Guns and Frocks

Loving Delta and the Bannermen since 1987


Friday, 28 March 2008

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

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

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.


Tuesday, 25 March 2008

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

Monday, 24 March 2008

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

Friday, 21 March 2008

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

Thursday, 20 March 2008

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.

It's an overcast day and we're looking over the city of Kobe: mountains on the left, lots of multi-storey buildings clustered together, and just visible in the background on the right is the sea.
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.

Strike three

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

I had a bit of a ceramics day yesterday. There were no trains running, and I was reluctant to attempt the buses, so I was restricted to places within easy walking distance of the hotel. Fortunately, that included the National Archaelogical Museum and the Kerameikos.

I had visited the museum the day before, but by the time I reached the pottery collection on the top floor, I had pretty much had enough. I briefly walked through all the rooms in reverse chronological order, only stopping to look at the occasional pretty or unusual piece.

This time I had a few hours to walk through the whole collection, in order. And I was glad I did. Everything was very clearly described and explained, and there were beautiful examples of the different techniques and types of vessels. By the end, I knew a lot more than I had when I arrived.

More souvlaki for lunch, and then the last of the archaeological sites on my list. The Kerameikos was where a lot of the pottery was made, and although the ruins are now little more than square brick outlines, there is a small museum there with more pottery and grave markers. I wandered around for a while, marvelling at the tortoises and the flowers, looking up at the Acropolis, and trying to imagine Athens 2500 years ago.

On my way back to the hotel, I started to notice ominous signs on the telegraph poles. Brightly coloured signs, prominently featuring the word apergía and the date March 19. I went back to my local pub and decided to have an early night and not to worry too much about it.

Of course, I couldn’t sleep. I’ve had a fun few weeks travelling on my own, but I’m really looking forward to travelling in Japan with Calvin. It was like Christmas Eve: I couldn’t sleep till nearly midnight, and I was wide awake at 4.30 am.

And good thing too. The signs were advertising a general strike in protest at the changes to pensions the Greek government is planning to bring in tomorrow. When I checked out at 5.30, hoping to get to the airport in time for my flight at 8.55, the reception guy said that there would be no buses or trains or taxis today.

But 5.30 in the morning was early enough for the strike not to have kicked in yet, and I managed to get a cab to the airport, for only a couple of euros less than the cost of the previous night at the hotel. After spending a couple of hours wrestling with the ancient Windows machines in Athens Airport’s crappy first-class lounge (darling!), I’m now in the air about three hours from Heathrow, where I catch my flight to Tokyo.

Strike two

Monday, 17 March 2008

Today is my last day in Athens, and my last day in Europe. I’m leaving tomorrow morning at 9 am to fly to Tokyo via London, where I’ll meet up with Calvin.

Yesterday was another beautiful day, hot and sunny: for the first time, I shed the jacket completely. I decided to head up to the Acropolis again. This time I started with the excavations on the south side and the Theatre of Dionysus. Then up to the Acropolis itself.

It was still spectacular. It was Monday, and entry was no longer free, so it was less crowded. I took a couple more pictures, but basically just tried to memorise the place as much as I could. This time I noticed that from the Erichtheion you could see the Ancient Agora and its amazingly intact temple of Hephaistos. I also saw a lump of rock nearby which people were clambering on, and suspected that I knew what it must be. I headed towards the exit.

Before I got there, I ran into the American students again. They’d been having fun, and were getting ready to leave the next day.

The lump of rock had a plaque on it quoting the chapter of the Book of Acts where Saint Paul preaches to the Greeks about a God previously unknown to them. This was the Areopagus. I wandered up, marvelling at its slipperiness and wondering if there were as many beer bottles there in Paul’s day. I saw the American students again, but climbed down before they saw me: it would have been ridiculous to say goodbye to them for a fourth time.

Closeup of a bronze plaque set into a stone surface. The plaque is inscribed with Greek capital letters.

I went through the Ancient Agora, and walked around the temple of Hephaistos. They have little tortoises here, like the one that killed Aeschylus. I emerged from the agora into a fabulously cool street, full of roadside cafes where attractive young people were playing backgammon and drinking that scary frothy Greek coffee. I vaguely decided to come back and eat here that night.

Souvlaki for lunch: the best thing I’ve eaten since Italy. Then the National Archaeological Museum for the afternoon. Had a happy time looking at all that gold Schliemann dug up in Mycenae, and spent quite a while looking at the Neolithic artifacts. By the time I reached the  fantastic ceramics rooms on the top floor, my knees and ankles had had enough, and I didn’t do more than a cursory tour.

It was dark and overcast when I left the museum, but not yet time for dinner, so I walked back to the cafes near the Ancient Agora. It was quite dark when I got there, and the bookshop I’d spotted earlier had no books in English, and it was too dark to read at any of the cafes anyway, so I decided to head back. Not before seeing the Acropolis all magnificently lit up, though. I tried to take a photo, but it was dark and the camera’s a Sony, which means that I can’t work out how to change any of its settings.

There was a notice at Thissio station, which looked like it said there would be a train strike for the next 36 hours. When I got to Omonia station, there was an English announcement that confirmed it.

So, no trains today. I can’t face the buses, frankly, and so I’m stuck doing things within walking distance. That might mean another trip to the Archaeological Museum to take a proper look at the pottery and a trip to the Kerameikos. Or it might mean dicking around on the internet and drinking at the pub next to the hotel. Let’s see, shall we?

The Athens photos are up

Sunday, 16 March 2008

I don’t have time to write a long post right now, but I just wanted to say that I’ve uploaded my photos from today’s sightseeing tour of Athens, including my first ever trip to the Acropolis.

Normal whinging about the vicissitudes of overseas travel will resume as soon as possible.

Cradle of civilisation

Sunday, 16 March 2008

A large white and blue Mediterranean ferry marked Blue Star Ferries is in dock, with some large trucks in front of it.

The ferry arrived in Patra yesterday lunchtime, and I easily found the railway station. But when I tried to buy a ticket to Athens, the man at the counter said that there had been an accident, and that it would be half an hour before he could tell me whether there would be any trains to Athens. He may have added something in Greek to the effect that the line had caught fire, or that a tower had fallen on it; my Greek is about two and a half thousand years out of date.

I had been followed to the station by three American students, who also asked for tickets, but the ticket seller suggested to them that they could catch the bus at the bus station we had passed on the way to the railway station. I decided to do this as well.

The bus trip was incredible, and much faster than the train would have been. We drove along the north of the Peloponnese, looking out across the water towards northern Greece, until we reached Corinth; then we drove along looking south across the water towards the Peloponnese. The sky was blue, there were mountains; it was terribly beautiful, and a nice confirmation of all those maps of Greece I’ve looked at over the years.

The American students were on the bus with me. They were studying architecture and construction science at a university in Texas; they were studying abroad in Italy for a whole semester, and were taking their spring break in Greece.

When we got to Athens, things were less attractive. The bus station was, as usual, full of lost luggage and lost souls. From there I caught a local bus to Omonia, which the Guide describes as a “home to pickpockets, prostitutes and drug dealers”. The garbage collectors, like those in Naples, must be on strike: everywhere you look there are six foot piles of garbage, and small drifts of garbage everywhere else. The window cleaners’ strike appears to be in its third decade.

The hotel didn’t improve my mood. It’s called the Hotel Joker; the lit sign on the side has a malfunctioning R. I only reconciled myself to Athens when I visited the pub next door. The staff were friendly, the beer was cold, and they were enthusiastically playing that Greek music which I had always thought Greek people only pretended to like just to placate their mothers.

This morning, the first place to go was the Acropolis. And it was as easy as catching the metro to the station called Akropoli, climbing the escalator and looking up. Unfortunately, the staff there were also on strike: the Acropolis was not opening until midday.

This gave me plenty of time to visit the temple of Olympian Zeus and the Pnyx and the Hill of the Muses, from where you can see the gleaming white buildings of Athens stretching out to the hills, much less grubby from a distance. I also had a brief preview of the new Acropolis Museum, which is due to open fully this year. When twelve came round, I briefly considered leaving the Acropolis for another day, but that was a crazy idea, and so I went there straightaway. Spectacular, of course. I ran into the American students on the way down the hill.

After that, a late lunch, and a wander around Syntagma and Plaka, which the Guide tells me are the heart of Athens. It’s Sunday, so all the shops were closed, but there were markets and pubs and a happy carnival atmosphere. I stumbled across the Roman agora, and the Kerameikos, which is where all those famous Greek amphoras were made, and which doubled as the red light district, before the area around my hotel took over, of course.

Tonight, the pub again, I think. Tomorrow, the museum, and the inevitable second trip up the Acropolis.