Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sayonara Tokyo!

This is the next post of our Japan trip.  It took place in September but I only managed to write these notes a couple of months later.  For contemporaneous reports, take a look at Track My Tour -- a brilliant app that I used to ... well, track our tour.  Here is the link.

To use the same Hancock phrase, "it was raining in Tokyo", when we got there and to our hotel, the Imperial Palace.  A very nice hotel indeed.  We had a floor geisha!  She wasn't a real geisha though but it was a nice touch.

Still raining in Tokyo
As it was raining, walking through the Imperial Palace gardens across the street would have been miserable so we split up again with Viv and I heading back to the National Museum that had been closed the time we had tried to go before (it wasn't Monday today).  It was certainly big but compared to other museums I have been to elsewhere, it wasn't packed full of stuff that I'd expected and hoped it would have been.  Rather things were more artfully arranged.  Also sadly the signs on exhibits weren't that helpful either.  No descriptions or background of things, mostly the name of the artist or exhibit and the year in which it was created.  It made it rather tricky to get things in context but I think it goes something like this.

Shogun's armour

The emperors lost power in the 9th century AD when the warlords (Shoguns) took over.  The then emperor was a cypher who simply lost power and the successive Shoguns kept them that way for the next 1,000 years.  The Shoguns came to power by conquest so there were successive civil wars that wracked the country.  As they also kept the country closed to outsiders, there was very little progress so the sword wielding samurai remained pretty much the top of the tree in weaponry terms.  It was largely because of this closed nature and the Japanese habit of executing anyone unfortunate enough to land in Japan either by shipwreck or other means that the US became annoyed enough to sail a fleet into Tokyo Bay and forcibly open the country up by virtue of their weapons technology.

A different Shogun's armor
The exhibits in the museum were arranged chronologically throughout the various dynasties (I think of the Shoguns only as the emperors remained dynastically unchanged).  The early ones showed the similarity with Chinese art, calligraphy and other items - Japan doesn't want to admit it but they are simply offshoots of China that went their own way.  Over time this morphed away from Chinese influence to more home derived influences but there definitely seemed a divide between pre-1860 and post-1860 (when the US arrived) for the museum almost totally stopped at that point.

Gruesome mural!
Mind you I really like museums and I enjoyed this one too.  Even the gruesome screens.

We rejoined the party at a bar called Gonpachi - Izakat made famous (infamous?) in the Kill Bill movie.  Remember the seen when the girl in yellow (the hero) takes on 100 killers with samurai swords in a big room with balconies?  That was this bar.  No samurais tonight though although we did get to chat with the owner who found a table for us (as it was jammed) and brought us drinks.

Dinner though was simply wonderful.

Thelma and Gordon went off to an Italian restaurant somewhere nearby whilst Viv, Cat, Indy and I went to a 2 Michelin Star restaurant, a hole in the wall from the outside but a simple kitchen set up inside with 8 seats around it.  The maestro made up each course in front of us and kept them coming!

Each dish was small, maybe one bite, but really well put together.  My favourite was the sea urchin mashed up into some plain rice with salmon roe over the top.  Other people's was the tuna.

The maestro at work
I don't think I can ever eat sushi again.  This definitely spoiled me!

Next up was Abbey Road, a Beatles tribute band where we were able to sing and dance the night away to someone singing "All My Ruvving"...  Magnificent!

We had an early start the next day as Cat had organised a tour of the Tsukijishiju fish market with Koshiyi, our tour guide.  Cat found him by some obscure means which is quite often the best way as he was a start early before the rest of the tourists show up kind of guy, but we still had to wait till after 9 am for the biggest part of the market activity to be over before we were allowed in.

Tuna technology in action!  That's a 500,000 Yen piece of tuna by the way
Every big city has a place like this so it was great fun to check things out.  It wasn't quite an Anthony Bordain experience as nobody gave us any free samples unfortunately despite Koshiyi stopping to engage almost anybody in conversation with a fish implement in hand and messy apron on.  However that did mean we got to see some action.  Some veggie auctions and some serious hacking about of monstrous tunas stand out.

Being tourists though we still had to avoid the local market particpants who were in all probability sick to death of tourists standing in gangways gawping so still whizzed around on motorized dollies carrying boxes of this and that.  Those things can move!

We split up after in search of varying foodstuffs for lunch but planned to meet up later on at the national Sumo wrestling championships that were being held at that time. Cat had got 4 tickets together but as we were late in deciding to go, managed to sit elsewhere in the auditorium which was lucky as it was sold out.

We were getting pretty good at using the public transport by this point and had subway passes so tried to go everywhere by this means.  The equipment as you'd expect was new and very clean and everyone was really polite even when we somehow got confused or lost (not too often but it did happen).  One thing is that so many people where uniforms and it seems to me that they wear them with huge pride.  There's none of this 'casual Friday' stuff we have, its work equals uniforms.  Shirts were starched, trousers and hems pressed.  Everyone bowed.  Not subserviently but enough to be respectful and polite.  I was very impressed.  The pride in work carried through to the cleanliness and order of the public transport system.

The auditorium was in the Sumida Yaokan district and today was day 6 of 15 for the contestants.  The wrestlers fight every day so its a long drawn out event.  However the auditorium reminded me of a typical event arena; endless entrances, concession stands everywhere and long lines for the toilets.  As we took headsets, we were able to get a bit of a grasp of how things work in sumo. It really isn't just 2 really big guys thumping their thighs and then leaning against one another although to be fair if you didn't know what was going on, you could think that.

The commentators reminded me a little of the Test Match Special bunch.  A group of ex-competitors who knew what they were looking at and could articulate it to a bunch of no-nothing gaijin (we had the English version of course).

Sumo is divided in divisions.  This competition had two such divisions called Juryo (the lower level) and Makucchi split as much by age and size as by ability as during the competition you could get promoted or relegated, so poor performance today could mean being dumped for tomorrow.  For that is really how it appears.

The top guys have the razzamatazz attaching to them.  The wrestler parades, the big music and most importantly before the biggest match ups, the parade of sponsors who hire people to carry around large flags promoting this or that.  In Juryo, the auditorium is half empty and the bouts come and go pretty much unremarked.  Even the commentary didn't kick in until over half way through those bouts for that is how the day went -- about 20 Juryo bouts followed by the same number of Makucchi.

The average size of the Juryo wrestlers was 140 kg whilst for the Makucchi you could add anything up to 70 more kilos!  The biggest was a Bulgarian who was 6 foot 7 inches and weighed 208 kilos which I calculated was around 460 pounds!!  He was a monster although his opponent's canny tactic was to do the thigh thumping start up as usual and then when things kicked off, stepped sharply to one side whilst the Bulgar lurched forward and went straight out of the ring without touching anything or anyone other than the floor and maybe an usher or two.

Very ritualistic.  At the start and end of the Makucchi bouts, all the wrestlers troop on and circle the piste (think round wrestling ring without corners and those stays that stop people lurching out.  Here almost everyone lurches out) and probably do something with religious overtones (think Gladiatorial 'we who are about to die salute you') before trooping off again.

Before each bout, the competing duo come on in turn, stomp around a bit, sprinkle rice on the piste (again tradition but the stadium hires people to come on and sweep up all the time) and then go through the getting ready bit which looks similar to a front row bending down for a rugby scrum except that there's only one wrestler, not the entire front row.  That's when they do the thigh slapping and stomping regimen before turning around and wandering off again.  The preamble can take 5 minutes each time and it is pretty similar except the big bout when one of the competitors did it 3 times and the favourite did the sumo equivalent of nearly spitting the dummy (according to the commentator) and himself nearly stomped off.  The bout itself (as was the case in the main) lasted all of 10 seconds as one or the other got on top (literally) or one may slip over.  In any case, any slight deviation means toast.

The judges in their huddle
Only on one occasion did the 4 or 5 judges (all ex-sumo champions) get hauled into the ring for a discussion about a knotty one.  It seemed to me that one guy held the other by the throat but one other guy fell out of the ring.  The one I thought would win was non-Japanese (there were Turks, Indians, Eastern Europeans, Chinese and any central Asian nationality you could think of) however the judges disagreed and awarded it to the local boy who had seemed to have been unceremoniously dumped out of the ring.  The loser wasn't happy at all about this and the commentator didn't help much other than saying it must have been the winner's under arm shoulder slap and choke hold that tipped the balance.    It reminded me a little of an early Iron Chef competition on Food TV when a US chef took on a Japanese chef in a cook off with turkey as the common theme.  The Japanese guy won with his rendition of turkey sushi winning the day (forget salmonella!).  Home court advantage indeed !!

Fantastic experience though.

Our final day thankfully was lovely and sunny so the Imperial Palace gardens beckoned.  They were across the street from the hotel, so just a short walk away.  A little curious though as the 'gardens' themselves weren't that garden-y if you get my drift.  Rather wide boulevards with grass and trees leading up to the palace gates.  Very big of course but in terms of spectacle and beauty...

Keep off the grass!

However it was really nice to wander around in the sunshine and that's pretty much what we did all day as one of the key aiming points was that street corner which you see on all travelogues or movies about Tokyo -- an immense crossing with thousands of cars and billions of people.  Its called Subiya.

This really is the downtown of Tokyo.  The subway empties out onto a square which then leads off in many directions with large shopping streets everywhere.  No wonder it is busy.  Having waited there a while, I think I've figured out why there's so many people crossing the street at once.  Its the traffic lights.  Because there's so many roads fanning out from the square, each light takes its turn for each exit so that by the time all have had their turn, there's a billion more people waiting to cross the street.  The layout reminds me of Piccadilly Circus somehwat except with billions more people wanting to cross the street, any street.

Subiya Crossing

Viv, Cat, Indy and I found what turned out to be our last ramen noodles and deep fried pork chops at some upstairs hovel nearby (just great of course!!) after which the entire party tramped all over finally finding of all things an upstairs record shop that had a couple of Talbot Brothers vinyl records (!) that Indy bought.  What would take Bermuda's 1950's crooners to Japan for goodness sake? Mind you I found several of the records I have, the most expensive by a street being an LP by a band called Patto that everyone has forgotten about (if they ever cared in the first place, that is) which was on sale for $35.  I'd bought it for $1 when the Music Box sold their entire vinyl collection back in the 1990's. It actually wasn't worth $1 in my book, proving of course that I know nothing!

The last ramen...
We wandered through the funky people district before ending up at our journey's end, which was the 5.15 pm performance of Robot Wars.

Yes that's right, you heard right.  Robot Wars.

Located next to the central train station, this is right in the middle of sleaze town. The Paradise Club was next door just in case you got bored with fighting robots, large reptiles and woodland nymphs.  Oh yes, I forgot the snakes, sharks and marching band too...
This is Japan remember so you just had to have fighting robots with Godzilla thrown in too.  Add woodland nymphs and a story line to make you cringe and there you have it.  Robot Wars.

First though, we had a drink in the anteroom where a group of robots (alright, people dressed up like robots) played lounge music.  Kenny G, that sort of thing.  Not even some blood curdling heavy metal but... lounge music.  Talk about weird.

The lounge.  Very refined.
Then we went down 2 or 3 flights of stairs into a long room where we sat in 5 or 6 rows -- we managed the front row -- and drank beer and ate pop corn whilst we waited.

First came the story line and the nymphs.  Then came the bad robots, followed by the good robots and the very large reptiles that were helping them all ridden by woodland nymphs dressed very skimpily.

Apparently good won out over evil but I don't want to go into too much detail as it would spoil the thrill when you go... because if you go to Tokyo, you MUST go to Robot Wars.

Indy heard about the place from an Anthony Bourdain TV show...
You MUST also go to the weird tea house, the Japanese Alps, travel on a shinkansen, enjoy an onsen experience, eat ramen noodles at a hole in the wall, drink sake whilst eating grilled gizzards, watch sumo, take in a baseball game and of course... climb thousands and thousands of stairs to visit endless temples and shrines.

This was a fantastic trip!! Only sad it had to end...

Sayonara Tokyo... and Japan!

Saturday, November 21, 2015


This is the next post of our Japan trip.  It took place in September but I only managed to write these notes a couple of months later.  For contemporaneous reports, take a look at Track My Tour -- a brilliant app that I used to ... well, track our tour.  Here is the link.

The plan for the next day was to head to a seaside resort called Kamakura for one night and check out the local festival which would feature monks on horseback shooting arrows at targets.  It took one cable car ride, 4 train rides (becoming more local at each turn) and then a final monorail ride all courtesy of the train pass to arrive.

Cool looking train.  This is the Nagoya Airport Express.  The Japanese love their trains!

Unfortunately the show took place at 1 pm and we arrived at 3 pm by which time the rain had set in again so we all split up and went in different directions.

A prize winner at the flower arranging stand... I think.

Viv and I found a nice place for dinner though.  Sushi this time!

We also enjoyed a sake experience Cat had talked about before whereby the server brings both glass and a small lacquer box to the table placing the glass inside.  The glass is then filled up and up until it overflows into the box.  It is only when the level has reached the top of the box that the pouring stops.  Apparently it is a sign that the wait staff like you.  As it had only happened at this restaurant, I did wonder what this said about us!

Big bottle of sake!  That glass is really full!!  But this is the drinking combo of choice for the Japanese.  Very nice it is too!!
Tokyo tomorrow... and we are really are heading back.


This is the next post of our Japan trip.  It took place in September but I only managed to write these notes a couple of months later.  For contemporaneous reports, take a look at Track My Tour -- a brilliant app that I used to ... well, track our tour.  Here is the link.

I have to digress at this point for a moment to discuss the facilities.

They really do look what we'd expect in the west, but they really are very different.  I miss them!

Starting with the loo, it looks normal except for the fact that it is plugged in to something.  That's the seat warmer for those cold days when you don't want to sit down and be uncomfortable.

It also has a control to one side.

The button looking like a bottom with a Y underneath is the bidet.  To its right is the jet.  And to the far right is the one that no man should ever try out.  Same for the orange button on the left.  It looks like the ejector seat option.
The control enables you to do a number of things (most were like this one).

1) nothing different -- you can use the loo in the usual way you normally do.  This would be unwise as the next few things really do make this mundane task an exceptional experience.

2) chose the bidet option -- this is something that looks like an upturned bottom or circular fountain.  Once you push this button on the control, you are rewarded with a warming but gentle dousing of water in those bits where the sun doesn't shine (BWSDS).  This is very pleasant indeed and really does feel ... well cleaner.

3) chose the big spurt of water up into those BWSDS -- this is something that looks like a jet of water on the control.  And it is as soon as you press that button for you are rewarded with a firm but not too strong, and definitely not that invasive, jet of water right up into those BWSDS.  This is definitely the best. The result I am sure is a pristine area.

4) chose the female option -- I didn't dare chose this as I once heard a joke about a chap visiting Japan who went through all the options listed above and thought why not try the female one.  He felt a blinding pain and passed out.  On waking in hospital he asked what had happened and the nurse told him not to worry but that his dangling BWSDS were under the pillow.  Viv said it was nice and I believe her.

Next the shower.  What could possibly be different about this?  Yes, there is a bath but if you look closely you will see that the shower is actually not over the bath and within the glass surround.  It is over the floor.  This is because there is a big drain set into floor somewhere so you can actually take a stool in there with you (like in the onsen) and spend some decent, quality time having a nice shower secure in the knowledge that the water will not flood the bathroom at all.

Everything makes perfect sense to me.  I would like to have this at home please!

Trains, Buses and Cable Cars

This is the next post of our Japan trip.  It took place in September but I only managed to write these notes a couple of months later.  For contemporaneous reports, take a look at Track My Tour -- a brilliant app that I used to ... well, track our tour.  Here is the link.

I've waxed lyrical about the bullet train (Shinkansen) before so won't do so again other than to say they were terrific and the journey from Kyoto to Odawara was 2 hours so it must have been some 500 miles away... seems unreal to travel that fast on a train that comfortable!

Would you say that looks like a snake?

The scenery was anything but spectacular though.  Truth be told, the flat bits in Japan in between the hilly/mountainous parts are where most people live and are pretty ugly.  True there is green around but if you look really closely you will see that in fact that greenery is actually rice paddies not something like parks or people's gardens.

Rice paddies by the railway track
However where we were going in the Japanese Alps was really lovely.

To get to Hakone, we had to change at Odawara for a local train and then a cable car.  The local train chugged up the mountain until it got too steep which is where the cable car took over.  Usually there's a funicular that takes you on from the top of the cable car but with volcanic activity present, they weren't running which was a pity.

We were staying at the Hyatt Regency in Hakone and it did take a little while finding the place as there were no signs in English anywhere but we did and it was nice.

Our one day of activity thankfully was really nice and each of us went our own separate ways; Gordon and Thelma, Indy and Cat, Viv and I.  We planned to go straight up to the top of the mountain following which we'd take the bus to a boat across an alpine lake where the views of Mt. Fuji were meant to be spectacular.  From there we'd actually go into Hakone by the Lake and see what transpired after.

The boat ride was fun.  Being on board a pirate ship in Japan was sort of weird but really pleasant however one disappointment was at each of the supposed viewing points, Mt. Fuji was actually not where it was supposed to be.  It's a huge volcano so you really shouldn't be able to miss it as it dwarfs everything all around.  But we couldn't find it.

Lake Ashi and the pirate ship

First stop was the Check Point in Hakone.  This was 300 years old (but obviously rebuilt many times) and served the purpose of keeping the local women in.  There was only one road in (along the lake shore) and one out.  Why the then Shogun wanted to keep the women in was a mystery.  If a man was discovered trying to help, he would be executed (actually crucified).  If a woman, she would be sold into sexual slavery as a prostitute.  Tough measures indeed but according to the guide, there were plenty of people trying to escape.

Nobody knew what color clothes people wore back then so the diorama shows everyone as grey
Furthermore no boat travel was permitted so the Check Point had marvellous vantage points so soldiers could see if anyone was transgressing.

Mt. Fuji is 3,500 metres tall and should be right about where that little peak is opposite.  It actually should dwarf that little peak but I couldn't see it at all

From there it was a short walk to the Imperial Gardens which were pretty nice except for the fact that I navigated a wrong turning somewhere so we walked around in circles for quite some time wondering where we were before finding the summer palace (actually no more than a nice country house size) overlooking the lake.

The view from the palace balcony again of Lake Ashi and where Mt. Fuji really ought to be... but I just don't see it

Not many blooms were out so we weren't able to enjoy the full splendour of what propbably was in spring and early summer a gorgeous display.  Still it was pretty nice.

Our final stop by the lake was at another temple which had another of those big orange monuments in the lake (like at Miyajima).  It was called Hakone Jinja and was very pretty as usual with all the regular accoutrements that we had become accustomed to.

We took the bus (actually two buses) from the temple to the Picasso Museum in the mountains (yes, really).  The entire area is a playground for people from Tokyo as it is less than 2 hours by car or train so has a wide range of sophisticated attractions.  There is a huge onsen resort built to accomodate more than 5,000 people at one time in the mountains above Lake Ashi as well that we transited en route to the museum.

It was built by a Picasso fan who just happened to own more than 300 pictures, etchings, sketches and sculptures by the great man (he was hugely prolific by the way so there is lots of Picasso stuff out there) and he wanted to share them with the world.  So he and some others created this art museum including the Picasso Pavilion and quite a number of very large out door sculptures that were dotted around a large park area.

I did like the sculpture of the two fried eggs, sunny side up

It must be said that the Picasso's weren't his finest by any means but they were apparently undoubtedly Picasso's.  I did wonder why if he was so prolific that his work commands such enormous prices.  I would have thought scarcity would have been a better thing to drive up price but clearly I have it wrong for Picasso (by the way he was also prolific in his love life and marriages!).

Another bus, a train and our friendly cable car took us back to the hotel where we joined the rest of the party to head out for another highlight: our dinner at Nobu, a Michelin starred restaurant found by Indy which just happened to be around the corner (I did mention this area is a play ground for Tokyo's rich and famous, didn't I?).  And equally importantly our Kobe beef experience.

It was discovered by an Englishman named Edward Kirby in 1868 (of course it would be an Englishman, how couldn't it be?) who bought a steer from a farmer in Hyogo prefecture, a specific requirement for Kobe beef.  Since then rules have been drawn up: cannot weigh more than 470 kg, cannot be older than 5 years old and must have a certificate of authenticity and birth certificate upon which is (wait for it) a copy of its inked nose print.

The cows are fed beer (to aid digestion but only a little) and get massages (only in summer when the cows eat less) to reduce stress.  The result is a cow with more fat that any other cow so the beef cuts are that much more tender and cook faster.

You have to have it medium rare (I could feel Viv bridling at this point as she likes her beef medium well to well).

Kobe beef, medium rare

It really did melt in the mouth.

Mind you, the bill was eye watering!  Just as well the Yen is depressed against the US dollar at the moment.  Come on Mr. Abe, keep buying those bonds.