Thanks

And that’s that. Thank you to everyone who commented, and to everyone who told me that they were reading along, and to everyone else who’s been reading. I had a great time on the trip, much better than I could have imagined, and it was nice to think that I was somehow sharing my experiences with my friends.I’ll see you soon.

Home safe

Our last day in Tokyo was largely uneventful. We took a quick trip back to Harajuku to check out a 100-yen shop. (These are great. Full of things shaped like cartoon animals that are good for opening jars.) Then a turn around a supermarket near our hotel in Shinagawa to make sure there were no foodstuffs unavailable in Australia that we hadn’t already bought. Then back to the hotel to pack up. Calvin filled two extra boxes with food, as well as the complementary contents of the daily-replenished minibar.

And then, the airport. Duty-free shopping, hanging round in the the airport lounge, killing time. The first leg was from Tokyo to Cairns: my first ever business class flight. I was a little underwhelmed, to be honest. I could survive seven hours sitting on broken glass with a gun to my head, provided I had video on demand, but on this flight there were only eight channels, and the highlight appeared to be Andrew Denton interviewing Rod Stewart. We did this flight on points; had it been with money, I don’t think I could justify spending thousands of dollars on a slightly bigger seat and much jollier flight attendants.

Anyway. We arrived in Cairns, and decided not to prolong the agony. Instead of waiting six hours for the next business class leg, we got straight back on the same plane in economy class. And two and a half hours later, we were in Sydney.

No fugu for you

Saturday night we went for dinner to Shibuya, which, According to Calvin, has the busiest intersection in the world. It’s massive, with neon signs and animated billboards. And everyone in Tokyo was there. It made Piccadilly Circus look like Johnston Street, Annandale.

We were having dinner with a couple Calvin knew; we had run into them a couple of days earlier in the lobby of our last hotel. With the help of Nick, who knows Japanese, we found a good restaurant, full of locals, and had nice meal. We drank plum wine and cherry-blossom sake. Apparently there was whale bacon on the menu, but since I heard this as “quail bacon”, I wasn’t particularly shocked until later. Calvin didn’t have any, which was a surprise.

Sunday morning, on Nick’s advice, we went to Harajuku, which is apparently full of wacky young people dressed in cartoon-character-Victoriana-S & M-wear. It was so cold, though, that we were disinclined to explore, and only caught sight of one or two of the less extreme examples.

Then to the giant department stores of Shinjuku. This was fun, but I was already starting to feel unwell. I think parasites from the sushi I’ve been eating had invaded my cerebro-spinal fluid and were making my joints ache. Or something.

We met Ben Tupman and his girlfriend Satoko fo lunch in Shinjuku. We ate in a Korean barbecue restaurant, where we selected our own food and cooked it on a hotplate embedded in the table. Calvin tricked me into eating heart (again), and we may have overeaten in order to avoid the 500 yen fine for taking food and not finishing it.

During lunch, we discussed Calvin’s plans for eating fugu, the poisonous blowfish that nearly killed Homer Simpson in 1991. Fugu restaurants only serve fugu normally, but Ben looked at the menu that the concierge had given us, and helpfully informed me that if I didn’t feel up to fugu, the restaurant also offered shirako, which is the fugu’s sperm.

Unsurprisingly, by the time I got home, I was horribly nauseous, and I split the evening between groaning weakly and being sick. Sadly, neither of us got to taste any delicious fugu.

Both dogs found

We got a phone call last night saying that Gracey had been turned in at a vet in Marrickville. Willey wasn’t mentioned. Years ago, they used to escape occasionally, but they would always be found nearby and together. Willey would always follow Gracey.

Calvin rang when the vet opened again this morning and was told that stupid, faithful Willey was at the vet’s too. Trish is going to pick them up this morning.

I’m very relieved. That was an unpleasantly anxious night.

Last full day today. We fly out at 9.25 pm tomorrow night.

Worry

Another great day yesterday. We got up horribly early in the morning to go to the fish markets at Tsukiji. Calvin had seen them on Lifestyle Food, and it was the first thing he wanted to do once he had finished working. There are some photos, as usual, but Calvin also took some video of people slicing up giant tunas with swords, or sawing up frozen ones with power tools. Awesome. There are live crabs, and giant scarlet octopuses. And you constantly have to dodge the noisy three-wheeled carts which zip among the stalls.

Sushi for breakfast, of course, and then back to the hotel to meet Ben. Ben took us to Ueno park, where all of the cherry blossoms were out. Ben reckoned that the park wasn’t very crowded, but he may have been in Tokyo too long: thousands of people had turned up to photograph the cherry blossoms, and the paths were lined with roped-off tarpaulins, which Ben said were reserved areas for companies. But they looked to me like they were full of hippies and vagrants rather than sober corporate types. We visited a shrine dedicated to the fox spirits, and a lake with swan-shaped paddle-boats, before heading off to the markets and the inevitable drink.

Calvin and I had an early night, narrowly avoiding another work dinner.

This morning I was woken by the news that two of Calvin’s dogs had escaped, but had been picked up and brought back home by someone kind who knew where they lived.

We visited Akihabara again this morning, and I showed Calvin the sights I had seen a few days early. Even he managed not to buy any electrical equipment. We met Calvin’s Japanese colleague Hayuru, who took us to lunch at a restaurant where they cook a kind of fishy noodly omelet on a hot plate embedded in the table.

Now we’re waiting to meet some of Calvin’s old gym friends, who we ran into in the lobby of the last hotel. We’re having dinner with them. I can’t say I’m enthusiastic, though. We just heard that the same two dogs escaped again this morning, and only one of them has been accounted for. I hope Willey is okay.

Blossoms and bidets

Calvin ended up getting back from his work dinner after 11.30 last night, long after I had fallen asleep. Right now I’m waiting for him in the glamorous hotel lobby, behind a bamboo garden and in front of a water feature. When he gets here, we’ll pick up our bags and head off to our last hotel. He assures me it will put this one in the shade.

After Calvin left for work this morning, I rang Ben Tupman, who took a year’s leave from Grammar last year and never came back. He’s living just out of Tokyo now. We’re catching up tomorrow, which I’m really looking forward to. I’ve got lots of Japan questions to ask him, for a start. Like, how do you type? How do those handheld electronic dictionaries work? And would he consider wearing one of those surgical face masks if he caught a cold?

After speaking to Ben, I walked to the Imperial Palace Gardens, which are visible from the hotel room window. They are surrounded by a moat about five kilometres long, but most of them are actually open to the public. I walked around the moat and wandered through the gardens, spending a salutary few hours taking photographs of cherry blossoms. They’re really coming on now.

Then, by way of contrast, I went by metro to Akihabara, which is a busy and garish district, packed with stores selling consumer electronics. I worked my way from biggest to smallest. But I was very self-controlled. I added to my collection of screen protectors for the iPod touch, but didn’t buy anything else. I’ll be back, though: Calvin wants to go later to pick up one of those horrifying heated Japanese toilet seats with built-in bidet and water jet, and a mysterious third spray setting specifically for ladies. He’s been obsessed with them ever since we arrived.

Glamour

Tonight’s blog entry comes to you from the 34th floor of the ANA Inter-Continental Hotel Tokyo, where I’m sitting at the window of the club lounge with my complimentary glass of champagne and my complimentary plate of nibbles, looking out over the Tokyo cityscape as twilight falls. The view is amazing: the skyscrapers, the neon lights, the flying cars. Wish you were here, obviously.

I’ve been on my own again today while Calvin’s been working. In fact, he just dropped by for five minutes as I was writing this, but he’s off to dinner with the Japanese CEO (or something), and won’t be in until ten: he’s gone native. He’ll be working tomorrow as well.

Yesterday we spent the day sightseeing in Kyoto, before catching a train to Tokyo in the afternoon. We reached the hotel at eight in the evening. Our taxi pulled into the driveway and was instantly unpacked by efficient and courteous bellboys, while we were ushered into an absurdly glamorous hotel lobby. It’s three storeys high, the ceiling is carpeted with expensive chandeliers and there are glassy water features and bamboo gardens in every direction. From the open-concept champagne bar on the mezzanine level, a glass staircase descends, tastefully lit from within by purple fluorescent lights. I keep expecting Cameron Diaz to stagger down it carrying that all-important envelope. (There are a lot of posters of her around, actually. I’m going to start carrying cloves of garlic, I think.)

Kyoto was lovely. The Guide says that you need to spend several days there, savouring the food and visiting the historic buildings. But if you’ve only got a few hours, there’s a walk it recommends. We followed it for most of the day, visiting huge temple complexes and walking down cobbled streets lined with tea houses and quaint, crappy souvenir shops. The photos are really worth a look. There are turtles.

Today, I took it easy. Calvin suggested that I should make the most of the last day of our rail pass and go to see Mount Fuji. I was tempted, obviously, but just couldn’t face the hours of complicated train trips it would have taken. Instead, I spent the day catching up on the backlog of photos and visiting huge glassy shopping centres and multi-storey electronics stores. I spent an indecent amount of time stroking a MacBook Air.

Off to dinner soon. Trying to remain seaweed-free today. My hopes remain high.

48 hours without coffee or garlic

We’re back from our stay in the Buddhist temple, and it’s quite different from what I expected.

We stayed at Eko-in, which is a shukubo, a Buddhist temple which doubles as a hotel, where the guests are looked after by novice monks. I had expected hard benches and drafty rooms; instead, our room was the most beautiful one I’ve had on the trip. There was a TV and an electric heater; the toilet outside had one of those creepy Japanese heated toilet seats.

Eko-in is in Koyasan, a mountain village full of temples and holy places, the home of the Shingon School of Buddhism, founded by Kobo Daishi in 816. He’s still there, apparently, in eternal meditation, although I didn’t see too many signs of life at his mausoleum. Calvin remains convinced, however.

It took us five different trains to get here; the last was a scary funicular railway like the one in the Blue Mountains. A bus took us to the temple. We didn’t have much time once we arrived. We wandered through the cemetery, which is beautiful: crumbling lichen-covered monuments surrounded by tall cedar trees. Very sad and peaceful.

Dinner was at 5.30. There was sake, but the monks can’t eat meat or onions or garlic, so neither could we. (No garlic! This is exactly the sort of thing that gets me so cross about religion.) Calvin enjoyed the food, but all I could think about was that fantastic plate of tagliatelle I had in Nîmes. The breakfast next morning was even more bland and horrible.

We spent yesterday going from temple to temple. Japanese Buddhist temples are beautiful. They’re dark inside, full of black lacquer and red and gold and soft orange lanterns. Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum contains tens of thousands of lanterns. When I expressed awe at this, Calvin pointed out that they ran off electricity; this was his revenge for my skepticism about Kobo Daishi’s immortality.

We reached Kyoto this afternoon, and were immediately unimpressed by the hotel. Mind you, it was better than any hotel I stayed in in Europe (apart from Sorrento), but Calvin hated it the moment we walked in. So our plans have changed. We’ll spend the morning sightseeing in Kyoto, and then we’ll catch the train to Tokyo, where we’ll stay until we leave for home on Monday night.

Red meat on Fridays

I’m just back from dinner. Calvin and I went to a restaurant under the hotel called Wakkoku, which was recommended by the Guide for the quality of its Kobe beef.

We were seated at a bench, directly in front of the long rectangular hotplate where our meal was cooked. Next to us we had small bowls of vinegar and soy sauce.

I started with smoked salmon, served with capers on a bed of lightly pickled onion. Calvin had tongue. (Delicious. I broke my skeletal-muscle-only rule to try it.) We ate our entrees while watching the chef lightly fry huge slices of garlic, carefully creating two small piles. He placed the garlic on large plates, which sat on the hotplate in front of us. Then he added small piles of salt, pepper and mustard.

We ate a light salad while the chef brought out two 250 gram slices of Kobe beef, amazingly geometrical, and marbled with fat. He cut off the fatty ends, and then cut two-thirds of the rest into slices and carefully fried each surface.

We dipped these slices in pepper or in a mixture of mustard and soy sauce. They were rich, juicy and fatty — by far the most delicious meat I have ever eaten.

Then he used the molten beef fat to lightly fry pieces of tofu,  eggplant, carrot and radish. He served these to us, and  added some of the pieces of fat themselves (oh my god!), and then the rest of the beef, and then bean shoots mixed with the rest of the pieces of fat. Calvin was defeated by the richness of it all, but I made it all the way to the end. So much delicious meat.

That was when I remembered Good Friday. Tomorrow and Sunday: penance and self-mortification. I’ll get back to you after that.

Easter among the Shintoists

I’m writing this post from the top floor of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Kobe. We arrived here yesterday afternoon, and after about five minutes of conversation, Calvin had us upgraded to Vice-Emperor Status, which means a massive room and free access to endless free drinks in the Ambassador Club Deity Lounge. He’s my absolute hero.

View from the hotel room window in Kobe

I met Calvin at Tokyo Airport, after a horrid long-haul flight from London to Tokyo. There was to be no sleeping on this flight, thanks to the many children around me, and the confined economy-class seating. But the inflight entertainment was spectacular: I watched hours of cartoons and sitcoms, episodes of Torchwood, and, for the very first time, This is Spinal Tap. No one ever told me that Patrick Macnee was in it.

Dinner last night was hampered a bit by our complete inability to communicate with the staff in the restaurant. Buying train tickets this morning was hampered by our relative inability to communicate with the staff at the railway station. We’ve picked our restaurant for dinner tonight, and are hoping for a menu with pictures on it. Although we’re pretty sure that most waiters in Kobe will understand the word beef.

Caught the tourist bus around Kobe today, visited a beautiful Shinto temple, wandered slack-jawed around a six-storey electronics shop and climbed the hill behind the city on a scary cable-car thing.

Tomorrow, we’re off to Koyasan, where we’ll be staying in a Buddhist temple for two days. I’m guessing that opportunities for beef, beer and wi-fi will be limited, so I don’t expect to be blogging again until after the weekend.