Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Imperial Palace - East Gardens - Gymnasium

The one thing I found interesting in the Imperial Palace East Gardens was the gymnasium. I don't think it was open to the public, but the windows were open and we could hear major shouts and grunts. Initially, we thought it was a basketball match, but soon realised it was probably Kendo or Aikido or some other form of martial arts. By the sound of it, a good way to blow off steam!

Asakusa, more sushi

Asakusa is one of the top tourist attractions in Tokyo. And rightly so - plenty of exotic-looking temples, big crowds at the weekends, touristy shops selling all sorts of cute and colourful knick-knacks, stalls where you can buy handmade cakes, and some really old shops,.... I loved it. I had been there before with Véronique, on one of my work trips to Japan, and it's exactly like I remembered it.

When Brendan and I got there, after a morning spent at the Imperial Palace East Gardens (which was ok, interesting moats, big walls and guard houses, and one nice pond with trees around it and carps in it. But I wouldn't go back), we were hungry, so our priority was to get a bite to eat before we hit the really busy area. High on our success the previous day at Sushi Dai, we decided to walk into a little sushi bar a little away from the buzz, not much larger than Sushi Dai. The only people in there when we walked in were just finishing, and we soon found ourselves all alone. For one moment, we thought, oooh, what are we gonna do? The staff didn't have a word of English, but there was a poster on the wall with pictures of all the main fishes, with an English translation and the Japanese words. So, we went à la carte and bravely ordered our lunch one fish at a time. That's the way it's done. By that time, a good few more Japanese customers had come in, so we didn't feel we stood out too much. And the food was good. We were rightly proud of ourselves for managing so well!

Two tips:

  1. when you come in, just use your fingers to show how many are in your party ("ni mei" for two people)
  2. when you're done and you want the bill, cross the index fingers of both hands just like an X. You'll be given a bill, and you walk to the till to settle. It worked well for us. (Does that count as a Japanese word in my vocabulary?)
  3. I know, this is Tip number 3. I only intended 2 tips. Bring a little notebook with you, with useful phrases, to which you can add as you go along. And put "Sumimasen" (Excuse Me) in front of everything you say.
Now, the vocabulary lesson:

  • Octopus: Tako
  • Tuna roll: Tekkamaki
  • Horse Mackerel: aji (very tasty - each time we had it, it was served with spring onion on top)
  • Tuna: Maguro
  • Fatty Tuna: Toro
  • Red snapper: Tai
  • Salmon roe: Ikura (my personal favourite)
  • Crab salad: Kani sarada
  • Clam miso soup: Akadashi
  • Prawn: Ebi (not to be mixed up with Eki, Station!)
  • Beer: Biru

We spent the afternoon people-watching around the temples and shops in Asakusa: ladies in kimonos, people carrying little dogs dressed in the funniest outfits (e.g. a frog hat?), I tried my luck at the hundred-yen fortune boxes, we watched biscuit-making in some of the stalls, I bought Hello Kitty goodies, and also some gorgeous origami paper in a beautiful paper shop. It was a hot day, and we were glad to get back to our air-conditioned room at the end of it, but it was such a buzz. PS: yes, a lot of people in Japan wear face masks - apparently to stop the spread of germs. Véronique told us she found the masks very useful when the pollen count is high.

I'm sorry I didn't buy this little pair!


Went to the pictures on Sunday. Hanna got some fairly average reviews, but I enjoyed it. OK, it doesn't know what it wants to be - action or arty - contradiction in terms, I know, as the arty scenes are slow and hold the action back. But Saoirse Ronnan is good in it. She certainly holds her own in the presence of Cate Blanchett and Eric Bana.

Overall, it's a kind of a Bourne Identity type movie, except it's a young girl rather than a grown-up man, and there is an innocence about her that's a contrast to her killer instincts; and she knows what's happened to her, rather than trying to put the pieces together. It doesn't go at the pace of the Bourne movies, but it entertained me on a Sunday afternoon.

Evelyn Cusack - 30 May - Black suit with white piping

Lovely black suit last night. And Evelyn was smiling plenty when telling us the weather was going to be warm for the next few days!

A Year in Provence

Just finished reading A Year in Provence. Now I'm longing for the South of France, warm sun, Rosé, fresh bread, good meals, swallows flying over the house, peace and quiet. But never fear, Meat Eireann are forecasting 4 days of warm weather, starting tomorrow!

Monday, May 30, 2011

Things you don't eat at home every day: the best sushi ever - Sushi Dai

So, here we are. We've just left the Tsukiji Market, but we're not sure exactly where we are on the map, let alone where Sushi Dai is. This is our first morning in Japan and my vocabulary is not very extensive, but I'm not going to let that stop me. I find a friendly-looking old man near a temple, and I jump straight in "sumimasen, Sushi Dai wa doko desu ka?" And he gives me an answer. And of course I don't understand a single word, but he points right, and he makes a gesture that represents several tall buildings, so we set off in the general direction. After a further enquiry and even less understanding of the answer, we find ourselves just in front of it.

And the queue isn't too bad - 6 or 8 people ahead of us. That means a waiting time of less than an hour, we hope. Sushi Dai has a reputation. It rates very high on Trip Advisor. Some people say that it's charging well for its reputation with Americans rather than for its food. Well, on the day we were there, we were the only Western tourists, and my guess is that all the other customers were Japanese. They could have been Chinese or Korean, true, but I think they were Japanese. And the food was glorious. Not cheap, yes, but absolutely delicious. I don't think I'll ever be able to have sushi in Ireland ever again. We went for the set meal - omakase - and we were delighted with what the chef presented us with. (There was one Japanese man on his own beside us ordering à la carte, and he got more weird and wonderful choices than the majority of customers, but on our first day, I don't think we were quite ready for that.). Tuna, Horse Mackerel, Sea Urchin, Salmon Roe, tamago omelette, Unagi eel, clam, amongst others. All extraordinarily tasty and fresh. And of course miso soup and green tea.

And the experience was great too - Sushi Dai is a tiny restaurant - you eat at the bar, along with another 12 customers or so. There is no room behind you. And you watch the chefs prepare your food, right in front of your eyes. It was so good, I forgot to take pictures of every dish. Anyways, without a flash, the pictures I took didn't turn out great, so you'll just have to believe me. Best sushi I ever had! And first time I had sushi for breakfast! Sushi Dai is definitely a must do if you're in Tokyo. PS: as there were very few tourists in Japan during our visit (last 2 weeks in April), we only had to queue for 40 minutes. PPS: the Sushi Dail link just above looks like a good food porn blog, if you're into that kind of thing!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Trees in the Botanic gardens

As is often the case, a promising beginning, but I'm not so sure about the end result. My trees are pretty nice, but the red lotus flowers in the water, not so good. And I'm going to have to get rid of the pastel reflections in the water. Rule number one for reflections: they need to be horizontal, unless your water is cascading down! I'll report back once that's done!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Things you don't see at home every day - Tsukiji Market

Jet lag is great when you want to get up early! We woke up before 5 after our first night in Tokyo, and we were full of energy, so we decided to hop on the subway and go to Tsukiji Market, which I believe is the largest fish market in the world. We found our way easily enough (Brendan had checked it out on Google Street View, so he had a good idea which way we were going). And what a buzz! Crossing the street was a take-your-life-in-your-hands experience, with dozens of little gas scooters flying around the place! We didn't get there on time for the tuna auction. To be honest, we didn't even try to go there, as numbers are limited, and it is at times closed to the public. Although we were literally the only Western visitors there, so they probably would have welcomed us with open arms. But there was more than enough to keep us interested in the rest of the market. The market itself is located in a vast warehouse, where hundreds (900 according to Wikipedia!) of small wholesale businesses operate in what looks like chaos but is I'm sure very well organised. The place looks ancient, and it's scary to see electric cables and water running so close. And if you look above the shops, you'll see precarious-looking storage - think your granny's attic. Yet, it all survived recent earthquakes.

And the fish! Weird and wonderful fishes and seashells of all shapes, sizes and colours (though no parrot fish - we saw parrot fish in Harrod's a few years back). And watching the men cutting frozen tuna is something else - it takes 3 men, 2 to hold the tuna at the right angle, and one to cut it with a long saw.

We spent a few hours walking the aisles, avoiding the gas scooters flying through, admiring everything on display. After that, we were hungry. So we went in search of Sushi Dai. And I got to practise my basic Japanese - "Sumimasen, Sushi Dai wa doko desu ka?" But that's a whole other story.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Hokkaido Highway Blues

It's hard to talk about Japan when all I can think of is Véronique. Right now, her friends in Hamamatsu are at the funeral hall for her wake. The funeral will be tomorrow. And I wish I was there. But that can't be, so here I am, and I'm going to tell you all about Hokkaido Highway Blues. Will Ferguson's book about hitchhiking from the Southernmost tip of Japan to the far North is a travelogue. It's full of humour and interesting characters, but I found it's got more heart than a Bill Bryson book. Before embarking on his adventure, Ferguson lived and worked in Japan for a number of years. He seems to have a love/hate relationship with the Japanese - one of his questions is "Are the Japanese arrogant or insecure?" - but by the end of his journey, you get a real sense that he has developed a genuine fondness for the country and its people. I only read this book after I came back from our holiday. Having spent only 2 weeks there, I can't claim a deep knowledge of the Japanese - the fact that one man in a Kyoto Starbucks got up and went to another table when we sat next to him doesn't make all the Japanese xenophobe. And the fact that another man in a Narita Airport Starbucks was quite happy for us to sit beside him doesn't make them all welcoming to foreigners! (And yes, we did go to a few Starbucks on our trip - Brendan loves their coffee, I like their Hot Chocolate (I tried a Macha Latte, but I wasn't that impressed), and it's the perfect spot to rest your legs and watch the world go by.). One of my best friends since I was a teenager is Japanese, and we write to each other regularly, but we've only met each other twice. But after reading this book, I felt I wanted to get to know the Japanese people better. That, surely, is a sign of a worthwhile read.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Trees in the Botanic gardens

It's well over a year since we were in the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin. If you're ever in Dublin as a tourist, it's definitely a place I'd recommend (there is a link to the Google Street View of the gardens on their site if you don't get a chance to go there). It's also a great day out if you just like trees and flowers. We saw it in the spring, with daffodils and magnolias, and it was gorgeous. There is a lot more in it than I would have thought. We should go back, maybe in the autumn.

Anyways, the many photos we took there inspired me greatly. One of my Zazzle designs was drawn from a photograph of succulents in the greenhouse. And I am now coming back to some other pictures that I like.

I'm currently trying to apply some of the tips and techniques I've learned in Powerful Watercolour Landscapes. A lot of the author's advice is about how to bring the focus to your center of interest, using contrast & colour for instance. In my first attempt here, I'm really not sure I succeeded, though I am quite happy with the 2nd tree from the left. But I think that the riot of colours in the pond steals the show! And all the colours are kind of medium in intensity. That's not what I wanted...

So, I'm working on my 2nd attempt already. I'm going to try and focus on the dark water and the red lillies. Stage One is complete - The water is nice and dark. I'm off to a good start! (PS: don't worry about the white bits - they will be the red and green water plants)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Things you don't see at home every day: children running around without supervision

One sight that we found so refreshing in Japan: small children (I'm talking 6-year-olds) running around a park or travelling on the subway on their own. 

Well, first of all, Japanese kids look so cute with their little navy uniforms, their little hats, and their little red leather schoolbag on their backs. 

But what struck us is that they were completely unsupervised. We saw a gang of kids, 5 or 6 little boys and girls, running around the park at Roppongi Hills. They were having a great time. Not a teacher or parent in sight.One of the little girls stopped and greeted us with a happy "Konnichiwa" (Hello). Maybe the teacher was sitting on the other side of the pond, but, if they were, they were certainly keeping a low profile.

In Kyoto, we saw school kids of a similar age getting on the subway on their own, not a bother on them.

Maybe Japan is a lot safer than the rest of the world? Or Japanese parents are more relaxed about things? I wouldn't know. I don't have children. But I found it a wonderful sight!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

In Memoriam - Véronique Even

She was camera-shy, but Brendan managed to get this little clip of her when we went to a karaoke bar in Hamamatsu on the 24th of April 2011. So glad we got to see her!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Things you don't see at home every day: picnics under the cherry blossoms

A month after the earthquake that devastated Japan's Northern coast, the Japanese were getting back to normal in Tokyo when we got there in mid-April.

We arrived just in time to see the last of the Sakura - the cherry blossom season - and the festivities associated with it. Spring and Autumn are the best seasons in Japan - dry and bright, before the heavy rains of Summer and the cold of Winter.

In the cherry blossom season, in early April, the Japanese make the most of the good weather and meet colleagues, friends and family for "hanami", or flower viewing. It's an excuse for a picnic, some drinking, and good cheer, all under the cherry blossoms.

We went to Shinjuku Gyoen park on our first day, and it was thronged with people enjoying themselves. After a month of tragedy and anxiety, they deserved to let their hair down. We were happy for them. We couldn't have wished for a better first day.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Things you don't see at home every day: a nearly empty plane

We had been planning our trip to Japan for a long time. We had arranged to meet old friends. And we felt that if we cancelled now, we might never make it there. But a major earthquake, a deadly tsunami and a nuclear disaster on a par with Chernobyl were serious things to consider. Despite the fact that we had bought non-refundable and non-flexible tickets, British Airways were giving us the option to change our flights. And for a few weeks, we really didn't know what we were going to do. Travel advisories issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs were recommending to avoid non-essential travel to Tokyo.  Family and friends were concerned, of course. But we decided to wait and see how things were developping in Fukushima. We had a month before our travel date, so we felt that time was on our side. About a week before the start of our holiday, the travel advisories were lifted, and Japan didn't make the news on the telly on a daily basis at least. I was reading the daily IAEA update, and things were not getting worse.

So we decided to go. And we had a wonderful holiday. The weather was perfect, the food excellent, and the Japanese friendly. But it looks like we were the only Western tourists there. Our flight was operating at about 1/6th of capacity. Narita airport was nearly empty. There was only one other Western couple on the train platform for the Narita Express. There was no queue for the free observatories on the 45th floor at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building (so we decided to do both the North and South towers). No waiting list for the New York Grill and Bar in the Park Hyatt hotel (of Lost in Translation fame). So, in a way, we felt very privileged to be there, and we made the most of our 2 weeks. We covered most areas of Tokyo, visited every temple in Kyoto, and enjoyed our time with Shinobu and with Véronique. Japan is a wonderful place for a special holiday and I would certainly recommend it.

And the fact that the plane was nearly empty was a bonus for us - though we had 2 side seats, so it didn't really make any actual difference, it felt quieter and more relaxed. With the added drama of the dreadlock girl from Economy who went in for a nap in Business while nobody was looking! But then, they did notice, and she had to go back to her seat! She didn't try it again on the way back. Yes, she was on the same flight as us again - amazing coincidence. Talking of coincidences, I spotted a Japanese girl with a lovely aqua-coloured suitcase with a yellow belt around it in the departures hall at Narita airport while we were waiting for the check-in desks to open. And what did I see on the arrivals luggage carousel in Dublin airport? Yes, the aqua-coloured suitcase with a yellow belt! Of all the places that this Japanese girl could have been travelling to! I hope she enjoys her stay in Ireland as much as we enjoyed ours in Japan!

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Things you don't see at home every day: Little Girl in Kimono

Some of Brendan's photos are just lovely.

Look at this little girl at Meiji Shrine!

Love and Other Drugs

No long-haul flight without its share of movies of course. Though I have to say the flight to Japan went really quickly, as they turned off the lights quite early on and most people tried to get a bit of sleep.

The only movie I managed to catch on the way out is Love and Other Drugs with Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway. He is a drug rep with a talent for making women love him, and she is an artist with early-onset Parkinsons. Sounds like a tear-jerker. But it's not (well, a little.). I thought Hathaway gave her character a lot of oomph. While the fact that she's got a serious condition is central to the story, she's not a "poor me" woman.

I thought it was just the kind of love story like they don't make them any more. It's messy, it's serious, it's passionate, it's funny. Just the way I like them.

And apparently, it's a big a deal that Anne Hathaway shows her boobies and Jake Gyllenhaal, his bottom!
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Saturday, May 07, 2011

Things you don't see at home every day: hot drinks from vending machines

Another "Only in Japan" moment - we were on the platform at Narita airport, having just arrived, waiting for the Narita Express train into Tokyo, when I decided to get a drink from a vending machine - I chose a green tea bottle, expecting a cool refreshing drink. But the bottle that came rolling down the machine was hot. It was hot tea. Excellent, I enjoyed it. The thing is that, after that, we couldn't figure out how to get hot tea again! Until we were told that the hot beverages have a red sign, and the cold ones a blue sign. It does make sense after all.

Another time, we thought we were getting water (the drink was called Aquarius or something like that), but it turned out to be more like a lucozade drink. It was actually quite nice and refreshing.

It would have helped if we had found some explanation of the various items in vending machines before our travels. I just came across a Flickr picture with hovers over each of the items!

We'll know for again. At least we didn't end up with hot corn soup by mistake!

And if you're curious what these vending machines look like on the inside, now you know!

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Things you don't see at home every day: baby octopus on a lollypop stick

Don't they look gorgeous? Until you realise that they are baby octopi! Poor little babbies! These are one of the many strange and wonderful delicacies you will find in Nishiki market in Kyoto. (No, I didn't try them! I did eat baby squid, baby shrimp and baby eel in sushi restaurants, though, very tasty.)

And here is a close-up, just in case you don't believe me:

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Things you don't see at home every day: trains that run on time

And when I say "on time", it means to the minute, or probably even to the second. Apparently, the average arrival time is within 6 seconds of the scheduled time! I don't wear a watch, so I can't say for sure, but what we saw of the train network in Japan is just so efficient, it puts Irish Rail to shame. And I wonder how many "fact-finding missions" to Japan our civil servants from the Department of Transport and Irish Rail officials have been on to discover the secret to the Japanese punctuality and efficiency. I'll say "no need to waste any more tax payers' money". It's simple - the Japanese take pride in their work. Even the train cleaners, who line up at Tokyo station to clean the shinkansen train in their pink and blue uniforms to ensure that everything is perfect for the fresh batch of passengers about to embark on their journey. When's the last time you've seen an Irish Rail staff cleaning the train before you got on? Or a train driver wearing his/her uniform with the same pride as an airline pilot?

OK, the shinkansen is not cheap, but it's a great way to travel around the country. And the per-mile cost is probably not much more than Irish Rail!

It was such a buzz the first day we took the train to Kyoto from Tokyo station. We were in a waiting room downstairs, and I decided to go up on the platform to do a recce (I really wasn't sure how this word was spelt, but it appears in Wikipedia, so it must be right).

First of all, the platform goes on forever - there are 16 cars on a shinkansen (with a total capacity of 1300 passengers!). When a train goes by, it takes minutes. It goes on and on. There are trains coming and going the whole time (again according to Wikipedia "Between Tokyo and Osaka, the two largest metropolises in Japan, up to ten trains per hour ").

And when a train arrives, there is a whole cleaning crew on the ready - the passengers get off the train, the crews get on, turn the seats around, make sure everything is clean (which is not hard, as the Japanese don't leave garbage behind  - a Japanese person would be horrified at the state of the cinemas in Dundrum after a show - popcorn everywhere and sticky floors), they are done within 7-8 minutes, then the next set of passengers, already lined up at designated points on the platform, get on, and the train is gone again. Amazing. I had to film it. And Brendan had to film it too. We just couldn't believe our eyes. Limerick Junction, eat your heart out!

And the trains are comfortable, fast, silent (no one yapping into a mobile phone - the Japanese respect their fellow passengers), you can buy food and drinks, or otherwise relax. Now, the scenery between Tokyo and Kyoto isn't great - it's mostly industrial and sub-urban sprawl, with a few green bits in between (some rice fields, some tea plantations, a glimpse of Mount Fuji, and we also saw the Sanyo solar ark, but not much else). But you're in Kyoto in just over 2 hours, relaxed and ready to start exploring the minute you're out of the station (Now, finding your way around and out of the station is another matter - Kyoto station is huge. Not quite as big as Nagoya station, which apparently is the largest in the world. But it took me a while to figure my way around. Thank god, I had Brendan with me.)

Great information on the Japan-Guide.com website by the way. And just in case you're worried, all signs on the platforms and on the trains are in English as well, so it's really easy. And even local trains have signs in English on the platforms, so no fear of getting lost. We went from Nagoya to Hamamatsu on a local train with a change at Toyohashi, as it was cheaper than the Shinkansen. As we were travelling on a Sunday, there was no problem with our suitcases. We just left them behind the last seats in the car.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Daffodils - Take 2 - Final Result

Some projects take longer than others. Daffodils - Take 2 was playing on my mind even while we were on holidays. I knew I had to face it, and I knew it wouldn't be easy. I had lost some of the light in the centre of the flower, and watercolours are completely unforgiving in those situations. But then, I found a solution in a book I'm reading: pastels! Now the centre of the daffodil looks more like a nasturtium, but it's pretty all the same. I'm done.

Things you don't see at home every day: Green Tea Ice Cream

OK, it's not quite as tasty as Ben&Jerry's Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, but Green Tea ice cream tastes better than you'd think. Very refreshing after a long walk on a hot summer's day!

I also tried the Haagen Dazs variety - a green tea cookie flavour that I would have again if it was available here.


Bracing day at Greystones today - don't be fooled by the glorious sunshine. Temperatures didn't go above 13 degrees and the Easterly wind was sharp. But a perfect day for wave watching!

Sunday, May 01, 2011