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Where next? And just why aren’t YOU travelling, eh?

So that’ll be January gone then?

It’s not just I who considers Blighty a less than special place when the gloom pervades the short days and the dank drizzle makes grey every colour.

Solution? Get outta here.

So we did, with a cheeky long weekend in Barcelona. Fab.

It had booze aplenty:  vermut, cava, cerveza. Lashings of tapas. The sun shone wall to Gaudi wall. Cable cars, Olympic Park and – ohh yesss – chocolate and churros.

Of course, now we’re back I am bereft and looking forward to another jaunt.

But since you are here. I need to vent a little over the kind of light flak we get about our travels and as such am going to take a moment to provide answers to some of the generic commentary/barbed observations we regularly encounter.

  • “Oooh, you must be loaded?!”

Just how much do you think it costs? Barcelona is in the middle of – according to the media – Catalunyan unrest. So money goes further because people are staying away and it’s January. Shmucks! Flights were £24 each way (with a grown up airline from Gatwick). The hotel was a shade over £55/night and was lovely. Avoid tourist honeypots, don’t eat fancy meals, walk and take public transport, drink local vermut, cervesa, coffee, munch on tapas to keep it cheaper than a weekend in the UK.

Then don’t change your car every year, cancel your Sky subscription, swap the iPhone for a less costly Android, DIY on the house, leave the bathroom refresh for another time, save a few beans here’n’there into a travel fund and plan ahead. Or – better? – grab last minute bargains. Go off season, go obscure, Airbnb it, take overnight trains/planes to save a hotel night occasionally, don’t breakfst/dinner at the hotel, go the weeks before/after the big local shindig, self cater, read Simon Calder in the Independent, read thrifty travel blogs, take a risk.

The bigger league trips – Japan, NYC – require fundamental logistical decisions and sacrifices.

Loaded? No. Thrifty? Yes.

  • “OMG, you’re always going away!”

No we bloody aren’t. But instead of having fixed routines, we mix it up a bit. Our calendar does not include skiing trips – ohhh, I wish it did, but that would preclude the funky stuff – or for that matter set piece summer holidays. Our summer holidays of late have been snatched camping missions whilst the fleeting British summer allows.

We are opportunist travelers. We don’t take any more holidays than the next person.

  • “Ohh, I couldn’t do that.”

You need to get over yourself, because you could. Maybe it is a budget airline. (Although never Ryanair, NEVER AGAIN.) Maybe it is a strange language. A strange place. Maybe the accommodation is an unknown quantity. The food…

I liken it to trying something new off the menu. If you’ve never tried it and it’s not going to a) kill you or b) break the bank then do it. No likee? Then buy a bag of chips on the way home. You’re unlikely to starve.

  • “I don’t know where you find the time.”

Have a look in the mirror. Ask yourself… Am I short of time or merely prioritising something else? Am I lazy? Maybe you can’t face traveling/spending time with people.

This – as I encounter almost everyday in my professional life – is a mindset issue.

We find the time by, er, finding it. We are massively fortunate to be above the bread line. We also enjoy each others company. One of secret weapons is Granny Pat. (Although she’d rather travel than stay at home with J&M I’m sure.) We also go en famille.

When next you see us and travel comes up, please inquire appreciatively (if you are remotely interested). If you are disinterested, please say so because I don’t want to ram it down an unwilling throat.

Rant over. Ahhh.

Roll on New Delhi in September. (Or whatever happens inbetween: passports at the ready…)

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Big Apple, vegan chicken, fried ice-cream and engagement re-enactions

1999 was the first NYC trip and it was memorable. Of course it was. Bright lights, big city. Young and impressionable we were. Y’know, marriage proposal. Stuff.

For accidental reasons there was an unintentioned hiatus in visitations: the next trip was fall 2016. On business.

Then in early 2017 dear chums get posted to Washington DC and a plan is hatched to massively abuse their phenomenal hospitality with a getaway ride on the Amtrak to NYC.

Winner.

And winning it was.

Of all our travels, something about this holiday made it stand out.

Sat on a dank December eve that we Brits specialise in it’s difficult to remember how clear blue the skies were on that warm Brooklyn Waterfront day. The immersive movie-set-ness of the city. You can lose yourself in those vistas. Cliched? Nah, iconic. Romantic. Pop in some ear buds, crank up that playlist and start creating scenes in your private widescreen cinemascope NYC story: riding the subway, wandering around DUMBO, crunching golden leaves in Central Park, watch the impossibly (hilariously) hipster barrista craft your flat white, be moved to tears at the staggering cost of a takeout pizza, stroll the leafy streets of Brooklyn nosing into the open doors and windows of flashy (and more appealingly less flashy) brownstones with their sitcom-establishing-scene front steps. Then take in a happy hour craft beer and a mimosa for the lady at a Smith Street pub with a goat in it. Happen upon the unique – surely? – Chinatown eatery that has a full meatylicious menu but is in fact 100% veggie. (Additives in our food? No sir, that’ll be just genuine vegetarian imitation pork. It [the restaurant] would have also been the scene of some disquiet had a sensitive customer ventured to look in the shopping bag our youngest momentarily left behind. 14 year old boys and fake horses head masks are a halloween thing apparently.) Or perhaps your Manhattan movie memory/meme/taste is Sam’s Fried Ice Cream.

Why even the dehumanising masterclass by the FAA/Department of Transportation/Fun Police/Buzz Killers at JFK on departure failed to dent the halo that surrounds what was a super trip.

What made it so good? Firstly, thanks to all the great advice, hints, tips and such we got from fellow travelers. It helped that our very own teenagers who were at the right age to be introduced to the city: they loved it. Great weather. Staying in Brooklyn (in a house). Yours truly researching stuff and being a one-man-travel-agency. Just some of the myriad factors that made it stand out.

And yet… some of the comments, observations and opinions we encountered when we got back have oddly furthered the process of this trip really cementing itself as a milestone. Particularly those comments from folk who’ve been there and – apparently – don’t know the half of it. Almost like they’d visited an alternative version of NYC. (Checking question: there’s just the one Big Apple on earth, right?)

Occasionally, the responses of others who’ve been there before thee induce the feeling-like-a-z-class-tour-guide, er, feeling. How so? Well – among other things – we failed to do so much. We failed to see a Broadway show, we tooled round Central Park on foot instead of in a pony & trap, didn’t go up in a chopper, didn’t shop at Macy’s, we missed Ellis/Liberty/Governors Isles,  didn’t eat a zillion dollar meal in a restaurant totally on top of Times Square and… and… and similarly failed many other mandatory/compulsory/obligatory activities. Does this make us failures? In days gone by? Yes. These days, I think not. (Although on reflection, several of those nopes might be simply because I am a total cheapskate.) We appear to have accidentally arrived at a spot where each visit/trip is now about enjoying ourselves, not collecting selfies/ticking off a list of “must sees” from the Kuoni brochure.

Now that I have that off my chest, and in the spirit of passing on the good stuff, might I offer a couple of cool things?

The High Line.

The magnificent repurposing, rescuing, restoring and reimagining of a dilapidated freight railway over the heads of Chelsea folk is a 21st century must do, right? This author thinks so. And yet several people who have touristed to the city in recent times – for more than a fleeting pit-stop – look at us blankly. Never heard of. WTF? Sure it’s not Times Square, but that’s the point. The perspective it gives and the sheer pleasure of walking/hanging out there are sublime: it talks about the past, present and future simultaneously.

Brooklyn

One individual near swallowed their own teeth when Gilly ventured that we stayed off Manhattan. They were incredulous when the reveal was a house in residential Brooklyn. They didn’t exclaim “thank GOD you’re safe” whilst teary eyed and there-there hugging, but the effect was patronisingly, bewilderingly similar. Jeez Louise. It’s 2017! This is not the bankrupt city of 1970s blacksploitation movies where pimps in Caddys are trigger happy to mow you down in a drive-by. You are more likely to get a complimentary artisnal doughnut from a vegan tooled up with a soy latte and sharp beard. Here’s a handy pictoral guide to becoming a Brooklyn Hipster. Walk south over the Brooklyn Bridge and keep walking. Bimble around DUMBO. They say that New Yorkers live in Brooklyn, Manhattan is full of foreigners and tourists.

Empire State of mind.

And of course, don’t forget to re-entact your engagement atop the Empire State’ with both your teenage kids in attendance.

She (16) thought it was romantic and he (14) nearly died of acute embarrassment/shame/toxic-schmaltze-reaction.

(Then [sigh] be prepared to field clueless/confused “congratulations” social media comments on the shared photo.)

Ideal DUMBO graffiti for an ad-hoc post engagement re-enactment re-enactment

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The Beers love Glasgow.

As work trips to Scotland are always enjoyable, it’s good to go back with the tribe, visit auld friends and explore. This time Glasgae.

A few snippets for you…

Click on the link for a short video: The Biggest Band in Scotland!

We loved The Lighthouse: the renamed conversion of the former offices of the Glasgow Herald newspaper, it was designed by the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

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The tower offers great views of the rooftops and some considerable exercise in reaching the top…

The Tower @ The Lighthouse

Then we have the Museum of Modern Art with it’s unofficial mascot with seemingly permanent headgear outside…

Traffic Cones are a permanent feature.

A spot of shopping @ Frasers?

 

Hey it’s a Samba band: obvs

 

 

 

 

 

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Cosmetic Glasgow? Pure clatty.

A short trip last week to Glasgow with the faimly and memories come flooding back from a previous work trip to this gritty toon.

They’re not typos, they’re Weegie words. Look them up here: The Glaswegian Dictionary

Some years back one of my (favourite) roles was to shadow salespeople as they visited customers to help ensure they were performing at the peak of their powers. Hence with a medical rep’ we called upon a small independent plastic surgery clinic in central Glasgow…

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…we met in a swanky reception which was all glass and shimmering white panels. After little preamble and with no discernible identity checks the brusque surgeon announced that we could go into theatre.

Theatre?! Eh?

Apparently we weren’t there to talk about the product, we were going to try in out. On a person. A human. What to do? What to say? At no point was I asked for credentials so I merely shrugged, donned m’greens, scrubbed up and bimbled into the back’. And when I say back’ I mean the operating theatre.

“Theatre” appeared to be equipped with a discount B&Q kitchen, ex-movie-prop surgical gear and a team of actors. An unconvincing set. I wasn’t sure if it was a porn or slasher’ shoot.

It turned out to be nearer the latter.

Presently a semi conscious local was wheeled in on a trolley. With this being Glasgow, I briefly entertained the thought that she was just “havin’ a wee lie doon” on a conveniently situated mobile bed and this as all a terrible mix up. Er, no. This particular Scot had chosen, nay paid, to be professionally anesthetised and then cosmetically, er, enhanced.

Whilst I am sure it’s standard practice and those in the nursing lark will see such business on a daily basis, I was alarmed to note that the patient was not sparko. Rather she deliriously and determinedly made attempts to communicate with the team. All the while a serious looking chap pumped gasesous drugs into her lungs via a mask. Said mask also prevented her from speaking so she haphazardly waved her arms about disturbingly: to me she seemed wired tae th’ moon.  Presently a nurse restrained her as one might attempt to capture an enthusiastic octopus. Checking around, only I seemed alarmed.

The whole thing started to resemble a dramatisation of 3AM on a hospital themed fancy dress Saturday night at the roughest end of Glasgae that had got out of hand. In a discount show kitchen.

“Ahhhh y’bas. Freggin’ gerrum’ off meh. Sea-youuuus Jimm-eh… ahhhhhhhh. Feck.” Etcetera.

And that was the surgeon.

[Kidding, he wasn’t Rab C Nesbit. ]

With her rubbered self firmly now affixed to her bed, the surgeon makes an incision. My knees gently buckle. He then unceremoniously stuffs a high-tech-laser-tipped-knitting-needle into the poor sap and starts violently rummaging. I was put in mind of Christmas morn’ in the kitchen where one diligently follows Nigella/Jamie et al in forcing seasoned, herby butter between Turkey breast and skin (whilst trying not to gag). Only this was much more brutal and the beast was still alive.

He rummaged violently. How did he lose his keys under her tits in the first place?

This process led me to find other things to look at. The scene away from the table in more detail and following the tube from the laser-prod to its terminus revealed a 5L clear beaker with a sealed lid. Sputtering into this receptacle was what appeared to be chunky golden vegetable soup with flakes of chili.

It took me a moment to realise that this was what body fat looks like when released from a human host.

The procedure as replicated and became really testing when the patient’s arms were bought into play. I was surprised to note she wasnae a big lassie to start with yet the brutality that the surgeon applied to hoovering out her (almost non existent) bingo wings was sadistic. You could see the bruising developing as the butcher violently hoovered inside her skin.

I think it was at this moment I realised that cosmetic surgery was not for me.

To make matters worse – worse! – my colleague – highly qualified, ex NHS – had agreed to nudge me every time the team did something unhygienic. (A little code between us as it would be inappropriate to comment aloud and – after all – we were wearing surgical masks. Although said face-wear was also handy because it prevented the assembled crew from witnessing my involuntary, auto-reflexic dry retching.) By now I was also starting to feel bruised in the lower rib area because she was nudging me a lot. The surgeon was a contaminating gallus.

And then…

And then the fire alarm went off.

So we evacuated.

Things happened quickly. Within moments we were scrubs off – fully clothed underneath – and stood on a rainy Glasgow street. My colleague has the presence of mind to grab her gear and so we decamped as the clinic staff were distracted. It seemed logical to proceed with our day so we went to a local Spud-U-Like – remember them? – to debrief.

Without thinking I had a potato with chicken curry. When we sat I regarded my lunch for a moment. The chunky curry filling looked oddly familiar.

A Fire Engine arrived as we tucked in to our repast. I recall one of the Spud’ staff remarking that the “auld Wimpy Bar is havin’ ah foo false alarums heh?” We had been witnessing the carnage in a former fast food kitchen which seemed poetically correct somehow.

The rest of the day was mercifully less eventful and my colleague was grateful to have her skills reaffirmed with a few areas she could work on.

What a filling lunch too.

What I learned?

  1. Seriously, if you want to lose weight/tone up, get a personal trainer.
  2. Better still, get new friends/lovers who don’t judge you on your shape.
  3. They used our company’s product to good effect.

What I didn’t learn?

Is the patient still in there all alone, delirious with a demented knitting needle hanging from her person?

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Namdaemun Market: a little light shopping in case of a little light armageddon

Interesting times we live in eh? Less talk of elections here in South Korea and more of obliteration.

Switch on BBC World/CNN et al and you’ll want to start digging a bunker. Except nobody here appears even slightly bothered by all the fuss in the media.

Witness today at the labyrinthine Namdaemun market in central Seoul. I can speak approximately zero Korean, but observing the locals I don’t think the purchase of kiddies shoes, wholesale costume jewellery, honey filled grilled rice cakes or a jaunty hat qualifies as stockpiling. It is only 35km to the DMZ from here, yet life goes on. This place falls into the “if it’s made, you can buy it” category.

That said, if you’d’ve squeezed your way down “Chopped Noodles Street” – no, really – you might be fogiven that the 4 minute warning had sounded such was the clamour for a bowl of nosh. A mere picture doesn’t help us, but you might see the faintest of glimmers of fear in our faces as we avoided the wrath of Korean-Cooking-Mama. All 4’10”. Not a tribe to be trifled with. Noodle Street? More Noodle Alley. Close proximity heat, pungent aromas, noisy chatter and slurping sounds under sweaty plastic sheeting: claustrophobes need not apply.

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Chopped Noodle Street

See also FISH&STEW alley. More redoubtable cooks with oodles of noodles, violently bubbling sauces and whole fishies on open burners. Tiny rooms with formica tables and small chairs. Locals filling their faces with gusto.
The fishmonger stalls had all sorts of produce to move a pescatarian to veganism. Angler fish, wriggling eels, squid, live octopus, tank after tank of flat fish, clams, oysters and even horror movie-esque angler fish. But most of all the silently screaming dried fish (see below).

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So what did we eat? We weren’t up for a feast so a stand up street food lunch would be just the ticket. J selects a bun steaming operation that is doing brisk trade. [In Japan the service is all gentle polite, apology, bowing sing-song thanking-you. Here it’s more barked “Oooi! Whaddya-you-wan?” Only in rapid-fire Korean. They have industrially sharp elbows and know a steamed bun, so clear off! It’s enough to make a gentle British soul quietly yelp and run for cover.] So with some difficulty and pointing we succeed in a purchase: 5X unnaturally pale steamed buns. They are the only nuclear event of the day. IE: face-meltingly seconds from the jumbo steamer. We brave the heat. What’s inside? Mmmmmm: filled with seasoned pork mince and green onion (leek?). OMfG. A taste sensation. Eaten stood up at the counter with a slice of bright orange pickled-who-knows-what that looked like it came from an industrial accident. Apologies for the photo quality, just snaps to commemorate the moment.

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We emerge unscathed from the market and continue perambulations.

Tomorrow: the DMZ.

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Small world take 3: Kobe to Kanazawa

As commented previously, we had nice drinks with nice people in Kobe.

We were (via Hiroshima) travelling to Kanazawa a few days later which is 300km from that bar. The publican – Japanese equivalent term unclear – commented that she was to travel there also.

So there was pleasant consternation when we chanced upon both owners of the Bitter End on a street corner in the charming Geisha district. (NOTE: Kanazawa is not Dunny on the Wold, it’s a proper town with nigh on 1/2 million souls.)

This kind of thing has happened to me before: NYC & Golden Bay, NZ.

We didn’t take photos of our boozer-owning chums, so you’ll have to believe me.

Instead, here are some photos of the lovely blossom we encountered there.

You’re welcome.

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Castle

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Cherry Blossom

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Cherry-er blossom

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Blooming Marvellous

kanazawa cstle blossoms

Blooming miserable and wouldn’t smile: nice trees though

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Tokyo views: a short slideshow.

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Post a comment if you want to know anything about a particular picture.

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Tokyo. We’re going to need a bigger word for, er, big.

Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, 
hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. 
I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the 
chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
English humorist & science fiction novelist (1952 – 2001)

So here’s a small way in which the scale of Tokyo hit me.

We are renting an Airbnb apartment which is all arranged, paid for and locked in.

All we need to do is check in.

First challenge: The address.
It’s in Japanese – obvs – but Google cannot get a grip on it and there’s no such thing as a phone book/directory. And if there was I couldn’t read it. Street names building names/numbers are not as straight forward as other countries. It’s no 33 Acacia Avenue. Never mind, think alternatives.

mario tourSecond challenge: Arranging to meet.
So we’ll meet at the station. Excellent idea. Which one? Asakusa. Exit A4. Simples? Er, no. You see there are FOUR Asakusa stations. Each serving a different metro/rail line. Asakusa is not quiet either. It holds the busiest shrine in Tokyo and – for reasons I can’t explain – hints of Covent Garden. Only with more people.

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Ginza Sunday

Third Challenge: Language.
Our host is super responsive, but the phraseology is cryptic. (It turned out we were talking – at her end – via Google translate. This made things okay. Eh? It makes clear that she wasn’t being difficult, she simply can’t speak English and was copy-pasting machine derived text which was getting frustrating… Until you twig. Some way to go there on that one Google.) Eventually I send a link to a street view piccy of a coffee shop outside the A4 exit of the station I think she means. “Yes.” Comes the reply. Phew.

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Tokyo: on a stick!

Fourth Challenge: Recognition
We breezed through the train/subway gig – masters of Japanese transport after 10 days! – and emerge at the appointed exit a formal 20 minutes ahead of schedule. Oh my, there are a lot of people. I start eyeing every local lady that pauses, ready to cheerfully introduce myself. It’s a wonder I don’t get arrested more often. After a few false starts, a slight lady lingers and toys with her iPhone.

Aside
We are potentially into the bounds of "they all look the same" here. 
The minefield of casual racism. 
Fear not, this is not where this is going.

Slight lady is wearing a mask. No silly, not a Halloween one. The kind of surgical facemask ubiquitous in Japan (and other oriental countries). This means that my chances of matching a face to an Airbnb mugshot are heading towards zero. I offer a smile and a convivial “konnichiwa”. It’s her. (Although in amusing retrospect, she should’ve been more on point. We were the only white family of four – who weren’t wearing masks BTW – hanging out at the station exit. I think of the two parties, we would be the ones picked out in an identity parade.)

Bless, she is splendid. Momentarily we are off in a little people train threading our way through unfamiliar streets knee deep in tourists, rick-shaw-pullers, locals and who knows what else. A few hundred meters later we are “home” (for the next 4 nights). Detailed apartment usage instructions ensue. In Japanese. And then, bows, smiles (one assumes, behind the mask) and we’re alone at “our” place.

My head spins with the surreal. J&M head straight for the wifi.

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45th floor of the Tokyo Government Building looking E-S-E

Elocution 101:

It’s not Toke-ee-oh. No. It’s Toke-yo!

(Twinned with Westward Ho! Possibly. Or not.)

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ShhhhShinkansen

Don’t call it a Bullet Train. It’s a Shinkansen.

No one in Japan calls it bullet train. The signs don’t. Asking for a bullet train would not get you a train.

This particular one is the Asama 614 from Kanazawa to Tokyo. We hopped on at Nagano – of winter olympic fame and the reason it has a shinkansen line – and are getting off at Ueno (Tokyo). It’s a 12-car behemoth: smooth, pretty darn fast and – from this seat – like flying low in a spacious 1990s passenger jet. Porthole style windows, airlinesque seat design, tray tables etcetera. In fact going through the incredibly lengthy tunnels on the run down to Tokyo you might as well be on a jet at night.

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No, it isn’t a bullet train.

They are so quiet and so fast because they run on special tracks. Lines laid in concrete troughs that cut swathes through the countryside. When you consider all the fuss about London-Birmingham HS2… The Japanese would’ve simply built it by now. You can’t hold back progress. As the scenery flashes by you are always accompanied by the same lower view of pale concrete and the stations all but identical. It’s an efficient, relaxing way to cover big distances: point to point outstripping aircraft due to frequency and route choice. It’s all reserved on this service so calmness prevails. Calm is how the Japanese travel too. Quietly, almost invisibly, following procedure, playing the game. The whole thing just works.

On the other hand, as Alex Kerr notes in his book Lost Japan, they tend to, well, say bugger to the environment. Need power? Chuck in pylons. Shifting slope? Concrete that hillside. Need speed? Throw a Shinkansen viaduct across the valley. As one Kobe local lamented: “Japanese always in a rush to get there.” This land is criss-crossed with arteries: utilities, transport. The streets/townscapes/architecture are higglety pigglety, cheek by jowl.

All at once I have shining admiration for the engineering, the scale, ambition and execution. Then I lament the environmental damage, disregard for non-built aesthetics, the natural world ranking way behind progress in the risk registers.

But then we are spearing toward on of the mightiest conurbations on the planet. 31 million souls? (Give or take.) Half the population of the UK in one town? [Stares out of window at the endless built environment and blinks.] That’s a fair old swarm of creatures isn’t it? How do you deal with that much humanity without simultaneously trashing the place?

Okay, okay: a bit weighty.

So at (an estimated) 250kph we quietly, undramatically whoosh into Tokyo and I am already missing our train journeys here. We have covered a lot of ground. (Around 1500-2000km in little more than a week.) All of it on time. Most of it in comfort. (Yes, yes, we had to stand on an unreserved rush hour Shinkansen, but just the once.) Then again (in holiday mode), it made for great people watching. (Unlike a similar stand-up-ride to Reading from Paddington on the 18.17.) We have ridden all manner of different train flavours. All of it interesting, fascinating and highly functional. (The former for those of us who can tear themselves away from a screen.)

And now Tokyo. 782 stations. 14 subway lines (not counting railways). 8 million+ passengers a day. Try Googling “Tokyo Subway Facts” and boggle away. What could possibly go wrong?

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Koyasan – Buddhist Central

So with a budding Buddhist in the fold, we thought why not spend a night with the chaps at a temple? Hence the Beers are taking a slow, twisty train up a misty mountain. When we are deep in the forest and high in the clouds, we alight and re-board a cable car. (Europeans call them funiculars.) 5 minutes later we are getting on a bus and a few minutes after that are mildly white knuckled as the driver navigates the tortuously twisty road to temple town: Koyasan. 1,200 years ago a Buddhist thought it’d be a splendid spot for a monastic jaunt. Still drawing in the crowds today.

The short bus journey gives us all flashbacks to Tamil Nadu in 2012, only without risk of soiling ourselves through terror. Better driver, better bus, better road-sense here.

Presently we arrive at our lodgings, the delightfully named Hoon Inn (Or is it Hoo In? Never quite found out, the website being in Japanese.) We are greeted by a enthusiastic young monk who shows us thoroughly, considerately and carefully to our room. There is much etiquette to observe. Shoes outside, where the loos are, bath times, food serving times, what to wear and when. We listen with serious, bordering on pious, intent which crumbles just a little when he offers us the WiFi code.

MGB Rockin the Yukuta

Mog rocks the Yukuta look

In a flash we are relaxing in our Yukuta whilst the rain pelts down outside. We are snug behind sliding framed paper doors on our cushions, futons and tatami. We all try to ignore the fact that we’re sleeping in one room. Together. On the floor. Heigh ho. “It’ll be like camping!” No response was the stern reply.

Soon the boy and I are bobbing in the communal bath down the hall at his suggestion. At 13 he’s not usually keen to clean, so I seize the day ensuring he gets a thorough scrubbing. At six sharp we are in a large tatami-and-screen dining hall – where they filmed Neo/Morpheous training fight scene in the Matrix* – with 20+ other guests for a vegan slap-up-tea fit for a monk.

It’s an experience alright. Although I sense the pains in my legs will last more than my memory of the tastes of various pickled things. (Furtive glances show that all of us soft westerners cannot sit on the floor for more than a minute or three without fidgeting. Sitting zazen is indeed a meditation in itself.)  Actually the food included some things I have never eaten and will never eat again. Great fun. We turned down beer & sake – at extra cost – but it didn’t seem to stop anyone else necking the booze. Yay Buddhism! A religion without too much piety.

[Considering we are up a Japanese holy mountain, you’d imagine that eating-what-yer-given because this is a temple, not a Holiday Inn would be correct operating procedure? Ohhhh no. This doesn’t stop the Shermans’ next to us noisily enquiring about gluten, radiation, toenail clippings and cod sperm. Every other nationality just cracks on with it in the spirit of the gig. Well done the young Beers for having a crack at the tucker: some of it was pretty out-there.]

Did I mention our garb? We took to the Yukuta en masse and – am pleased to report – the Beers rocked it.

Fast forward to 06.00 following a cosy night. (Well, I slept.) We are invited to join the morning service. It’s a sleepy, hazy mix of incense, low rhytmic zazen chanting, gongs, chimes and memories that will reverberate for many a moon. Whilst I won’t claim the word spiritual, I would venture meditative in a calming, enveloping way.

Add in a deckchair, maybe a beanbag and it’d be perfect.

When the music stops, a senior monk stands, thanks us in English for coming along and invites us to breakfast.

They’d run out of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes.

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Whilst it’s a basic hostelry in many ways, it’s not a hostelesque experience for the wallet. A night at the monks gaff, including return transport and such was a £400 thing pretty much.

Totally worth it. Just look at the temples nearby, best seen in peaceful, atmospheric early misty morning seclusion nestling amongst magnificent trees. Low gonging bells and monastic chants floating through the woods.

Next stop Kobe.

*Not true. But for those who’ve seen the film it’s a good visual prompt.

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