Sunday 12th July 2015, Kyoto

Looking back on my photographs and checking with my notebook, I stayed in Kyoto on Sunday. It was another hot, bright day coming in at 35°.

With a wealth of museums as well as temples and shrines it would be almost impossible to see them all although I’ll bet there are some tourists who will manage. I think I have adopted a different approach to my trips to Japan in that for me I have come to realize that I will be returning at some point for some reason or other for the rest of my life. This means that I feel under no great pressure to cram it all in. It wasn’t always this way until recently I hadn’t been to Japan for 15 years.

One of these museums that I hadn’t been to yet was the Kyoto National Museum of Modern Art.

As you approach the street that the museum is on you are greeted by a  very large arresting torii gate which marks the entrance to a modern shrine called Heian Shrine.

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I didn’t visit the shrine though instead I went to see an exhibition in the cooler air conditioned museum.

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The exhibition was about Kitaōji Rosanjin, not somebody that I was familiar with. However I was soon to see that he was a man of many interests and talents among these was a reputation as a gourmet as well  as  a painter, lacquer artist, ceramicist, calligrapher and restaurateur.

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There were over 135 pieces in the exhibition which was also supplemented by film showing how some of the pieces complemented the food that they would be served with. Also I gather there was commentary from critics of both art and food extolling the virtues of the pieces, I am assuming here since it was in Japanese.

The trouble with many of the shows or the good thing depending on your point of view is that you can’t take photographs of nearly all of the exhibits. This makes you actually look as I’ve noticed in other museums and galleries in London that there is now a disconnect between viewer and object. That is to say people look at exhibits through the screen on their phone camera or digital camera rather with their eyes.

Some of the pieces and the use of the glazes to suggest or remind you of nature were very clever and quite inspiring.

I also saw some of the museum’s permanent collection while good if not spectacular with modern firmly placing everything in the 20th Century and no later.

There was also a temporary exhibition of film posters for American Musical films.

I think in part it’s a childhood memory but I remember going to museums and having curry rice for lunch in the restaurants/cafes, please see earlier posts for mentions of Japanese curry. Although many museums in Japan instead have tried to keep up with the times and change things. I’d noticed this in Tokyo where I once had a good Vietnamese lunch in the Museum of Contemporary Art though I really wanted Japanese curry that day. I should have known since I was in Kyoto, the restaurant here in this museum was a spaghetti specialist. I was tempted but there was a long queue and I’d gotten it into my head that I wanted curry.

So I crossed the street and popped into the museum opposite that was showing treasures from the Louvre, Paris. They didn’t even have a cafe or restaurant and helpfully told me that the museum on the other side had a nice spaghetti restaurant!

I have no idea why they are obsessed with jazz and French and Italian food in Kyoto. Although in Europe we’d seek out a good Japanese restaurant so the same thing in reverse.

So despite my flagging energy levels I headed off down the street in search of somewhere to have curry rice, yes I was that obsessed with the idea!

I found what would be considered quite an old fashioned restaurant definitely not hip nor trendy but still has a place in Japanese life either with older patrons or people like me after a bit of nostalgia.

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Katsu curry at Restaurant Miyako.

My curry obsession satisfied I headed back to the museum stopping along the way to see a junk/antique shop to meet my mother who had attended a lecture at the museum. I suggested that she see the exhibition herself and to pass the time I stayed in the museum shop. I found a small book on Japanese fonts which I hope to make use of in the near future in my own work.

After which my mother stated that she wanted to go to a sweet shop. Not a sweet shop in the British sense of boiled sweets in jars but rather afternoon tea of sorts but Japanese style. There are shops that make various types of Japanese sweets and they also serve tea and sweets. After checking a couple of places which were either full or closing up we managed to settle in and I ordered another  Kakigōri variant.

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This time sweetened with condensed milk and accompanied with red beans.

I can’t remember how we got back, I think it must have been by subway and being nosy I had a peek at my mother’s hotel which was older than mine and in a different part of the city.

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It actually had a view and the slightest merest slip of a balcony…

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I find something very satisfying in the width of the crossing lines in Japanese cities as well as being good for photographs.

I have a feeling I also made a spare pair of glasses in a shopping centre that ready which were ready for collection on the same day. This would explain the photograph below, everything and everywhere in Japan has a mascot/logo of some sort.

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It is a form of visual language that is common in Japan and probably doesn’t get much attention from locals but for me it’s all being stored away for future use or influence.

Since the shopping centre was under Kyoto station it seemed easiest to eat there at one of the many restaurants. It now comes back to me that it must have nearly been 7 p.m because my glasses were ready at 6.45 p.m or thereabouts.

We picked a spaghetti restaurant called Conana where they made the classic Italian dishes but also variants using Japanese ingredients.

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My spaghetti served with Japanese ingredients of mentaiko and shirasu with greens and mushrooms.

Mentaiko is the orange coloured food and is spicy marinated cod or pollock roe, it can be eaten in various ways.

Shirasu are the small white fish on the right of the dish are Japanese anchovy.

The pasta was eaten with chopsticks! I maintain that the dish itself is a very good idea using some of my favourite ingredients but it was a tad too salty, I’m not sure if this was from extra seasoning by the chef or due to combining salty ingredients. So I maintain that in theory a great idea for a spaghetti dish but not quite right in its execution.

Since it was my mother’s last evening in Kyoto, we had a drink in Kyoto Tower, which was strangely empty and almost closing. There must have been a time when it was a treat but now the only view is of the bank of hotel rooms above Kyoto station.

I headed back after that and progress towards the Gion Matsuri were becoming more and more evident on the street.

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Saturday 11th July 2015, Nara

Such is the proximity of Nara to Kyoto by train (44 minutes over a distance of approx. 40km) that I was able to leave late morning, my notebook has an entry at 1125, I’m not sure if that was written on the train or just before.

The rest of the page reads as follows:

“I am hitting all the tourist hits since I am just as much the tourist. I am treading the well worn path and following directions and the path of others, I do not know if this makes me very conventional or just a diligent tourist.”

There are reasons that these places are tourist hits and while I might not be blazing new trails, it is still a new trail for me.

Once I arrived in Nara, the first thing to do was to get in the tourist office for a couple of maps and to ask a few questions about buses and the like. Although I wanted to have lunch first and despite the heat had a little wander across the way to a shopping street. Even though I’d had fish for dinner, I still felt like eating more fish and following the bright posters on the sandwich board outside one building headed up some stairs to a seafood restaurant.

Like most cities there are also restaurants in Japan which I’d guess you’d call theme restaurants probably part of a chain and this one had all sorts of paraphernalia you’d associate with fishing and the sea. It was also still one of the restaurants in Japan where you can smoke as I noted from the smell emanating from two tables away. I used to smoke but stopped more than 13 years ago now and have really come to dislike it.

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My choices out of the menu, great looking pictures but what about the reality?

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I’d say that’s pretty close to accurate in comparison with the menu, the donburi was 952 Yen which is £5.28, yes you read that correctly.

Fortified by my lunch I made my way to the bus stop to head for the main attraction of Nara which is the Tōdai-ji (eastern Great Temple) which houses the world’s largest bronze statue of the Buddha in Daibutsu-den (Great Buddha Hall) and is a National Treasure.

As you walk towards the park that surrounds the temple grounds first thing you see are the Sika Deer, I’m not sure what the percentage of tourists that come for the deer or the temple complex is but nevertheless it is quite a sight to see both tourist and deep wandering freely around the complex. The deer were considered to be divine and sacred due to a visit from one of the four gods of Kasuga Shrine. After World War II, the deer were officially stripped of their sacred/divine status and were instead designated as national treasures.

It is possible to feed the deer and deer crackers (Shika Senbei) can be purchased from vendors around the park.

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It seems I wasn’t the only one to be feeling the heat that day!

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The deer are generally pretty docile until you give them the possibility of something to eat then they become not exactly aggressive but they will butt you and nip at you. It is quite a sight to see how different people react to being swarmed by deer. There are quite often shrieks from teenagers and people in their twenties for whom this might be the closest they get to wild animals ever. Some people would throw the crackers away from them as soon the deer approached.

There are also some deer that will bow for their food or just bow if you bow to them.

I did feed the deer and I thought I’d found a quiet spot with only three deer, the next thing you know I was surrounded 360º by deer and getting prodded, butted and nipped at. Somewhere out there there is photographic proof of my deer feeding in Australia or Taiwan since that seemed to where the tourists taking pictures of me were from. There was no shrieking or throwing of crackers from me since I figured the deer wouldn’t actually eat me!

In my quest to take pictures different from everybody else I now realize that I missed out on telling the whole story in some respects. A wide shot showing the grounds and just how many deer are around would have good to have. I actually realized this sitting on the bus back to the station and was tempted to go back but didn’t maybe next time if there is a next time. Despite the large number of people visiting, it never really felt crowded as there is plenty to see in the ample park land.

Leading up to to the Daibutsu-den, one of the first structures is the Nandaimon Gate (Great South Gate) built in the 12th Century, which houses two temple guardian statues carved from wood that stand at 28 feet tall.

IMG_1680Nandaimon Gate.

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The Nio, the muscular guardians of the Buddha are according to Wikipedia a pair known as Ungyo who has a closed mouth and Angyo who is shown with an open mouthed expression. The pair were carved by Unkei and Kaikei and their workshop members. They are an impressive and imposing sight, arresting in their features as well as the technical achievement in carving them.

Once through the gate, the path leads towards the Daibutsu-den (Great Buddha Hall) which was once the largest wooden structure in the world.

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Its difficult to convey how big the building is but the people dotted around in the pictures should do something to illustrate this.

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The Buddha is 14.98 m (49.1 ft) in height and 28 m across and weighs in at 500 tonnes.

That is one big Buddha!

Also within the structure are other exhibits which show the skill involved in carving the wooden sculptures.

 

I’m not even sure which way I wandered off but for a while I enjoyed the shaded wooded areas of the park as headed towards the hillside.

It is only now after looking properly at a map that it seems I did meander a fair bit.

Breaking cover from the trees I found myself at the bottom of some stairs which led up to another hall called Nigatsu-do. I do remember mentally asking myself if I really wanted to try to walk up the east entrance stairs in the heat.

Details on the steps.

At the top the view was like this:

Nigatsu-do (The Hall of the Second Month) itself is  decorated with lanterns hanging outside.

From there I wandered off in the general direction of south east, with no real fixed itinerary for my day which is either great or mindless depending on your perspective, I found myself by a set of shops selling calligraphy items to souvenir food. By souvenir food, I mean carefully packaged boxes of local specialties which can range from rice crackers to sweets, think fudge from Cornwall but packaged much better. I did pop into the calligraphy shop if anything just to cool down from their air conditioner.

I’m not one for selfies and have largely kept pictures of myself away from here so far but I did take one by the closed shutter of the shop with somebody else resting.

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Oh deer, obligatory selfie with Nara resident with interesting head gear.

Even now looking at the map all these months later, I’m not even sure how I managed to go around the park in a seemingly strange route!

I took the path towards the Kasuga Taisha Shrine but with the  5 p.m closing time upon me was not able to think about going inside, still I caught a glimpse of some of the vermillion coloured buildings.

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The paths leading to the shrine are lined with approximately 2000 stone lanterns of various shapes and sizes.

As well as the occasional lion:

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 Tiring now, I found a bus stop that had hardly anybody waiting for a bus and checked and rechecked that I was at the right stop to get back to the station. Actually, it was a different bus than the one that I took to get there but it nevertheless got me to the station. For the most part I discovered that most buses will hit the city station at some point in most cities in Japan.

For those of you who might be wondering but I don’t speak or read Japanese, there is English signage in the places that you need it.

I present the side of the train carriage:

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You now also know how Kyoto is written in Japanese!

Later that evening in Kyoto, I met up with my mother who was in town on business and ate at the station that evening. Eating at the station is not the grim affair that you might imagine, in Japan, stations especially the larger ones are joined to department stores or have areas dedicated to restaurants. I’m not sure if I’ve already mentioned that so apologize now if  I’ve started to repeat myself.

What did you eat? I hear you ask.

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It looks like I had a slightly strange combination but as I’ve mentioned before sometimes that’s what great about eating out is that you can a bit of everything. So on the left is Oshizushihako, pressed sushi which is as it sounds. First the rice is put in a box then the topping and the top part literally presses down. Above that is tempura and zaru soba.

Continue reading “Saturday 11th July 2015, Nara”

Friday 10th July 2015, Kyoto (Part 2)

That evening I felt like eating Kaisen Don which is basically sashimi (sliced raw fish) on sushi rice maybe it was the heat but I felt like eating something that wasn’t going to be hot and heavy. Kyoto probably because it’s inland is not well known for sushi of course that’s not to say there aren’t great sushi restaurants in the city, it’s just not famous for seafood.

After trying to find out if there was anywhere close by with reception which proved to be more tricky than anticipated simply because of my choice of food, I have the feeling that had I said a good restaurant though, I probably would have been directed to an Italian or French restaurant since that seems to be what Kyoto likes. Eventually I got directed to a suitable restaurant and given a map with an ‘x’ marked on it.

The thing is in the dark in a strange city, I think I may or may not have found the right street a close distance to the hotel but I’m pretty sure I didn’t go to the restaurant suggested or that I decided not to if I did find it. Behind the main street and little way down I turned into a smaller street seemingly where only pedestrians were allowed and both sides had restaurants.

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I wandered up and down that street looking at steak restaurants and then round the corner there was a fish restaurant but it was empty to the point that you start to wonder if there’s a reason that it’s empty. I went back to the street and decided upon a restaurant called “Miki”, please see below:

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I had to wait outside for a little while for a space to sit and there was a rudimentary English menu, I can for the most part work out certain parts of a menu but in no way would I confidently claim to be able to read a menu in Japanese.

When I did get in, they sat me at the counter and gave me my menu, the place was busy and evidently very popular. The staff consisted of three people. Two chefs behind the counter and a junior who would assist behind the counter as well as coming around to work the restaurant floor. It was a sushi restaurant, that would most certainly do for my fish requirements! I chose to have omakase which means “I’ll leave it up to you.”, I have a funny feeling that there may have been a set number of omakase that you could choose although I might be wrong.

What followed was an absolute treat as I was served sushi  that I was told not to put shoyu (soy sauce) on unless directed to. Sitting at the counter lets you see the sushi being made and I couldn’t keep taking pictures each time as I merely wanted to enjoy what came to me.

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I don’t even remember everything that I ate that evening except that it was very good and I would recommend the place, the only caveat being that I did find a note in my book telling me to budget my meals! It had been one of the more expensive meals that I had had, worth it?

Yes.

Friday 10th July, Kyoto

I have been to Kyoto before and despite the seemingly small nature of it there is a surprising amount of things to see with many on must see/do lists for the visitor to Japan. There are still many attractions there that I always say to myself that I will go and see each time I visit but somehow don’t manage to.

Due to downloading all my pictures in one batch on the same day from the memory card, I discover pictures that I don’t recall taking or couldn’t find previously. So here’s a picture that I wanted to accompany the previous post of my rather cramped room with too much furniture.

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Nice and clean with new furniture just pretty tight on space!

As mentioned previously, my research into when to go and so on and so forth was somewhat erratic due to a sudden burst of work before leaving and being overwhelmed by the amount of information that my little brain was trying to process in terms of where to go in Japan. I had heard of the Gion Matsuri in passing from friends who lived there who more often than not would complain about there being too many people. I knew there were floats and traditional costumes but not much more, I was about to get a first hand look up close.

The webpage at Kyoto Visitor’s Guide does a great job of succinctly explaining the background of the festival and then outlining the activities that lead up to the final parade.

Outside on the street, the construction of the floats was already well under progress, no nails are used.

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The rain that I’d been experiencing the last few days had made way now to temperatures that were rapidly rising with a high of 34° predicted, the temperature is one thing then the humidity is often in the 90% region. It was bright and sunny at least I’d had the foresight to buy my hat the evening before!

One of the places that I had meant to see on previous visits to Kyoto was Kiyomizu-dera, which is an independent Buddhist temple in East Kyoto. The temple is the temple of the Goddess of Mercy, although in all honesty I am only learning this as I research things to write here. It was also registered on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List as one of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto.

When you first arrive at the site after making your way up the hill through a street lined with shops and restaurants offering food and souvenirs.

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At the top you reach the Deva (Gate) and Three Storied Pagoda and the bell that then lead into the temple complex.

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As you make your way round passing the different buildings, you do start to appreciate with some awe and wonder at the work that was undertaken to construct and then to maintain the buildings.

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At almost every large temple in Japan you will find a place where they sell Ema Votive plaques where people write their wishes and hang them up. Typically they might be for the zodiac animal of that year, the zodiac in Japan uses the Chinese animal types. Sometimes the designs might be something that the particular temple or shrine is known for, a good example is foxes at Fushimi Inari. The money for the plaques is used by the temple for upkeep and so on, you don’t have to write your wish and leave it there sometimes people buy then and keep them as a souvenir.

I took the picture from this angle because I found it somewhat amusing that the street artists had been diligent tourists as well and made the effort of visit the temple but still felt the need to slap their stickers. Before you start tutting though, there is actually a Japanese precedent for sticking things on buildings, called Senjafuda. Originally left by shrine worshipers, they became frowned upon by temples as less people would follow tradition and not pray nor buy a stamp from the shrine before applying their senjafuda. I’m sure there must be an article somewhere linking street art slapping/sticker art and sejafuda somewhere.

However, I digress, the main hall of the temple has a large veranda supported by pillars that gives an impressive view of the city and makes for the hall itself being an iconic image in its own right.

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I had a good wander around the site and must admit the heat was starting to get to me as well as the number of tourists, dotted around the temple are numerous smallish refreshment cafes although I use the word cafe with uncertainty since they don’t look anything like their European counterparts. In need of cooling down and some sort of refreshment, I chose a Japanese summer staple called  Kakigōri which is shaved ice flavoured with syrup.

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My lemon flavoured Kakigōri.

And yes, I did manage to eat all of it!

I still hadn’t had lunch…already feeling the heat and starting to hire I headed out and down the hill, I’d passed a promising looking restaurant earlier and had decided I’d go there. However, it seemed to have disappeared and I was starting to consider other options, sometimes the smaller streets in Japan have this way of looking the same adding to the confusion of not always being able to read the street signs. I also got sufficiently distracted and taken off course by some of the shops along the way.

It was 1337h by the time I found the restaurant, the reason that the time is so ptrecisely noted is that it says as much in my notebook. The restaurant’s name was Yoshimura Kiyomizuan, (the website is in Japanese).

There are also Tripadvisor reviews of the restaurant, I had picked it probably because I felt like eating soba and that the menu appealed to me.

I chose their Higashiyama Zen set which consisted of Zaru Soba, Sansai Soba, Mini Tempura and pickles.

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Zaru soba is buckwheat noodles served cold and dipped in sauce and eaten by slurping, one of my favourite summer foods.

The Sansai Soba, bottom left in the picture was served in hot soup and again used the same soba noodles except this time topped with mountain vegetables.

Above that is the small bowl of Tempura on rice, a larger portion can be a meal in itself and is called Tendon  which comes from combining the words Tempura and Donburi (bowl), it has nothing to do with the English meaning of the word!

I really enjoy the lunch sets in Japan since it allows the glutton in me and the indecisive part of me to try several of the foods that take my fancy on a menu at the same time.

I was particularly impressed with the Sansai Soba at the time from my three dishes.

I made my way down the hill after lunch, the walk down was easier and perhaps with some renewed vigour from eating

, I made my way to the bus stop.  The fact that I ended up walking from the bus stop to the top part of the main shopping street probably came about from just a natural curiosity of what was around me. As much as I might complain and moan about the temperature, there is still part of me that will wander off with eyes wide open.

I got as far as the street that turns into Gion, called Hanamikoji, I started to head down it but my energy level had waned again and I decided not to explore that time. However, that is not to say that you shouldn’t go and see for yourself in fact I would recommend that you do go. It has many preserved traditional buildings as well as being one of the most well known and exclusive geisha districts in Japan.

Which is where I spotted this Maiko, (the make up and the hairstyle is the give away) apprentice geisha or geiko,  she slid out so quickly that I’m not even sure which building she came out of. I got my picture before the other tourists suddenly cottoned on then it was a kind of mayhem with tourists behaving like paparrazo, chasing her down the street and taking her picture. I wonder if secretly they love the attention or just find it incredibly cringe worthy. She had to stop at the crossing for the lights to change and then she was off again, bear in mind that she’s wearing kimono and sandals so a full on run is out of the question but I have never seen anybody move so fast in that footwear.

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It’s not common to see them but it is possible and so there is an palpable sense of excitement when one does appear either on the street on sometimes at the station.

I think I must have wandered back towards to my hotel stopping in various shops along the way as a way to cool down in the air conditioned spaces as well as just to see the strange and wonderful things you can or could buy.

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Wednesday July 8th Tokyo to Kanazawa

So this was to be the first day of my train pass becoming active, I woke at 800 and to my relief it wasn’t actually raining that morning.

I would be heading to Kanazawa, which is 450.5km from Tokyo on the Shinkansen Kagayaki 509 with a journey time of 148 minutes. Departure time 1032 and Arrival at 1300h.

If you’re not familiar with the geography of Japan, the section in the top left corner, Hokkaido, is in reality at the top right of Japan.

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My Car(-riage) number 8 and my seat 16E, if possible it’s always best to reserve your seat at no extra cost prior to traveling, there are unreserved carriages but I never found myself in that position, for me stressing over a possible seat seems like an unnecessary aggravation and not one that would make  a trip more of an adventure. Armed with my carriage number it was a matter of finding the right platform then looking for the corresponding number on the platform and wait for the train.

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Since Tokyo station is the major teminus, the trains are brought in from either direction and so ill prepared I failed miserably to get a shot of the train pulling in since I hadn’t figured out which direction it was coming. I can’t remember if these then uncoupled or not but I took the shot anyway…I think I made up my mind then to not worry about trying to shoot pictures of the trains arriving though in retrospect perhaps I could have made more effort, my only defence was that it was enough just worrying about luggage, myself and getting on the right train ant the right times.

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It had been a few years since I’d been on a Shinkansen and I’d actually forgotten how roomy and comfortable it was, more airliner than train in my mind, in fact the seats were roomier than those on the plane over to be honest.

Out beyond Tokyo, past Omiya towards Nagano, the view changed as forest covered mountains could be seen from the window. It seems I made intermittent notes in my notebook during the journey and some read as follows:

1221 I wish I could tell you about scenic Japan but truth be told, I dozed, I slept…so far at least it hasn’t rained.

1235 F*** me! That hurt, hit my head trying to sit back down.

(This I remember, I had a neighbour who didn’t move his legs as I came back from the toliet, so I probably swore loudly in English.)

1243 Arriving at Toyama, I have found the rain, the view of the streets from the train reveal wet streets…

The rain was back with a vengeance on arrival at Kanazawa, first things first after trying to get my bearings was to head straight into the tourist office for a map or two and advice on getting around.

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Also in the other window was a large version of Hyakuman-San, the mascot for Ishikawa Prefecture. There is a character for everything in Japan and cities and prefectures are no different. Here it seems the designers have put Ishikawa traditional crafts on the body, there is “Kagayuzen ( Kimono pattern )”, the gold colour from the gold leafing in the area  and “Wajimanuri (Lacquer ware ).

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A relative newcomer to the scene as a mascot, it seems he debuted in 2013, more here.

I booked my hotel through Booking.com and I am not affiliated or employed by them in any way, shape or form but will say that it proved to be an easy way to look up potential accommodation and reserve it without committing financially straight away.

I stayed at the Kanazawa Manten Hotel Ekimae, which is in fact very close to the station except if you get confused by the heavy rain and take a strange turn that ends up with you somehow getting wet and annoyed as you negotiate wet streets in a strange land. I remember the lobby as being dark marble however I have absolutely no recollection of my room or which floor I was on. Although having said that, I did discover a picture of my room…not much to remember there!

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Free of my luggage and despite the rain, I headed back to the station, taking the correct turn and yes, the station was incredibly near to the hotel. The clue is in the word Ekimae, which literally translates as “In front of the station” so that’s a little travel tip for making your stays convenient but that doesn’t always mean the city centre is that close so bear in mind what you’ll want to be doing.

The best way around is by bus which I somehow negotiated although in a tourist heavy city like Kanazawa, it’s actually not too difficult though I don’t like to get complacent and stay as alert as possible for my stops.

My first port of call was to be the 21st Century Museum of Modern Art.

The walk from the bus stop to the museum was wet…

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I want to say I was impressed by the concept of the museum and the building and on a sunny dry day, I might have been but to be honest, I was close to slipping and just wanted to go inside despite there being some outdoor work.

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Perhaps in retrospect I should have gone and had a closer look but I can’t turn the clock back, inside the museum was at least dry and the building is circular in shape and the majority of the work was a mixture of Japanese contemporary artists none of whom I was familiar with and a few permanent pieces by western artists like James Turrell and Anish Kapoor. Although the weather was not one for viewing a James Turrell piece, basically a hole cut into the ceiling of a space which changes the perception of the space as the light changes alas when it rains like the pictures attest, you get a very wet floor. Still I’m glad that I did go and there were some interesting works and approaches to art there.

Of course there was tea and cake since I’d somehow only managed to eat a sandwich on the train in…

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Of course it would have been nice to have had some company to have my tea and cake with maybe another time…

Despite the weather I decided that I would try and explore a little bit since it was my first time in a new city after a half English, half bad Japanese conversation with the cashier I headed out, nearly slipping again on the slick pavement!

I remember wandering around looking for somewhere to eat and trying to ask people where there was an area with lots of restaurants but seemed to struggle that day to get anybody to really help me. I’m not sure if the streets were less crowded because of the weather or if it was just a typical quiet Tuesday night. At one point I found myself in an “English Pub” where the bartender spoke no English and couldn’t help me locate a street with restaurants.

Actually, I was starting to get a bit fed up by this point…I stumbled across a half dead shopping street with a couple of shops that I recognized from Tokyo and browsed if only to try to dry off a little. I figured in one of the shops the young cashier might be able to clue me in on somewhere good to eat, however this proved to be a bust since my simple question then became a conference between her and her colleague and the suggestion was a gourmet burger restaurant.

Trudging on I got to a crossroad and ultimately tired, wet and hungry I pretty much chose the first thing that looked easy enough. I chose a yakitori restaurant somewhere high up, I had to take a lift to get there. Ordering was meant to be on a touchscreen but after explaining that my reading wasn’t great to the waiter I somehow got round to ordering by pointing to the menu.

When in doubt, find a restaurant with a giant menu full of pictures! 😉

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First things first…

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Then I had all sorts…chicken on skewers, rice ball, noodles…more beer.

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It wasn’t until I was up there and looking out the window that I could see what looked like the more lively street with bars and restaurants on, oh well, I’d eaten too much and didn’t want to stay out late.

I took the bus back to the station, now I’m not sure which is the front of the station since my hotel technically called itself Ekimae when the more spectacular side is considered really to be the front where you find this:

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While it now seems a little fuzzy, I think I may have used the onsen since I found this in my papers…which I’m pretty sure I got when I checked in. More to come on onsen in later posts…instructions are written in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean. If you have any tattoos you will need to cover them up otherwise you won’t be experiencing onsen or even swimming. Why? You can read more here in this Japan Times article.

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Tuesday July 7th, Tokyo, Watari-um, The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art and Ikebukuro, Tokyo.

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Watari-um, The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art.

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It came as something of a relief that it wasn’t raining that morning when I left around ten, it wasn’t searingly hot and the cloud cover turned the sky a bright yet murky gray. (Is that possible?!) I kept very basic handwritten notes in my pocket notebooks, I am one of those people who has to carry a notebook (paper one) with them at all times for note taking, sketching but not necessarily of what I see before me. The book also serve as diary and the thoughts I share in them don’t always make themselves known to others.

In theory I should love the Watari-um, however I’ve been twice now and while it’s been moderately interesting it has never blown my socks off so to speak. It wouldn’t be my first choice of Art Museum in Tokyo to be honest but the one I would have liked to have gone to was currently rehanging for their next show. Getting there is relatively easy walk from Gaienmae Station which is on the Subway Ginza Line, which is the orange line on the map. I was surprised to see an older style train or at least in looks.

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Ginza Line Trrain.

Oh yes, back to the museum! The exhibition on show was “I Love Art 13 – 100 Artists from the Watari-um Collection”, there were a few pieces that stood out but photography was not permitted so I can’t really share with you. The bookshop there is very good for Japan in terms of Art books but whereas in the West we might prize Japanese books, its naturally the opposite in Tokyo and the books were many of the European and Western books that I could see and find in London.

In fact my visit to the museum was very short lived and I think I even went back on myself to justify paying the entrance fee. A spotty rain started as I left and I crossed the street to have a quick look in a contemporary gallery and spoke to the owner. It seems for the contemporary artist in Tokyo that the gallery system in he West is not so prevalent, in that a gallery takes you onto their books and then shows your work. There is more of a rental gallery culture that is to say that the artist’s will pay to exhibit their work. She did also recommend a few other galleries across the city but this was to be my final day in Tokyo for now anyway and I didn’t make it.

Lunchtime had come around again and there is so much choice in Tokyo that I probably spent longer wandering around looking at pictures of lunch specials at all kinds of restaurants than the time eating my final choice.

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Standing Soba restaurant, no seats here, probably pretty good but I wasn’t feeling it. Instead I went for another version of comfort food.

Falling into the category of yoshoku is Japanese curry, the Japanese version of Indian curry which is very different. I know it from childhood and even now have it home on occasion, familiarity with Japanese curry in the UK has come via the restaurant chain Wagamama that serves a Chicken Katsu Curry. Typically though a katsu curry in Japan will be made from pork unless you specify a chicken one if they even have a chicken variety. Waitrose (in England) even sells a Japanese curry block made by S&B as well as a ready meal version. I’ve also seen a katsu curry kit in another supermarket but somehow the picture looks like no katsu curry I’ve ever seen. It is possible to have the curry without a katsu, you can just mix vegetables in with the sauce or meat or prawns for example.

You can order the strength of the curry from mild to hot to very hot and also ask for extra big which is a large, large portion of rice.

As you can see it was a no frills kind of a place that I ate in, you order at the counter, pay then move down and wait for your food on a plastic tray. Again I consider this to be a very typically Japanese meal and perhaps to some tourists they might not consider it as an authentic Japanese meal but sushi is not necessarily a staple of everyday life in Japan.

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Katsu curry.

After my no frills red plastic tray curry which I thoroughly enjoyed might I add, the rain decided to make it’s customary appearance not enough to soak you but enough to deploy umbrellas something else was happening though, the temperature was also rising. I have a feeling I may returned momentarily to Azabu-Juban to either drop my bag off or to do laundry again, essentially it must be something trivial.

At six, I needed to get to Ikebukuro to see my friend in Tokyo, R had told me which exit to meet him at and after an intial mix up, we managed to meet. First it was to an old style coffee shop near the station, the funny thing or it was to me was that the smoking section was larger than the non-smoking section. This is slowly getting flipped round the other way and it still bothers me and I’m sure that it must be a surprise to tourists from countries with non-smoking restaurants that Japan still has many places where diners can smoke. Not so “Cool Japan” when you’ve become accustomed to smoke free dining.

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R is a documentary filmmaker and we spoke briefly of his most recent film and the difficulty in completing it due to one of the participants.

Ikebukuro aside from being where R lives, is a part of the city that I am not so familiar with but and here I started to notice a pattern, many of the department stores and shops were branches of the same in other parts of the city. If anything the unfamiliarity of the area made the streets seem wider and less crowded than the other areas although this may have just been early Tuesday evening. I really didn’t explore Ikebukuro and while I may fail to educate and entertain in that respect to you my dear reader(s) that is not to say that it cannot be without merit given the shopping and the wide diversity of restaurants and bars there. I was also acutely aware that I didn’t want to stay out too late since I would be making the first of my train trips. I did a little bit of shopping with R’s help in finding the right store quickly and efficiently and we ate a dinner of ramen or rather tsukemen which is still ramen but instead of being served in the soup, the noodles are served separately and dipped in the soup. I think I remembered that I was taking pictures of my food after I’d eaten it! we wished each other well and went our separate ways after that.

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Ikebukuro Koban (Police box/station) shaped like an owl.

I headed back to Azabu-Juban and was greeted with this sight of the Mori Building on a misty night…tomorrow riding the train…

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Monday July 6th, Ameyoko, Ueno, Tokyo, Yoshoku Lunch, Omurice Hamburg Set

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I awoke to the sound of rain outside but reasoning that rather than stay in due to bad weather that I would go out to see another part of Tokyo that I hadn’t been to. Following breakfast I did stay in hoping that the rain would clear to watch the Women’s World Cup Final in which Japan were playing the USA.

It turned out to be a very one sided final with the Japanese team falling apart after conceding early goals in the first half, following the disappointment of the final I decided to go to Ameyoko which is located bewteen Okachimachi and Ueno Stations on the Yamanote Line.

Normally a crowded market area full of people buzzing around looking for a bargain or so the media and travel books would have you believe, I experienced a very different atmosphere that day. The pictures online and in guidebooks are nearly always of bright crowded streets with colourful stalls selling all manner of items from dried fish to denim. The name Ameyoko comes from a short form of Ameya Yokocho which is Sweet Alley because sweets were traditionally sold there then after World War II, “Ame” became short for “America” because it became a black market selling American goods. There still remain a few shops selling army surplus in the area.

With the rain making the street slick, it wasn’t much fun walking around in the rain opening and closing my umbrella between shops. I wanted to get a cap and possibly another pair of jeans but the weather wore me down and brought my mood down somewhat and I found neither. I had in mind that each time I visit Tokyo, I would try to visit and have a different experience each time as well as going to familiar spots.

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Rain, rain…rain.

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I walked around looking for something to eat for lunch several times before electing to have a meal in a restaurant called Jyuraku under the railway bridge. It turned out that it had two ways in and out, I’m not sure if the interior had remained unchanged for that long or was made to look that way. Here I had a very Japanese meal or rather a Western meal called yoshoku, I say it’s very Japanese but Western, it is a style of cooking that the Japanese call Western but is uniquely Japanese. Yoshoku dishes are the Japanese versions of European and American dishes that have been adapted and cater to Japanese tastes. While looking around the net for yoshoku definitions I did find this article from the New York Times, if you want to read into further detail about it.

One such dish is called Omurice, which is rice stir fried with ketchup on top of which is placed an omlette. One of the things I like in Japan is that for those of you like me who can’t make up your mind or want to have a bit of several dishes at the same time is that there are numerous combination set lunches available. Another peculiar take on a staple food item that falls into yoshoku is the hamburger, there is the version you eat with a bun and then there is the hamburg or hanbāgu. While the same shape as the hamburger, it has a very different texture and is served with a dark rich sauce and with plain rice. This time the Japan Times has run a story detailing the hamburg.

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My Omurice Hamburg Set lunch which was a great comforting choice for a wet day.

I have drawn a blank for what I got up to that afternoon and given the weather am assuming that it may well have been using the coin laundry back at my accommodation as well as a little more research into where I would be going.

That evening I returned to Shibuya to meet a friend from my years at film school in London, for a quick catch-up and a bite to eat in a restaurant called Kemuri which was a yakitori restaurant alas I have no pictures. As mentioned earlier sometimes I plain forgot to take pictures or was so hungry that I’d forget to. It’s still not a reflex to take a picture of my food like it has become for many people 😉 We also had a quick drink in one of the branches of Hub, which is a chain of bars in Japan that have re-imagined the idea of the British Pub both in interior and menu, it was as if somebody had tried to explain what a pub was and then tried to build but had lost things in translation. Speaking of which I did see this sign out and about in the morning:

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