Monday, May 01, 2006

The end

Well all good things must come to an end and the same is true of our travels. We're back in Blighty now reveling in the chance to sit on a real sofa, grab milk from a real fridge and talk to people without having to revert to sign language. But what can we say about the last four months? How do you condense the experience of a lifetime into a few hundred words for you, our tireless and attractive readers, to soak up? All we can do is offer you these final words...

It has certainly been one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Literally beathtaking. There were many many times when I felt like the luckiest person alive, to be in the most beautiful and fascinating places and indulge in four whole months with my lovely Ben.
My highlights were Sa Pa where we met and laughed with the locals in the hills enveloped by the most awe-inspiring scenery; our 3 days with our 'Easy Riders', where we were guided around the real Vietnam off the beaten track; the Great Wall and its exhilarating walk; and Halong Bay. You can't beat sharing an emormous chinese junk with a couple of mates and eight staff, surroundeded by the magical & mysterious scenery (read: cloudy) and do kyaking for the first time. We were able to eat the tastiest and most interesting and outlandish food in the world (Japan takes the biscuit with the mini squid in dumplings and octopus tentacle. Yum.)
And after the adventure when we're back at home, back to the grind, commuting, rush hours and willing the sun to shine, it feels like a dream. But I will always now have those amazing experiences, fabulous memories, a great relationship and a couple of holiday snaps thrown in.

It's been a blast, it really really has. I've had the most exquisite time wandering through South East & East Asia, meeting interesting and fascinating folk, experiencing lots of simply divine food and finally seeing, in the flesh as it were, some of the planet's truly beautiful sites. I've learnt a lot about the World and the odd little people who inhabit it, I've learnt more about myself and the way I cope (or don't cope as the case may be) with life's little eventualities and I've fallen in love with Beth all over again. This trip has given me so much and cost me so little in the grand scheme of things. Just four short months is all I had to pay for the memories I've picked up. And yet it doesn't matter how much I've got from all this there is still one undeniable truth. I still don't like bloody tofu.

Saturday, April 29, 2006


Tokyo, Tokyo. Wherefore art thou Tokyo. It's a funny ol' place this and one I can't help but feel we would've got more out of if we'd come here first, fresh off a 13hour flight, fighting jet-lag and finding ourselves bombarded by the sensory overload. As it happens it's very similar to any other city in the developed World... or so we thought. At first glance this is true and it's also true to say that for the majority of the daytime we have struggled to find things to do, (if you live in a city you tend to be at work or at home during the day afterall), that are either cheap or don't involve shopping in any way. There 'aint much, unless you wanna go see temples or shrines but frankly we've had our fill of those. So, desperate to take our leave of our slightly cabbagey room, we've taken to wandering the streets in search of the the Tokyo we'd been looking forward to meeting.
It would seem that Tokyo exists very much in the detail. As a city it's pretty much the same as everywhere else but it's the finer points that make it 'alien' and individual. The people go about their daily lives like all others but where else can you see gangs of suited business men bowing profusely to one another when they part company, where else will you see groups of girls walking the streets in impossibly ridiculous heels or dressed as dolls, where else will you see attendants guiding drivers into carparks as if it were a ancient and venerated ritual. The only people more insanely dressed here than the girls are the boys. I've never seen ginger hair, cowboy boots or ripped jeans worn with such vigour. They love it the boys here, it's like they're all living out a Manga-esque, James Dean International Playboy fantasy.

There's loads of vending machines everywhere dispensing key-chains and mobile phone dangles of characters from anything from Disney to Manga cartoons and it was in these and some of the better toy shops that I sought to find the perfect robot. I found a good one, not perfect mind, but good.

Tokyo is apparently the place in Japan to have sushi, (something Beth wanted to try properly), and so on Friday we headed off to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market to take in the ambience, marvel at the sheer variety of fish on offer and maybe grab ourselves some pukka sushi for lunch. Some of the creatures on sale at the stalls would've had graown men running for the hills in terror if they weren't dead, I tell you. All manner of beady eyes stare out from glass tanks at you and tentacles thrash out of buckets to grab your ankles and drag unsuspecting shoppers to a watery grave. Okay, I made that last bit up but if it had happened I would't have been surprised.

Anyhow, we'll be heading home from Tokyo soon, back to our sofa, bed and fridge. Back to walks along the seafront, talking to friends instead of e-mailing them, fretting over money, popping on a DVD, knowing what we're eating, wearing smart clothes, using toliet paper with gay abandon, Pat, visiting Waitrose, sausages, Marmite, proper tea - none of this green tea crap, the squarking of seagulls, weekends, beautiful parks and gardens, trees, Mabel our car, Dave our plant, Steve our hoover, music... oh God music, normal sweet music with a tune and no 'pingy-tingy' noise or screechy-screechy lyrics, knowing where my pants are, not living out of a bag, family and popping out with friends to the wonderful, beauiful, glorious pub.
But before we go, here's a little present for the lads. A highly exclusive pair of beauiful, firm melons.

They're 82 pounds!

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Some things about the Japanese

Japan is that kind of place that despite being in the East the culture is so Westernised that it feels a bit like being in London or Croydon or even Slough. There are however a few cultural differences that need to be noted:

All Japanese embrace technology, from young to old, the mobile is king, but when you see how long it takes to write a text in Japanese you realise why they spend so long on their phones, If they are not texting they are playing a game. All mobiles are 'clam-shell' mobiles but they are really, really cool. and the thinner and more angular the better. All phones MUST have at least 3 'dangles' hanging off them. I believe these are 'lucky charms' but everyone has them, young to old. Some people's dangles are larger than the phone itself.

All Japanese girls are 'Kookie'. Socks up to the knees, feet turned in, dangles hanging off mobile phones, teddies hanging off bags. A new fashion seems to be dressing like 'Little Bo Peep' and we have seen several other nursery rhyme characters wandering around the cities.

Ladies Shoes should be as high, pointy and sparkly as possible. The style of which would look more than a bit 'Sharonny' on any Westerner. The problem is that most Japanese ladies have wide, flat, turned in feet, hence they are unable to walk in said shoes.

Saying that though, the Japanese have a tendancy to look very cool. They can get away with a dress code that no Western person would ever dare. Hats are pretty much obligatory on the 25 to 35 year old casuals, knee high socks do look great, orange hair would appear to be the way forward. I am even warming to drainpipe jeans. In my book, Little Bo Peep is still a definate No-No though.

When posing for a photograph it is essential to make a 'PEACE V' sign with your fingers. No photo is complete without one. Apparently.

Politeness. The Japanese are more English than the English as far as politeness goes. Queueing is essential even when boarding the tube, you should stand in designated queuing spots. Politeness is paramount and bowing is as natural as breathing. People bow if they check your train ticket, say hello, give you your change, or just step in front of you on a busy street.

Japanese men are not small. This is an urban myth. In fact, in Tokyo most of them are positively tall. However, most entrances are small. Ben has been caught out by the small doorways many times over the last few weeks and is now not quite right in the head because of them. However, the small doorways are not, as he thought, there simply to annoy him, but rather because you should bow as you enter a room.

Falling asleep. We have seen many sleeping Japanese. In the most unusual places. The arcade, (where you need to shout to be heard), slumped against the fruit machine, in the ATM room outside the post office, in the foyer at the Park Hyatt. These sleeping japanese are usually suited and booted.

Pinging. Everything pings at you. All the time. Escalators, doors, pedestrian crossings, lifts, loo seats, trains, shop, toys, etc. And for no discernable reason other than just that they can.

Arcades Are full all the time, with kids at the weekend and with business men during the week. There seems to be a spending problem. People have more money than is strictly neccessary and feel the need to spend it on computer games, (shooting, football, fighting, DJ-ing, drumming, guitarring, gambling, slot machines, one arm bandits, casino), everything in this country is made into a computerised game. Including darts. No doubt there will be a 'sleeping in a busy arcade' game soon.

Talking and communicating. Everytime you enter a shop or restaurant, you are welcomed with the words 'irasshai' or 'irasshaimase', (May I help You), and although it may be obvious to the Japanese person that you are Western and have no grasp whatsoever of the Japanese language, anyone you come across will chat away to you in Japanese. I have taken it upon myself to chat away back to them in English. We have no idea what each other is saying, but at least the pleasantries are being taken seriously. For all I know our conversation may actually make some sense.

The are no bins. Anywhere.

Loo Culture. The Japanese have embraced the western style toilet in a way that should make any European thoroughly ashamed of themselves. The majority of Western style toilets are fitted with a seat warmer and 'bidet' settings. Spray, shower, osccilating, drying. I'm surprised there isn't a 'wipe with soft Andrex' setting. It has become so natural to have a warm seat that I actually jumped when I sat on a cold one.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Baseball and The Park Hyatt

We'd booked an over night stop at a lovely Ryokan, (Japanese guesthouse), called 'Ryokan Katsutaro Annex' in Ueno district as a way of getting out of Takayama and into Tokyo a few days early. The place was great, the owners were very friendly and actually apologised to us that our fantastic room with TV, private bathroom and tea & coffee making facilities wasn't bigger. With a nice room to come back to we took our first steps into Tokyo and ended up at a baseball match of all things. Baseball is huge in Japan, it was introduced in 1873 and, after Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig visited in 1934 the Yomiuri started it's own team, The Giants are still Japan's most popular team and it was this team we were to see play the Hinsahn Tigers.

Neither Beth nor I know the slightest thing about baseball, our evening was full of comments like, "So is it like rounders where you can...", and "What's he doing now? Is he supposed to wiggle his bottom like that?", so we were really there just to soak up the atmosphere and try something new. At first we were positioned in the standing-room only section, jostling with the Japanese for a view of the pitch and trying not to spill our beers but three quarters of the way in a highly lovely couple appeared at our shoulders and offered us their tickets as they were just leaving. We thanked them profusely and walked down to our new seats closer to the action. Even if you don't watch the game there's plenty to keep you interested including the pretty young girls walk up and down the aisles carrying vats of beer on their backs and dispensing it from a nozzle 'Ghostbusters' style into plastic cups. Every so often play stops and the cheerleaders pop out to shake their booties whilst grown men dressed as animals fire t-shirts into the crowd from huge slingshots. Then they go back in and play resumes as if nothing untoward had just occured. It was all hugely exciting and we both came out grinning like idiots.

The following moring we packed up our bags, prepared ourselves to feel vastly underdressed and headed off for two nights at the Park Hyatt Hotel Tokyo where we'd booked ourselves a Deluxe King room as there were no ordinary King rooms left. From the moment we arrived we were treated like Kings. It was chuffin' brilliant. Everyone bowed and bid us 'Konichiwa Mr. Catchpole-san', (or something like that), our bags were whipped out of our hands and we were placed in the care of a highly charming man called Adrian who treated us like the Beckhams'.
The room was something else, about the size of our flat it contained the biggest bathroom I've ever had the pleasure of using, (including a sci-fi loo that had a heated seat, bidet and dryer function built in), a 32 inch plasma tv and entertainment unit, a dressing room, electric curtains, mini-bar and electric curtaains. We relaxed into our complimentary kimono robes & slippers immediately, popped on some music and let ourselves sink in to the luxurious bed linen. The view from the window, (we were on the 47th floor) took in the urban sprawl of Tokyo and, had the weather been better, we would've been able to see Mount Fuji in the distance. I don't believe that in the past four months I've been more relaxed than looking out over that view from such a beautifully tranquil room.
That first afternoon we ventured out and discovered in the basement a brilliant Deli and patisserie where we took lunch and bought some bits 'n bobs for a private supper in our room with the wine we'd got earlier from the local supermarket. After this we headed back, (we wanted to spend as much time in the room as possible - understandable I think), to make use of the room's DVD player and to watch several of the hooky DVDs we'd acquired on our travels.
After a heavy stint of DVD watching we felt in need of some exercise so we headed up to the pool where we swam for a bit and I weighed up the pros and cons of using the running machine against going back to the room to soak in the plunge bath whilst watching the TV in the bathroom. Guess which path I chose.

The following day we did much the same only leaving the room to marvel at the lovely, (and expensive), restaurants within the hotel and to wander aimlessly around the area. To our surprise we came across a lovely little exhibition of graphic art and a Conran shop in the same building.
That night we gave the 'New York Grill Bar' a miss, (it's the one Bill Murray & Scarlet Johensen use at the very top of the hotel in the film), as it involved a 10 pound cover charge each before you'd even bought a drink, and opted for the cover-charge-free bar on the 41st floor. The view was no less impressive and we whiled away our evening drinking cocktails and eating the complimentary nuts.
After two nights of this level of luxury you'll understand why we were so sorry to have to leave the following day. We took in one last swim and a bath and basked in the comfort of the room until 12 when we had to leave.
We were heading to Ikebukoro prefecture to stay in another Ryokan for five nights.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Fuji and the Shinkansen

We saw Mount Fuji from the Shinkansen (tilting train). It looked exactly how it is supposed to look with a fresh sprinkling of snow from the previous day. Except that the foreground was slightly marred by the urban sprawl that is part of Honshu's landscape.

Oh, and we bought a Bento Box on the train. It was really tasty.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Hadaka Matsuri (Naked Festival)

Whilst in Takayama we popped our little botties onto a train and headed for neighbouring Furukawa to catch a big event on the local calendar, the somewhat mystifying 'Hakada Matsuri' or 'Naked Festival'. Well with a name like that it would've been stoopid to have not gone wouldn't it. The streets are decked with bunting and paper lanterns are hung from the lampposts. All along the length of the high street stalls appear selling toys that light up and whistle, others offering children the chance to win a fish if they can pick up a plastic duck out of a bucket of water with a mini fishing rod and a few selling masks and badges. Intermingled with these are a vast array of stalls selling all manner of tasty treats from candy-floss and chocolate coated bananas, through okonomiyake to fried chicken tendons. (I think I inadvertently bought some of these.) It's much like a fairground or festival in any other town really.

The highlight of the festival is the Okoshi Daiko, when boistrous young men parade around town at night in loincloths, (or more realistically - big nappies), drinking sake and banging drums attached to what resembles a huge cotton bud then climbing to the top of said cotton bud and balancing by their stomach whilst clapping and yelling. It was hilarious!

After this madness has died down a bit a load of nappy-clad chaps hoist themselves onto a kind of raft bearing one huge drum whereby they tie two of their number onto the drum and they then proceed to ride around town banging the drum, surfing almost, on a sea of people. It's all very strange. But bloody good fun to watch.

Saturday, April 22, 2006


Well what can we say about Takayama... Nothing great I'm afraid to say. The guide book had lead us to believe that we'd be arriving in a beautiful Alpine village full of old Japanese houses surrounded by picturesque mountains and forests. In truth it's just like anywhere else we've seen in in Japan, but a bit colder. Everywhere in Japan is developed or developing. There's precious little countryside left even in areas such as Takayama in what's known as 'the Japanese Alps'. From our train window you can see the true extent of urbanisation as the one city blurs into the next and houses and commercial properties sprawl right up to the foot of the surrounding mountains. The weather so far in Japan has been shocking, far from the stable Spring weather Japan usually enjoys at this time of year, it's been devilishly cold & rainy. We also saw snow for the first time here in Takayama which lightened our mood for a spell.

There's one quite funky little street that's been 'preserved' and provides you with a great image of how people used to live in Japan. Unfortunately the image is rather mired by the fact that a lot of these ancient homes have now become shops selling tourist tat and rice crackers. We were staying at Minshuku Kuwataniya but what we didn't realise is that when it said that it had a shared 'hot-spring bath' it meant that that was the only washing option. So every morning I had to drag myself off to the bathroom where I followed tradition and sat on a little plastic stool and showered in the company of other men. Fortunately, being an early riser, I managed to avoid embarrasment by getting in early and getting the stool all to myself. The bath itself was cold.
The guide book said that Takayama was a small town and that you can walk across it in 25 minutes. We quickly realised that this was code for 'you can do everything of any interest in 25 minutes' and it wasn't more than two days before we were planning our trip out. Unfortunately this is holiday season in Japan and pretty much everywhere is booked and/or highly expensive so we decided to sit tight for a few more days and head to Tokyo early.
We did however go to see a rather beautiful historic village just outside of town called 'Hida-No-Santo' which is an open air museum piece comprising of a couple of dozen of traditional dwellings that had been dismantled and moved here from their original locations throughout the region. It's a fascinating look at the old way of life here in Japan and the buildings themselves are mostly of the wonderfully beautiful 'Gassho-Zukuri' type. A style of architecture developed to combat the pressure of heavy snow-fall and is typified by the steeply slanted straw roof. The name derives from the Japanese word for praying as the roof is said to resemble hands clasped together in prayer. Inside the houses it's easy to imagine how cold they would have been, there's precious little furniture and, as in all traditional Japanese homes, they'd sleep on tatami mats on the floors. Another unusual feature is the absence of a chimney, the smoke from the fire was used to 'cure' the wooden eaves and hel prevent insect infection. Clever people these Japanese.

Food wise we were okay, Japanese food really is a delight. The Hida region is home to Hida beef, a meat that's beginning to rival the famous Kobe beef for it's excellence and taste. We tried the beef, (cooked on a magnolia leaf with miso paste), in a wonderfully peaceful restaurant run by two slightly mad old Japanese women. It really is delicious.
As the weather drew in and our interest-level waned we spent more and more time in our room playing 'Scrabble', trying not to spend any more money and bidding our time until we could head to Tokyo. To pick ourselves up out of the duldrums we'd decided to treat ourselves and booked two nights in the Park Hyatt Hotel, made famous of course by being the setting of the 2003 film 'Lost In Translation'.