We have recently been hit by an attack of Le Artistique. I blame the extraordinary colours of autumn in Japan … and the surrounding hordes of Chinese tour groups laden down with photographic equipment – we are still nothing if not competitive!
We have recently been hit by an attack of Le Artistique. I blame the extraordinary colours of autumn in Japan … and the surrounding hordes of Chinese tour groups laden down with photographic equipment – we are still nothing if not competitive!
Famous for dodgy fake gear, drugs, sex shows and lady-boys. Quite the reputation to live up to but Bangkok always manages…. effortlessly. It’s hard to stumble more than a few yards without being offered finest quality Rolexes with maybe a free Louis Vuitton bag thrown in to carry your loot home in. All real, of course. The seedier offers don’t fall far behind either; I still recall visiting Bangkok as a teenager with my family. Wandering down Patpong market, the lovely ladies were trying to entice my poor father in to their establishments with offers of free drinks galore… plus some other stuff that I didn’t understand. Hoping to put them off a little, he pointed out that he was there with his wife and entire family – response: “No problem, they can come in too!”. Unbelievably, we didn’t take them up on their kind offer.
Of course the city also has a more pleasant side and a number of world class tourist attractions. The Emerald Buddha (really made of jade, which I think is cheating but he’s a cool little dude anyway so I guess fair’s fair. Though he really is little – can’t be more than 8 inches high) housed within his amazingly intricately decorative Palace. The Golden Buddha – better named this time, being very very big and very, very gold. And the famed floating market with thousands of hawkers all lined up in their canoes to sell their wares (usually bananas. There’s really a LOT of bananas in Bangkok. Let’s carefully avoid the obvious jokes here). It’s an amazing tourist destination and needs a fair few days just to take it all in.
Then there’s the clothes shops, and in particular the tailors – Bangkok is probably the finest place in Asia to get a little custom made something or other made up. It’s here that the famed “3 suits in 3 days” service started up, and they do stick to their word on this (although one should also note that the word doesn’t include anything about said suits needing to look good, or in fact to even fit….).
How to fit it all in?
Well, for us it was pretty easy. We did ASOLUTELY nothing. We lazed round the pool. We ate dinner in the hotel for heaven’s sake. The most activity we got up to was catching up with an old work friend for lunch (pretty exhausting stuff)…. at our hotel. All of which we’re excusing by the fact that I’d picked up a nasty coldy-fluey thing in Japan and basically slept for most of the time we were there.
Although to be really honest, it was just a really lovely hotel, and we were kind of excited to hang round the pool for a day or two.
Anyway, Bangkok is the city of vice. And if my vice happens to be sloth, who’s to argue?
Fish fish fish, fishy fishy fish!
FISH!Tokyo baby, yeah!
Yup, it’s early morning and we are at Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. A huge warren of stalls piled high with every conceivable kind of seafood, and a few others besides. Squat men in wellington boots stride around with single-bladed sashimi knives as tall as they are, committing astonishing acts of butchery on the vast swarms of equally vast tuna fish that flood through here every day. Cabinets full of wildly expensive sea urchin roe, banks and banks of humming aquariums, crab claws, crab sticks, live crabs by the dozen dozen. Red fish, silver fish, black fish, grey fish, white fish and their eggs besides. Whelks, clams, oysters, octopuses (-pi?) and squid of every size and colour. Seaweed, dried and fresh. If it comes out of the sea, it’s here. And it’s probably still alive.
And we’re hungry.
It’s our last morning in Japan. The coffee man (er, that’s me) went out to Starbucks for a seasonal gingerbread latte first thing, but otherwise we are empty (by the way, apparently having the whipped cream topping “on the side” is Against The Rules in Japan. But I needed to separate it from the hot coffee to stop it melting away before I could carry it up 24 floors to a snoozing Lucy. So I had to resort to sleight of hand, trickery (and, er, cup thievery) – result! Anyway, I digress.) We are looking for our favorite sushi restaurant, possibly in the world. And we found it. Of course we couldn’t remember the name, but we remembered the eel grilling station (complete with mini portable flamethrowers) from our last trip, and we found our seats with serious anticipation.
Breakfast. As much sushi as you can possibly eat (and we were trying very, very hard). Include multiple rounds of the most expensive top quality sea eel and the extraordinary fatty tuna. Also Uni (sea urchin) which is so expensive and hard to get right that we had previously thought we were only going to bother with it when we were physically in Hokkaido where the best stuff comes from. All this, plus the usual soups and salads and two big beers. We rolled out of there stuffed to the gills and walking on air. My god it was SO good.
And the damage? £30 a head.
Incidentally, the three tier sushi restaurant test I mentioned a while ago? Try the standard tuna (which is safe and not too expensive) and if it’s really good have the mackerel (which is harder to get right, is horrible when poor quality but when done well is extremely good) and if this is really good try the uni (which is expensive, almost impossible to find done well and frequently disgusting, but a real delicacy when good). So there you are. Happy eating!
Everyone measures their lives differently. I have a friend who swears that highest form of human achievement is business; I have another friend who swears that highest form of human achievement is poetry. A question that has been on my mind recently is how to compare experiences and how to measure “success” when you are travelling. (jumping straight to the answer, I think the fact that Lucy and I are able to do it at all is already success enough for me, but let’s not allow that to get in the way of this post, eh?). In the meantime, how’s about this for some travel-appropriate metrics:
First, the classic Boston Consulting Bull*** two-by-two matrix, plotting those two well known orthogonals “Epic” and “Comfortable”.
This splits experiences down quite nicely:
To me, the art of enjoying travel involves balancing interesting and new experiences against the level of perceived discomfort involved. I think this is the reason Lucy and I are traveling reasonably quickly this time around, and why we end up at gentle odds with the gap year students we meet. After all, sleeping on floors palls pretty quickly once you are past 30, and we are familiar enough with the simple mechanics of travel to take the shine off, say, long train journeys. Perhaps we also now need a higher level of stimulation to make all the travel worthwhile – not for us the sitting on a beach for weeks at a time having a nice holiday and, like, finding ourselves man.
It was in contemplating the bottom left sector – the nice holiday – that I came up with the second travel metric: blog density. Now, we don’t live our lives for the blog, although we do greatly enjoy writing it (most of the time!). For the last couple of weeks we have been having a very nice time, but it has felt a little more like a holiday than the type of travel worth taking time out of life for. It has been the hardest, grittiest experiences that have stuck in our minds and ended up making their way onto the page. Recently, a lovely week in Nepal passed by in a single blog post; two active weeks in Japan has been condensed into half a dozen; whereas Papua New Guinea left us feeling pretty battered but with the urgent need to write down what we had witnessed every day and more.
Anyway, it’s a nice theory (even if meta blog posts have less pretty pictures than some of the others). To test it in practice, we have three days in Bangkok sorting out visas, a few days with Lucy’s Mum and Dad at Angkor Wat and after that it’s off to Burma. Stay tuned!
We have been to Japan before. A two week holiday a few years ago whetted our appetite for all things Japanese, hence our desire to shoehorn a return trip into the gap in our itinerary caused by the immovable blocks of Christmas and, er, the North Korean National day in September. We loved it last time, and we loved it this time. But we had some chores to complete.
Last time we were here we ranged all over the country, we skied in Hokkaido, we took the Japanese equivalent of the Orient Express (for which you have to win tickets in a lottery), we temple bashed in Nara, misery touristed in Hiroshima, monastery stayed in Koya-San, and Kabuki-ed in Tokyo. We ate everything we could get our hands on and stayed in a range of high and low class hotels the length of the country. But we missed out on a few things – seasonality, time constraints and mild case of culture shock prevented us from doing everything we wanted to. Hence the requirement for a little box ticking.
Well, you know your life isn’t too bad when your mandatory box ticking involves going to a Sumo tournament and tasting poisonous Fugu puffer fish. Life is tough, yet again.
Sumo. Well. It’s amazing. The bouts typically last less than ten seconds, but that misses the point. It’s the mandatory four minutes per bout of facing off, warming up, strutting and posturing that really make the occasion. Our American friends won’t know what the hell I am talking about at this point, but do you remember that time when the Scottish ladies’ curling team got a gold medal at the winter Olympics? For about three days everyone in the UK suddenly became world class curling experts, able to discuss at length the tactical implications of scrubbing vs polishing ice, stone positioning and the correct usage of the slippery and spiked shoes. It was bizarre, and it overtook us at the Sumo:
“Oh, look at that decisive foot stamp. He’s so aggressive. He’s definitely got the upper hand”
“What an effective ceremonial-salt-chucking there – the Yokozuna’s overhand salt toss. Punchy!”
“My lord, he leaned so far forward on his hands there in warm up! How can the opponent possibly respond?”
“Did you see the half-hearted honorific brow mopping there? His fighting spirit must be broken!”
(and, my personal favorite, from Lucy) “He’s wearing lovely green pants. I think he’s definitely going to win.”
Sumo is deeply bizarre, heavily tied up in ritual, almost perfectly opaque to outsiders, and definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in town when a match is on.
Eating Fugu on the other hand, is deeply bizarre, heavily tied up in ritual, almost perfectly opaque to outsiders and worth doing just once in your life for the sole reason that you can say you have done it. We journeyed to the spiritual home of Fugu in Shimonoseki (where even the manhole covers have cartoon blowfish on them) and tried a full “setto” of blowfish in a specialist blowfish restaurant. Our English friends won’t know what the hell I am talking about at this point, but … well … Meh. It was just chewy sashimi without any of the famed mouth numbness that signifies near-poisoning (interestingly the Japanese word for “sashimi” isn’t actually “sashimi” but “o-tsukuri” – who knew?).
Perhaps they don’t serve the good stuff to foreigners; perhaps we don’t know the Japanese for “hurt me, chef”; perhaps we had too much beer for lunch. Anyway – tick.
I find one of the more enjoyable aspects of growing older is getting to know yourself better. And for me as an engineer manqué, this covers not just how I react to situations but also getting a proper understanding of how I work. For example: how I learn best (I have to understand the underlying mechanics of anything, then it sticks for ever), how I respond to jet lag (badly – the free booze and music documentaries on the planes get me every time), how much sleep I really, really need per night (below two I tend to hallucinate a little after lunchtime, more than four if I want to make sense without adrenaline, a regular six if I want to perform properly – so now you know!).
One thing I worked out when I was at university was a basic universal cure-all. Whenever I was feeling low or stressed out I prescribed myself the following: lots of water, some reasonably strenuous exercise, two pints of bitter, light comfort food, an early night and everything will be better in the morning. It worked surprisingly well, right up to the time I hit the City, at which point exercise and early nights went straight out the window. The basic cure-all was then replaced by a more complex structure suggested by a savvy girlfriend of mine involving fresh night air, brown bread and running up and down the street (she had been a junior doctor, and sleep deprivation was a common factor in both our lives).
So when we got to Kyoto I was feeling a little low. Kyoto is beautiful (if you have never been to Kyoto, go to Kyoto (hi Jason!)). But to be honest, nearly six months of travel had been taking their toll. There comes a point at which constantly trying to work out where you are, how you are going to get there, how to read the strange script on the menu, what to eat and how to order it in mime / pidgin English become a little dull. On one level these difficulties are an intrinsic part of the cultural experience of travel, but their enjoyment very much depends on your mood. Standing in front of a queue of Japanese commuters trying to work out why the ticket barrier is steadfastly refusing to let you through can be either an interesting challenge or a bit of a chore (the answer is to insert all of your tickets for your complete journey at once, even if they are issued by different train companies – the machine will riffle through them and spit back out the ones you still need. Dead easy once you know, but deeply counterintuitive anywhere other than Japan).
No matter, thought I – just break out the classic cure-all: drink lots of water, head off for a run round Kyoto, eat a nice seasonal Kaiseki dinner in a good restaurant and spend a long night in a Western bed in our hotel.I also tend to play myself my all-time favourite tune. The Cinematic Orchestra at their very finest.
And the run was lovely: seven miles round Kyoto, through the imperial park, out to the Eastern suburbs where the wooded hills come right down to the city’s edge, meander down the ancient Philosophers’ Path along one of the charming streams that are a feature of Japanese towns, navigate around a few gorgeous temples fringed by bright autumn foliage then cut back across the river through the shopping district and home. Well, back to the hotel anyway.
Part one complete, we then went out to a modern Kaiseki restaurant for ten courses of exquisitely sculpted seasonal cuisine, an elegant sufficiency of sake and a cab ride home, being honorifically bowed out of the restaurant not only by our own personal waitress but by the receptionist as well. It was, I think, our best meal in Japan and as such I am slightly hesitant to attribute the next 24 hours’ experiences to crushingly overwhelming food poisoning.
It was terrible. I haven’t felt so bad since a bruising introduction to chicken a la banana a few years ago (hello mate!). I won’t go into the fine details, other than to say that Lucy was utterly lovely, looked after me extremely well and I don’t know what I would have done without her.
One other (minor) upside: Japanese toilets truly are world beaters. If you are ever in the situation where you are deciding between going to the loo; being violently, noisily sick; or passing out on the floor I can heartily recommend the self-deodorizing Toto model with the heated seat. That said I would counsel against the interesting water spray features, particularly if you are staying in a hotel with wildly superheated hot water. Ouch.
36 hours later (most of which I spent asleep) I was largely mended and we were on our way. Next stop sumo wrestling and blowfish
From Kathmandu to Kyoto (via Hong Kong), within the space of 3 days.
Kyoto is just a little more refined than Kathmandu. Views are aesthetic; traffic controlled; traders polite; and toilets heated.
Our brains nearly melted.
Japan was actually a late addition to our itinerary – we went there on holiday a few years ago and absolutely loved it, but at least in the first itineration decided against re-visiting (we’ve basically not gone anywhere on this trip that we have both been to before). However, when we changed the itinerary a bit to fit in with leaving later in the year than we had planned, we had to knock some time off some of our earlier countries just due to weather etc. considerations, so we ended up with a “spare” 10 days which we thought could be filled rather nicely with a trip to see the fall foliage in Japan. Now I’ve spent quite some time over the past few years in the States trying to go fall foliage viewing (or “leaf peeping” as it’s rather brilliantly known over there) and have had little to no success – picture the two of us, having driven five hours up into Vermont, standing by a sorry looking faintly pink turning maple tree and frantically trying to persuade ourselves that this is what we’re here to see. No matter though – we love Japan anyway, and in particular we LOVE the food here, so we were extremely excited about it all, and had spent many a happy evening in slightly less sophisticated parts of the world booking our ryokans and salivating at the thought of all that raw fish (or indeed any fish – we’d been landlocked for so long we’d started to forget that you can eat finny things).
Did we see any foliage? OHHHHHHH YES. Finally we got our payday and boy was it worth waiting for. This being Japan, rather than the great displays of thousands of maples in the forest that you get in North America, maples are displayed individually against a background of lesser trees, usually in a famed garden or temple. People come to admire the specific trees – there’s special viewing points and any number of folk taking close up photos of particularly pretty foliage. There’s probably at least a dozen haikus being composed any time you visit a decent maple spot this time of year. Fortunately, having been to Japan last time at the cherry blossom time of year, we know the trick to being able to enjoy all this – get up early, be at the more famous sites at opening time and leave before the tour buses arrive. That way you get your lovely Zen experience, have a happy witter about the ephemerality of all things and compose your haiku without being elbowed out of the way by frail looking Japanese grannies posing for photos (cue cheesy grin and peace sign – we’re not sure why this is the pose de rigeur, but trust me, it is). AND then you get to feel all smug over your lunch time soba.
We had a wonderful couple of days in Kyoto: day one was a rainy day so quietish with a nice stroll in the covered market; day 2 we made up for it, visiting Ginka-kuji (which was a favourite from last time and managed to perhaps be even nicer this time with a gorgeous maple display), then a wander down the Philosopher’s Path stopping at Honen-in (quiet and lovely), Eikan-do (MAPLES!!!!), Nanzen-ji (least favourite) – all before lunch! James then retired hurt (ok, I may have been a little over ambitious), leaving me to head to another few temples in the afternoon, before joining him for a spectacular kai-seki dinner.
Day three unfortunately, James got sick – not sure if this was a reaction to the kai-seki the night before, or a delayed reaction to Hong Kong festivities, but anyway, it kept us both out of action for the next 36 hours or so – and allowed our hotel to rape and pillage us by charging rack rate for an additional night (to add insult, the hotel we should have been at has a 100% payment same day cancellation policy. Ouch. Definitely a contender for our most expensive day on our trip to date). He’s absolutely fine now though and rather excited about the extreme weight loss that he may well have experienced!
All of which left me feeling a little sad….I love Kyoto and we did have a wonderful time there, but there’s definitely some regret at having left the town on a slightly sour note; and without having seen quite a few of the more spectacular sights at this (absolutely beautiful) time of year.
Perfect excuse to come back here again maybe?
Ladies and Gentlemen, we may have found it. Having spent an enjoyable few years conducting what I like (somewhat euphemistically) to call “research” I think we have found a contender for the world’s best bar right now. And I don’t mean the world’s coolest bar – to be frank I would never find out about that, and even if I did they would never let me in. And if they did, that would be the end of their period of cool – seriously, whenever a suited type like me turns up in a bar it is a sure sign the management have decided to cash in their cool chips for high volumes of paying customers instead. (or, as Harpo Marx memorably quipped about joining members clubs – arp arp arp ARP! honk).
Anyway, I digress.
A cocktail-loving friend of mine (hi Cabe!) has a section on his and his now wife’s blog (hi Caroline!) describing (in loving fashion) Old Fashioneds he has met. Now, there are many varieties of Old Fashioneds, most of them sticking to a core of bourbon or rye whisky, orange peel, sugar and bitters, but many also playing around with dark rum, grapefruit peel, cliché cherries, tobacco infusions and the like. I have tried many of them, but I had not to date experienced the following: the waiter plonks a standard, old fashioned Old Fashioned in front of you – perfectly balanced, soft yet punchy with the required overtones of fruit and manliness – and then, with no fanfare, also plonks down a conical flask like your chemistry teacher used to drink out of, corked and full of some kind of heavy smoke. The smoke, you see, is for pouring over the cocktail. And it smells of … golly … marshmallows and fire and autumn, and rich sweetness and sweet richness. And it is heavier than air and it pours, coiling hypnotically out of the flask over your glass and infusing the whole affair with intense flavor and with magic. And it’s incredible.
And they come with more. Centrifuged Bloody Maries (clear – but of course!) and lemongrass-infused vacuum-redistilled gin and tonics, and foamy concoctions bobbing with spherulized Earl Grey tea globules. The bar is covered in chemistry equipment that you are not allowed under New York licensing laws: the partial-vacuum still is a definite invitation to the police where I come from. They are the Heston Blumenthals of cocktailry and they confect, carbonate, combust and combine with the best of them. If you are a fan of cocktails, you HAVE to go.
And I can’t remember the bloody name of the place. You see, we were in Hong Kong with our good friends Kean and Nyree. They extremely generously put us up in their rather swish apartment in Repulse Bay and had put together a cunningly planned itinerary taking in the very best of Hong Kong. We had been 104 floors up in an elegant hotel for hot chocolate, we had seen wet markets and white witches and both sides of that famous skyline from the Star Ferry. And that evening, we had started with hot damn chili crab, chicken feet and two excellent bottles of wine and finished with huge cigars in a hidden speakeasy washed down with “corpse reviver” cocktails (I have no idea). And we were hammered. We blame the months of no drinking, and the jetlag, and the amazing hospitality, and stuff. We got truly and thoroughly Keaned (or, as it is nowadays, Kean & Nyreed). And it was bloody marvellous.
No, I have no photographs of the occasion, or the cocktails. Yes, I could look the bar up in a minute on google, remind myself of the name and tell you all. But that would spoil a good story, wouldn’t it?
And so we fell ignominiously out of the bottom of Tibet and into Nepal.
Our experience in Nepal started much like our experiences in many other places – we successfully negotiated ourselves into a taxi from the border at such a cut price rate that the driver felt obliged not only to pick up a girlfriend of his on our dime (complete with actual, real life, actually projectile puking baby) but also to stop for a puncture, a tire repair and a fifteen minute stop (just five minutes from our hotel) to pick up spare parts for his car. So far so James-&-Lucy travel standard, we thought. In fact, so far so easy, as the wheels actually stayed on the car this time.
But then our ruggedness completely failed us. It’s not that we weren’t trying mind, it’s just that Nepal is so … erm … nice in comparison to some of the other places we have been.
We bounced through Kathmandu (nice hotel; taxis turn up on time; food’s pretty good if you like curry; people speak English; and machetes aren’t a fashion accessory) took a plane to Pokhara (they sell white toblerones at the airport; there is actually an airport; we didn’t have to hire our own plane or anything) and checked into our hotel (honeymoon suite with a balcony for $55; laundry, mineral water and cheap beer within easy reach; working internet; and a sunny roof terrace with a view of the mountains for a spot of yoga). It was all so … convenient. Things worked. There were restaurants near the lake with proper Illy espresso machines. We couldn’t believe it.
So, feeling the need for a bit of rugged, we headed off on our trek. Now, trekking in Nepal has a deserved reputation for being pretty hardcore – the views are spectacular; the accommodation is pretty basic and the treks are steep, high and hard work. Our particular trek to Poon Hill took us over 3,100 meters in five days – well high enough to bring you down with altitude sickness if you’re unlucky. So, as we set off for the mountains (brushing off the street hawkers trying to flog us … warm freshly baked croissants) we were pretty fired up!
Actually … perhaps we were a little too fired up. You see, we had just come from ten days on the Tibetan plateau at altitudes up to 5,000+m. Our easy acclimatization days (complete with a little light jogging) had been in Lhasa above 3,500m, and we were in Nepal because we had balked at the prospect of a Tibetan trek involving ten hour days walking behind yaks over high passes and possibly camping in the snow. So when our guide suggested that we stop after about four hours on the first day we were politely surprised. When our room had a private hot shower we were amazed. And when the restaurants served flaming roast chicken and had bottles of Bordeaux for sale we were shocked.
It was all very pleasant, but it wasn’t really what we were there for. We were as altitude acclimatized as perhaps we will ever be in our entire lives, we had failed at our ambition of hardcore trekking in Tibet and we were on a mission. Our poor, beleaguered guide (who didn’t really help himself, to be honest) kept tacking on bits and pieces of trail as we kept walking further and further each day. He kept trying to hold us back – would we like some tea? Would we like to stop for an early lunch? Would we like to stop for the day at 1pm? – but eventually we simply ran out of trek.
And so, after bashing round his suggested five-to-six day hike in four days we found ourselves back in Pokhara eating delicious vanilla gelato and feeling very happy, if ever so slightly deflated.
Incidentally, Pokhara is where I had my best meal ever, anywhere. I had spent the best part of three months in India as an 18 year old gap year student on £6 a day and due to fine Indian budget cuisine I had lost the best part of three stones in weight (about 42 lbs or 19kg – incidentally, I am doing better this time, and have only lost about one stone). I had just spent three days flat on my back in Varanasi watching dead bodies floating down the Ganges just under my hotel window and being about as sick as it is possible to be without going to hospital. Having come to the slightly teenage and melodramatic decision that if I didn’t get out of India I might die, I hauled on my backpack, crawled on my hands and knees up the steps outside the hotel and caught the first bus to Nepal.
My best meal ever? It was a buffalo burger, chips, coleslaw and a beer in a nameless reggae joint in Pokhara. It was hot, hearty and h-delicious, and I was the happiest man alive. And when I woke up in the middle of the night and was violently sick because my stomach was so unused to food? I was still the happiest man alive – you see, I had stashed a mars bar just in case.