Yodabashi camera. The girl serving me hands me a blue sticker which apparently entitles me to global support. This is a silly little label without any information, so clearly is not what enables my support. Obviously having the laptop in one's hand with a certain serial number does. Anyway, she says to me that she's going to stick the sticker on the bottom of the laptop. I say, no no, that's fine, I'll just keep it with all the documentation. No, says she, she has to put it on the laptop. I don't want it on the laptop, say I. She has to. Why? Rules. Who is buying this laptop? I'm just going to take it off as soon as I'm out of the shop. Doesn't matter, shop rules are that she has to put the sticker on. I'm tempted to refuse to hand the sticker over to her (I'm holding it as we have this debate), but I suspect that she will either have me kicked out of the shop for being a difficult (i.e. Western) customer, or suddenly steam will come from her ears, she will fizz, and start repeating "cannot compute, cannot compute". Sticker's off now, if you're reading this, shop woman. Hope you're happy.

Alright I LOVE HER!!

It's funny, because as long as everything's going to rules, they are so friendly. In the capsule hotel we stayed in, Susie, Lewis and myself did something unconventional by going out in the morning before checking out (we needed to get to a Citibank to find some money). Checkout was at 10am, so plenty of time. However, the guy in the hotel had a go at Eri, insisting that we are back on time, telling her five times that she had better be back on time, the hotel was locked up etc etc. Again, Eri didn't tell us until afterwards. I've also had it with leaving keys with reception. Never had any trouble until the Nagoya Toyoko, when a particular woman insisted. Why? Rules. They weren't going to clean my room as I'd asked them not to, and I'd never had any other Toyoko Inn ask me about it. Only one thing for it, childish behaviour in return. Next time I go out with my headphones clearly on, and ignore her shouts. I was slightly surprised (okay disappointed) she didn't chase me down the street.

Banks in Japan are a total pain for foreigners as the majority of them are Japanese cards only, even if they sometimes have a visa sticker in the window. The only safe bet seems to be good old Citibank, and then only really in Tokyo. Will found a post office in Kyoto that took his Amex, but not all of them work, and who wants to be taking cash out on Amex, it's an expensive business. This wouldn't be a problem in South America, when £100 goes a long way. This, however, is Japan, and £100 will get you a couple of hours on the shinkansen, or a decent (but not very decent) meal. By the way, they drive on the left here. Good work.

Fast Japanese Food

The burger (barrlllgurr) in Japanese accent) debate here is not around the regular global players. Here's it's two Japanese chains, Mos Burger vs Freshness Burger. Last time this battle was staged was on Adrian's birthday at about 4am after "Bar, isn't it" with his sister. This time we have trouble finding Freshness Burgers, they are about but they're subtle. Mos gets a thorough testing though, and I think their salsa burger is the premier choice. Don't go for the rice-instead-of-bap one as despite being an interesting concept, Will found that it is remarkably small. Mos onion rings are very nice too, but Freshness wins hands down for sauces, having a whole stand full of interesting salsas from mexico and elsewhere. Mos you have to ask for ketchup otherwise there's no mention of condiments at all. Perhaps given that I feel their burgers have the edge, they feel you don't need to mess about with them.

FAQ stolen from Quirky Japan Site: What does the name of the famous hamburger chain, 'MOS Burger' mean?

A. The 'MOS' in 'MOS burger stands for 'Mountain, Ocean, Sun'. According to the official MOS Burger web site, the mountain, ocean, and sun in the name symbolise the company's "infinite love" of both humankind and nature. MOS Burger's love of people and nature is "Grand and noble like a mountain", "Possessed of a spirit as deep and wide as the ocean", and filled with a "passion that, like the heat of the sun, never burns out."And you thought you were just getting a hamburger. If you can read Japanese, check out the MOS Burger Home Page at:

Japanese fast food takes on a variety of forms. There are "bento boxes", which are balsawood boxes containing compartments with sushi, fish, meat, all sorts of things. Sometimes I'm feeling brave and go for one with lots of unidentified stuff. And sometimes you just go for the regular sushi or beef ones. These are especially popular for trains, and every station will have at least one place selling them. Backing them up are sandwiches, which in Japan are the most cutesy ornate things, soft white bread with crusts cut off, each "sandwich" usually a single bite (for a greedy type like me), however a variety of fillings - standards are ham, avocado, egg, tuna, and fruit ones.

Never see cheese. Asians in general find cheese as revolting as we find raw egg and fish. To them it's basically mouldy milk, and why on earth would you eat mouldy milk?! Their direct equivalent perhaps is natto, which is fermented beans (maybe haricot), usually mixed with raw egg. I had this for breakfast one morning in Osaka, and it's certainly soul-building stuff. Natto smells pretty awful, and with the raw egg you get lots of wispy bits over your chin as you try to eat it, but the flavour is good, and one usually adds a little mustard and soy sauce. If you find a Japanese trying to hoist natto on you, just explain to them that its origins were in horse food – they were going to feed the beans to army cavalry horses, wrapped them up in straw full of bacteria, and a couple of days later opened them up and liked the taste!

The other evil in Japanese food provision are the bakeries. People in the West, you have seen nothing like the delights available in Japanese bakeries. Forget split tin loaves, and an occasional apple danish. The bigger Japanese bakeries, as found wafting their siren-like smells into the concourses of stations, have literally hundreds of delicious sweet and savoury baked items. Creamy things, fruity things, hot dogs, almost anything you can imagine involving flaky light pastry and sugar has been created. And the next level, why mess about with savoury.. the cake shops are truly a sight to behold. One morning I had a slice of pistachio mousse with gold leaf, for breakfast! By the end of the stay, Pippi had really got into things and would not feel embarrassed at a breakfast of two or perhaps three pastries!


It's when you don't see anything wrong with three cakes for breakfast that you have to worry

Run for the hills
After a hectic 10 days with family, I need a break, and so use the opportunity of a few days on my own to head up into the mountains, to Nagano, which I haven't visited before. There's a famous temple there called Zen-koji. I end up staying in Sakudaira, which seems to be a nothing-town. The hotel is right out of the station, but the surrounding appears to be an industrial park. Not the most glamorous start to Japanese mountains, but I realise the next day that there are snowcapped mountains on all sides, just a bit far away. There are gorgeous fields of cherry blossom between Ueda and Nagano, which makes it look like it is being farmed. Do cherry [blossom] trees produce cherries? One would assume so, unless the Japanese have found a way of getting rid of all bees!

Here’s the Quirky Japan explanation: There are two types of "cherry" trees. One type is bred for its beautiful blossoms (sakura) and the other for its fruit (sakuranbo). If you look closely, you will notice that the cherry trees with beautiful blossoms do have tiny cherries.

Snow in the mountains, or perhaps an ice-making machine gone crazy

Don't want statues to get cold in Zenkoji, Nagano

This statue is actually one that protects children who have died young in the afterlife, so one sees a lot of attention given to him by those who have had tragedies in the past.

Halos in the sunshine

Zenkoji Temple in Nagano

Colours at Zenkoji

Blossom at Zenkoji

After I’ve done my time in the temple, I wander back into town and find a nice Jazz bar to have a beer in. There’s no one else there, but the owner is friendly, even if he didn’t speak any English.

Jazz Bar Groovy in Nagano

Just me and the bar-tender. All evening. He didn't speak a word of English

Jack spoke perfectly though

When I entered, he was playing some Japanese jazz, the album of which had a track which was a Charlie Mingus tribute song. I remarked on this, and next CD he puts on is Mingus-ah-um, one of my favourites! Very nice. I enjoy beer and read my book (incredibly I am still reading Dostovski’s The Idiot. I started this in Puerto Natales. No joke!).

The bar-tender tells me they are having a jam session later. Unfortunately as I’m staying in the middle of nowhere, I have to go…

It's groovy

Matsumoto is a castle town on the way between Nagano and Nagoya, where I’m heading to meet Eri. I turn up, head over to the castle, enjoy the scene for an hour or two, then move out again. It’s worth the stop though, as the castle looks good, with a decent sized moat around the edge, but also the grounds are full of cherry blossom trees, and old and young Japanese enjoying the sight, especially pretty as the blossom is beginning to fall, and there’s a light but gusty wind scattering the petals around the ground.

Mountains in the distance from Matsumoto

Oldies enjoying the view

Beautiful, especially when the wind gusts, dropping blossom like rain

Such a romantic spot… sighhhhhhh!


And skyward

Kiddies out too

New from old

Matsumoto Castle

Nagoya is Japan’s 3rd biggest city. I presume it’s Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Sapporo in that order. The first evening I’m on my own, so I head to a Jazz Bar and enjoy the Oguchi Junichiro Trio playing, chatting to a nice chap who was sitting at the bar next to me. He didn’t have a passport! Why oh why?!

Nagoya Station

Next day I meet Eri and we wander about before meeting her parents in the evening. They kindly treat me to a delicious meal at an eel restaurant. After Eri and I split from them and plan to go out, but as Eri’s eaten too much, this doesn’t happen!

The latest fashion, I kid you not, genuine *used* Royal Mail bags

Meet you at, ohh, errr, you know..

Read my lips - no Freshness Burgers in Nagoya

Jakuchu in Aichi Art Gallery

Happy families at the Eel Restaurant

This one goes out to all the English teacher's

Nagoya Aquarium
Next day after a suitable breakfast…

I wonder if Pippi misses it.. Actually, no I don't!

Eri and I headed out to Nagoya aquarium, one of her favourite spots in Nagoya, and an alternative touristy thing for me to do. Unfortunately we visited on a Sunday, when it was heaving with children and parents. They have bottle-nosed dolphins here, along with an Orca whale, the highlight of their collection.

The Orca strangely had a dolphin friend. The explanatory pictures implied he had two dolphin friends, perhaps had had one for dinner, as friends do! I found it very sad that these intelligent creatures were cooped up in tanks like this though, after swimming with them wild in the open ocean in NZ. At least there were several of them to keep each other company.

Beautiful dolphins in Nagoya Aquarium

Orca with friend. Or possibly dinner

White dolphins staring at these strange creatures behind glass

Whilst I completely enjoyed seeing the dolphins close at hand, there were various other nasties that weren’t so enjoyable to see!


Evil chomping fish

Finally we reached the penguin enclosure.

Ppppppppick up..

Can't eat fish after visiting an aquarium

It was the source of much comment in New Zealand and Australia about Japan and their record with regard to whaleing. It’s strange, as I’ve never met anyone Japanese who has eaten whale or dolphin, in much the same way that none of my Korean friends have ever eaten dog. Neither group denies that the practice goes on, but they don’t involve themselves in it. In Japan, it’s not at all obvious either – I’ve never seen any of these species in restaurants, leading me to suspect that it’s dodgy businessmen in exclusive restaurants paying for the privilege. Why then doesn’t the Japanese government just ban the practice? I just don’t understand their stubborn persistence in allowing it against all international pressure.

Akanechan and the South
I need to head south now because this is the final day of my rail pass, and it’s going to cost about 80-100UKP to go down to Hakata if I buy the train ticket without my pass. Eri takes the Nozomi up to Tokyo, just over an hour ride for 50UKP!

Of course, a train ride is an excuse for bento, and this time I go for a beef one.


And the contents

Total ride time is about 4 hours, with a bit of power-napping along the way. Into Hakata, and I wander out of the station looking for my hotel, only to discover.. Yodobashi Camera, an enormous store, open at almost 10pm on a Sunday! Damn I love Japan!

In general the South is my favourite part of Japan – people are more laid back and friendly, though perhaps it would be a bit dull to live here. There are also relatively large numbers of foreigners, as the ports here are the trade springboards to Korea and China – hence me being here looking for a ferry.

Akane day
Next day I meet Akane in central Fukuoka. Unfortunately I have the whole day before meeting her, and accidentally stroll into a Bic Camera. A gig upgrade and a lens later… I also buy my ferry ticket, I’ll leave tomorrow from Shimonoseki rather than Hakata – a short train ride away.

Akane takes me to a street stall (yatai) selling lots of fried and unhealthy food. It’s all good! Like mamak stalls in Malaysia. I suppose they can get away with more of this in the South because the climate is that much milder.


Takes me to a yatai, common in Kyushu

For lots of yummy unhealthy food!

Her boyfriend Jose is coming in a couple of days from Spain, which she’s really looking forward to. Shame I’ll just miss him, and again when I return here from Korea, he’s leaving just a couple of days before. We call it a night, and I head home to pack for… KOREA!

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