Friday, 30 November 2012

Lost In Translation

You join us for the final part of our trip around Japan

In case you missed them

Battle Royale - Japan (part 2)

Fire, castles and singed temples
For all its wonderful temples, shrines and castles I can’t help think that some of the World Heritage sites in Japan are a bit of a fraud……Certainly a controversial statement but before you get all huffy and defensive, let me expand my thoughts. Almost without fail, as we either read about or were told by the guides, all these wonderful buildings have been burnt down on an alarmingly regular basis. At each re-build they seemed to have shrunk in size as well….Sounds a bit like the fisherman who claims to have caught a huge fish but sadly it got away before he had time to show it to anyone.  It got to the point where my first question to any  of the guides was “So when did this building last burn down?” The result is that I discovered many of these ancient buildings are actually younger than me…..Blimey, if I was only slightly better put together I could probably register myself as a World Heritage site.

Now, I can just about understand the temples and shrines being made of wood - despite the amount of smoking that goes on in Japan.  It might also explain the passion Japan has for raw food.  I can imagine the conversation going on up and down Japan –

Mum - “What shall we have for dinner?”  

Rest of the family - “Please can we have something hot?”

Mum - “Not today, I can’t face having to move again this week”

The odd thing is a number of the temples seemed to have annual cleaning rituals, involving oversized torches carried by  miniature Monks  who have to single-handily run around the temple complex until either the torch burns out or the temple catches fire….

Then there are the castles….. why on earth would you build your castle of wood?  Unless of course you had a stone wall agreement with any opponents that, during battles, no naked flames would be allowed on the field of play and soldiers on both sides must be very careful during fag breaks…. The reports of regularly re-built castles tells us that either the agreement wasn't reached or if it was, it was frequently broken…..  

The fire precautions left
a lot to be desired.... 
Free Tours
After our Nikko experience (6 hours to see a waterfall) things got a lot better with the Goodwill tours of Japan. If anything, we suffered from “over-service” with our guides – who were so enthusiastic and proud of their cities and towns they were determined to cram in as much as possible – starting off early – normally around 9am and taking us through  until around 5pm – even subtle hints that  it would be nice for a coffee break didn’t seem to hit home.  I tried to slow down the pace by taking lots of pictures, while Mrs B was like a small child scraping her heels and practically lying on the ground in a rigid form claiming “I can’t go on – just leave me here to die”. To little avail, the relentless pace to get us cultured-up, if anything, increased …. So not only do we now know lots about Japan we are also super fit……or would be if only we weren't so damned exhausted….. 
Mrs B just about still standing
and one of our guides....

That's her "I just want a cup of tea
but not green tea face...."
As a break from normal hotels when we reached Kanazawa I had booked us a couple of nights in a Ryokan (which is high on most lists of must do’s on a Japanese trip).  A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn where you get the chance to sleep on the floor and have no furniture other than a very low table and some cushions.  From the outside my selection of ryokan looked like a real winner with the bonus that it was set in the heart of Kanazawa…. Being BlackLOG things quickly went downhill when we entered the establishment.  It looked like it had last been decorated in the 1970’s – lots of Formica and worn out sofas in the shared lounge.  Things picked up slightly when I discovered they had free Wi-Fi (very traditional) and a TV in the room (not that we ever watched anything much on Japanese TV as they had no English speaking channels – how disgraceful is that).  After that, things went terminal. When I booked I knew that there was no en-suite bathrooms and we would have to suffer the joys of shared facilities – what I didn’t realise was that there were only two bathrooms in the entire place (one for men and one for women), covering around 12 rooms for guests plus the family running the Ryokan – potentially 26 people. Convicted murderers get better bathroom odds ….. The bathing facilities were described as being an Onsen (a hot spring bath) but it turned out to be just a small sunken bath in which you are not actually allowed to clean yourself.  As my Italian friend Gina reminded me – don’t forget to wash before you get into the bath…..

Fake Geisha's
I was delighted when we reached Kyoto to see so many Geisha's wandering the streets, offering great photo opportunities…..I should have guessed it was all too easy. I got speaking to some of the “ Geisha's” only to discover it was like a day trip for them – with the girls taking the opportunity to play dress-up for the day…. It’s a bit like thinking you have captured some rare exotic animal in your lens which turns out to be a domestic pet with a slightly exotic hairstyle. 

Top tip for working out if it is a real or fake Geisha

If it is dark and there is an older man on her arm - probabaly Geisha
if it is light and no older man - probabaly fake Geisha

Please note this is a guide and not 100% accurate I would
not bet your Sammuri sword on it yet alone mine....  
The kindness of strangers
While in Kenroku-en, Kanazawa (One of Japan’s finest gardens) we got caught in a rain shower and by the time we had been dismissed from our tour of the garden, we were absolutely drenched.  We dived into a little restaurant for lunch and found ourselves being towel dried (OK, not strictly true but one of the waitresses did indeed come across with a couple of towels – much more welcoming than the traditional British welcome – “Clear off we don’t want xxxxxxx  ). Then as we made our way out they furnished us with an umbrella each – just how nice was that?  May be they were just making sure we didn’t drip all over the next establishment we visited…..

Mrs B’s sense of direction
One thing was very noticeable on this trip  - Mrs B’s sense of direction is getting worse – I was astonished at the number of times Mrs B exited somewhere and shot off in the wrong direction. I blame her recent use of a car satnav for finally destroying any sense of direction that she once may have had. I’ve noticed trails of bread crumbs leading to the edge of our bed but had put that down to some late night snacking….   

A first for me
While waiting for a train I managed to get told off by a platform – Yep you read that correctly, the platform.  How crazy is this country?  The platform obviously felt I was getting too close to the edge….Did it think I was going to jump and was concerned I might singlehandedly destroy the excellent time keeping record of the entire network…. ?     

So that’s it, the end of our trip.  No gadgets purchased, which was a surprise to me and no doubt a delight for Mrs B. Japan is a fascinating country, although a bit more westernised than we had expected – that said we had stuck to a fairly traditional tourist path. The people we met and talked to were almost without question friendly and helpful and we certainly both felt safe.  I would like to go back some day as we didn't get down to Hiroshima or to see the snow monkeys bathing in the hot springs. Both of those were on my wish list but distance (as good as the trains are there is only so much time you want to spend on one) and the wrong time of year (the monkeys only take to the hot water when the temperature dips) worked against us.  The reports of the skiing in Japan are very tempting – some of the resorts actually include a relaxing onsen in the lift ticket price – It’s not clear though if the snow monkeys get to join us in the onsen as I suspect they aren’t daft enough to spend the day hurtling down a mountain with oversized planks strapped to their legs.

Next week -  my second concert photo pass and I get thrown in the Pit.....

Photo Finish 

This week you can find Mrs B
through the round window.... 
 Kenroku-en garden, Kanazawa
Kenroku-en garden, Kanazawa
A rare exotic animal or a Geisha  domestic
pet getting an exotic hairstyle ....  
"An old fashioned till in a wonderful little cafe in Kyoto"
One of approx 1200 deer in Nara-Koen park 
Once considered messengers of the gods - now 
a national treasure - so I didn't get to eat them.
Who wouldn't want to drink this...

Well me for one, I prefer to just pour it over me... 
Sacred lamps in Nara - If I
understood it correctly it was like
ancient advertising. Business would donate
money and have a  lamp  dedicated to them
at a temple and be rewarded with 
prosperity - probably for the temple .  
Less sacred lamps in Nara
Oh look another arty leaf shot - do tell me if you get
bored of them.....
Monument in Nara
It's a bird - if someone knows what type
feel free to let me know....

until then I'm going with
A Japanese great crested tree dweller
- in my world it captures small children 
and helps eradicate unnecessary noise...  
Golden Hall of Kinkaku - Ji - Kyoto
Vermillion shrine gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha - Kyoto
Mrs B 
Fushimi Inari Taisha- Kyoto

Tune in Next week for some Ant Music...

Monday, 19 November 2012

BlackLOG - Battle Royale - Japan part 2

In case you missed it, Part 1 of our Japan trip - Memoirs of a Barbarian

Don’t worry no Japanese school children were hurt (or to be more precise forced to hurt each other – you probably need to be familiar with the film to understand this) in the manufacturing of this week’s blog it just happens to be the title of one of my favourite Japanese films   - (The inspiration for the recent book and film -the Hunger Games) and so ever since our trip to Japan I have been dying to use it as a blog title….

This week sees the second part of our Japanese adventure with more of my mis-observations on a fascinating country….

Raw fish and other interesting foods
I’m quite a fan of sushi but it was a step too far for Mrs B.  I had hoped she would be happy with eating the raw vegetables that I was never going to touch but it turns out it is not just the raw fish that Mrs B has a problem with but also the cold rice that goes with it.  For some reason not many of the restaurants we came across seemed to mix cooked and raw food on the menu – in fact it was only when we reached Narita (which seems to be Japan’s equivalent to Bishops Stortford – i.e. an airport town miles away from the centre of Tokyo) and not expecting much,  where we had one of our best meals of the trip. There was plenty of Tempura and noodle soup on offer but there is only so much  fried food and fancy soup that a body can take …..oddly enough Tokyo has the most Michelin star restaurants on the planet.  Somehow we failed to miss all of them …. 
Don't look Mrs B -

Please note - for those of you of a nervous
disposition, no food was cooked during the
preparation of this photo  although a
number of fish were hacked to death....
It wasn't raw but is was fishy 

- Poor Mrs B 
Tea ceremonies
We endured two tea ceremonies. (The first green tea we tasted was so bad that we thought it was a mistake….It wasn’t……I guess it must be a bit of a an acquired taste.)   The ceremonies were apparently used by Samurai Warriors in preparation for battle.  Quite frankly if I was a Samurai Warrior who had gone through more than one tea ceremony  I would have made damn sure I didn’t make it through the next battle for fear of having to face a third – I’m not sure that it is too much of a stretch of the imagination to link the demise of the Samurai culture to tea ceremonies…..

I think the umbrella is used to hide behind
as you up chuck the green tea....

Japan is a very polite society
There are two main religions in Japan, Buddhism (imported from China along with tea ) and Shinto (home-grown – makes it sound like some sort of Marijuana strain) – which historically was combined in Japan  into “Shinbutsu-shūgō”.  Towards the end of the 19th century the Emperor of Japan decreed that the two religions should formerly separate, pending divorce proceedings but, like a modern day Romeo and Juliet, they continue to meet illicitly behind the authorities’ backs. As far as I could see most Japanese like to practice both, cherry picking the best bits from each – generally Shinto for the good times, Buddhism for the bad – I guess at a funeral it pays to believe in reincarnation…..a kind of end of life hedge betting.
I sometimes wonder does religion use
 incense to disguise the fact that its
 priests don't like to wash
very much... 
As someone who has faced their fair share of, what British Rail laughingly described as train travel in the UK*, it was embarrassing to witness how efficient the Japan rail system is.  I’m not sure I would go as far as the Lonely Planet Guide who claimed the trains were so good you would be tempted to stay on past your destination but then again the Lonely Planet Guide has a tendency to wax lyrical about everything it covers - describing exiting the subway station at Roppongi (In Tokyo) as like entering the world of Blade Runner or Star Wars - personally I found it like exiting any mid town subway station, about as exciting  as a wet Wednesday in Wales...

* Shows you how long ago it was that I abandoned commuting by train and switched to car – In the UK it’s all independent private networks now, which I’m guessing are not a vast improvement other than the rather splendid opportunity to pay more money for less service….. 

Mrs B rocking the Japanese railways 
Sex education

The truth behind how little trains are made in Japan....
Mount Fuji
I never realised that a mountain could be so coy....But it turns out that Mount Fuji,  like a well trained Geisha,  likes to be alluring without actually putting out….
Mount Fuji showing just a glimpse of flesh (or whatever the
mountain equivalent is) as we entered Shin-Fuji
station for our  hours photo opportunity....
What Mount Fuji looked like for the entire
time that we were in Shin-Fuji....

Covered up like a Victorian Nun 
Fortunately we were lucky enough to see it from afar

Fuji as seen from the other-side of Tokyo
In all it's naked splendour....
Tune in next time for the conclusion of our Japan trip as we visit Kanazawa, Kyoto and Nara

Photo Finish 
Some more pictures of Japan

Kyoto sunset...
A truly golden part of the day...
The lovely Madori who I met
at Kanasawa train station...

She educated me to the fact that her hair
did not represent Mickey Mouse** ears
but a bear....

** In hind-site I probably should have gone
with  Minnie mouse.
Possibly the best sign in the world,
honest and informative.....
Like a bridge over troubles waters....

Only the waters weren't that troubled... hey at
least  it was a bridge.  Simon and Garfunkel
 never had this type of problem....  
Noodles, which were followed by  Okonomiyaki
a Japanese pancake.  It probably would have been more
balanced if I had not selected a Hiroshima Okonomiyaki
which turned out to be the noodle version of the
pancake......  Doh!
Bamboo Forest Kyoto
Path to enlightenment....
More Autumnal leaves
Foxy prayers at Fushimiinari-taisya shrine...
It's not the giant lizards that are a problem in Japan
its the giant spiders that will kill you....

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Memoirs of a Barbarian – An Englishman’s travels around central Japan

This week sees the first part of our Japan trip covering our visits to Tokyo, Nikko and Takayama.

Some observations on Japan and its culture: -

Face masks
This is a curious one – only about 3% seem to wear them around Tokyo, probably slightly less away from the city but still enough to be very noticeable.

It begs the questions…… are the masks to:-

Protect the wearer from everyone else’s germs?
Protect everyone else from the mask wearer’s germs?
Worn by frustrated people who wanted to be a surgeon but didn’t make it?
Worn by Surgeons who want everyone to know that they are a surgeon?

It seems to be very rare to see two people wearing a mask in the same group – is it a fear of looking like you have come out in the same face outfit ….?

Toilet seats
As an Englishman, the Japanese western-style toilet seats are a remarkable discovery – That lovely warm feeling you get when you sit down just about offsets the fear of being electrocuted – water and electricity are not known to be good companions unless you want to end it all – and the worry that you will develop piles (I remember as a child being told that it was bad to sit on a hot radiator as it was a sure way to develop a case of the old Farmer Giles….  ). 

Then there is the mechanism for cleaning your nether regions – The press of a button results in an alien like probe appearing from the toilet which proceeds to squirt warm water in the general direction of, for want of a better description, your crack.  Unless you have a desperate need for retaining clingons (feel free to insert whatever form of description that you have a preference for i.e. clegnuts, dingle berries etc.… )  it’s a real winner – be warned though,  don’t have the pressure setting too high, after all the idea is to get clean, not to be violated like a young guest on one of Jimmy Saville’s shows in the late 70’s ( I for one am relieved that I didn’t ask Jim to fix me a Japanese Toilet seat – he was always a little too hands on for my liking) ….

For a nation that seems to avoid touching things wherever possible – There are automatic sliding doors everywhere,  it seem strange that Japan has not developed the system further and added a blower mechanism to eradicate the need to ever wipe again…. At which point we run into a typical Japanese anomaly – while the nation happily provides plenty of clean, well maintained facilities, with ample water,  they don’t seemed to have embraced the hand dryer – the only one I came across looked like it was based on one of those Dyson models where you stick your hands in the top like bread into a pop up toaster – only this one looked like it had been designed in the 1960’s by someone who thought cement  blocks and asbestos was as good a material that mankind would ever develop….  

It's like ET's finger* appears and squirts
warm water up your jacksy.....

* At least I hope it was his finger.....
Smoking -
While smoking is pretty much banned outdoors in Japan– people are allowed – almost encouraged even - to smoke indoors in restaurants, bars café’s e.t.c…how mixed up is that? Many a decent coffee or meal was ruined when someone close by lit up and proceeded to smoke us out.....

I love that this health conscious individual
stands amongst the smokers wearing a
mask in  an attempt to avoid the effects
of  secondary smoking ....
Before dropping the mask and
 having a crafty puff.....

Obviously first hand

 smoking is OK....
Not sitting next to Barbarians -
While most Japanese are excruciatingly polite ( so much so you should never attempt to buy anything when you are rushing to catch a train – all the bowing and "aragoto’ing" - Japanese for thank you – makes it almost a certainty that you won’t make it…) they seem to avoid sitting next to foreigners where ever possible….. One poor woman looked like she actually passed out when Mrs B and I sat either side of her on one train journey…..First her eyes opened wide before she stiffened and finally slumped sideways onto Mrs B – It was like the equivalent of sitting beside a giant Japanese possum……If the train floor had been softer I’m certain she would have attempted to bury her head in it – the worlds first ostrossum or would that be a Posstrich…..

Perhaps the slight wariness of visitors might explain the slightly nervous chuntering that accompanied any purchases I made – a stream of incomprehensible (certainly to me) , although always very polite sounding  words,  that might have been wishing me "a nice day" or equally asking that I "leave quietly and never darken their door again – although thank you for the business" …..

Free Tours -
Having investigated paying for a guided tour through a number of commercial tour companies we were very shocked at the price –  for 10 nights accommodation (we already had Tokyo accommodation sorted out), a couple of dinners, all lunches and breakfast , 14 day Japan rail card (standard class) and 4 days English guiding for a rather impressive £6,000 of our English pounds. Ouch … 

A bit of internet research and the discovery of a rather splendid network of volunteers who will happily guide you for the cost of their transport, entrance fee (although they all seemed to have free passes to most attractions) and a meal if they ate with you.  What could go wrong.....before you answer that, remember this is BlackLOG which seems to be  preprogramed for things to go wrong ....

Tokyo -
We enjoyed Tokyo,  especially once we worked out the transport system with the added bonus that our hotel was close to the Yamanote JR line – which was not only covered on our Japan Rail card but also one of the most useful lines for accessing central Tokyo….. Would like to have seen more of the Japanese Harajuku Street Fashion – but the rain seemed to keep them away. Rather surprised and a bit disapointed that it does not have more futuristic and high rise buildings...


could have gone better for us. We arrived nice and early for our day trip and successfully met our guide at the station, finding ourselves almost immediately dispatched on a bus up the hill to see a waterfall. The guide told us that if we left it until later we would end up in a long queue for the buses. It sounded reasonable; although I was not sure I particularly wanted to see the waterfall but went with the flow (pardon the pun). The autumn leaves had started to turn but, having started a bit later than most years, it was not the spectacular display that we might have hoped for…

While our guide had worked out that we would save time by getting up the hill early, she had not thought through that increasingly busy roads would mean severe delays getting back down the hill to the far more interesting shrines and temples – as it was we ended up waiting for 2 and a half hours to catch a bus back – Aaarrggghhh!  Almost 6 hours wasted seeing a bloody waterfall -  leaving us just an hour to see around 8 shrines.  As it was, our guide managed to show us just one…..As she had not joined us coming up the hill we were worried that she had got bored.  You can imagine our delight when we found that she had spent a nice relaxing time in an onsen (a hot springs bath)….. It certainly was not a great start to our free guiding service; it won’t be giving too much away to say that thankfully things got a lot better on that front…. 
I had not realised that Nikko was so high up – so my choice of shorts and sandals was not the best especially when you end up standing around waiting for 2 1/2 hours to catch a bus back to the more interesting parts of Nikko.


A delightful small town, which has retained a lot of old-world Japanese charm – a bit like Bruges say, where you can get around easily on foot. Fascinated to hear that they get about 15 metres of snow in the winter….Could see myself coming back to Japan for a Ski Holiday
Tune in next time to hear how I got told off by a station platform, how we got on with the Japanese railway system, Japanese baths, Mount Fuji  and why I was so much out of kilter with the Japanese when it came to seasonal dress….

Photo Finish

The Beast returns to his homeland….
Tsukiji Market
The worlds largest fish market ....

Which a picture of three men cutting
up a Tuna hardly does justice too...
Japan's answer to Mr Churchill 
An attempt at an arty shot....

more of those next time...
The bright lights of Tokyo...
Autumn was almost here....Just waiting for
 us to leave before breaking out in to it's
season wear...
Mrs B wondering if the six hour trip to see
a Bl**dy waterfall was really worth it.....
He looks like an extra from a Wallace
and Gromit movie...
Japanese Bullet trains - they can travel
at over 200 mph and on average turn up at
a station within 6 seconds of their
published time .

Similar to the British variety although
 they travel at about 6 MPH and on average
 turn up within 200 hours of the almost
published  timetable... 
Shin-Kyo Bridge - Nikko
fortunately bridges don't
close in the evenings... 
While we didn't find any fire breathing
 dragons we did come across this
rather splendid water spitting one.....
Not entirely sure what these are but they 
look nice and authentic Japanese....which 
probably mean they are Chinese imports....  
Takayama Sunset...
Mrs B manages to wreck a priceless
Japanese antiquity.....Oops 
Apple notes in the new IOS 6 release
 was proving  to be a bit restricted. The 
only way to delete the message was to 
eat the product ....
I so hope this sign translates as

"Do not photograph this sign!"
This Carp has forgotten that
Red Nose day is typically
held in March....

Or is he attempting
to dress as Autumn

Mrs B and Mega Mini Beast

Fortunately for the sake of the BlackLOG Mrs B and Mega Mini Beast rocked the Fish Market - While The Beast and I spent our time taking close up pictures of people (who could frankly have been anywhere) Mrs B and MMB fished around and came up with a cornucopia of fishtastic proportions .....

Looks like looking at dead fish is a big hobby in Japan 
Even in death these two lovers were inseparable.... 
Here's that sick squid I owe you....

Please note this is a vocal joke and probably requires
you to be British and clinically dead before you find
 it mildly amusing ....
The autopsy was inconclusive but putting down
 "drowned" as cause of death was probably a mistake.... 
These just look like little snots -
I suspect when they are put on
a menu they get some fancy
description ...

This probably explains why I
 don't  write menu's for a living... 
Catch of the day...
Now that's just shellfish.....
The end product......