Japan

Sapporo Yuki Matsuri / Snow Festival 2018

The Yuki Matsuri in Sapporo is pretty incredible. I wholeheartedly recommend that anybody who is able to go find a way to visit. Yes, it’s very, very cold – especially when the snow’s falling – but it’s quite the spectacle. The simple idea of getting together (whether as students, a military organisation or as volunteers) to build large snow sculptures is simple but has so much potential for wonderful things on a large scale. I’m extremely pleased to have come and we were lucky with sunny weather (with a few heavy bursts of snow). Here are the pics, starting with ones with my mug in ’em!

The centrepiece this year commemorates the 90th anniversary of Tezuka Osamu’s birth. Great for an animation fan like me! Of course, Atomu (Astro Boy) is front and centre, but Kimba, Black Jack and Sapphire are also impressively-rendered. This building-sized sculpture was pretty impressive to look at, even if some international visitors (like my parents) were a bit nonplussed by something this cutesy being so central.

Another main attraction is the huge promotion for Final Fantasy XIV. It’s amazing how it was made with this maw suspended far out from the main part, and at night it really gets impressive thanks to projection. Here I’m a little concerned something is going to get me.

Hatsune Miku is a big deal in Sapporo, where Crypton are based. She adorns the trams and her music plays in the covered shopping streets. This is also where the Snow Mikus are released each year, and this one was a cute one. Though I may not be fan enough to have signed up for the live event or to join the long queues for merchandise, I was happy to take this pic. Even if it’s really unflattering haha.

There’s an annual competition between countries for the best snow sculpture on a smaller scale. This was Thailand’s entry, and was the winner. It was so much better than all the other sculptures except Macau's (which was also lovely) that it was the only one I wanted to pose in front of – even before the winners were announced. Amazing skill, making me wonder where else this Thai artist can display his expertise.

Plenty of other animation characters featured, including those incorrigible Osomatsus.

But honestly, there were altogether too many minions. I guess they’re very easy to sculpt, what with being just little pill-shaped blobs.

Not the first sculpture anyone sees, nor in any way the best, this nonetheless usefully has 'Sapporo' in it

Mum, and the little kids around, liked Olaf

This baby liked Anpanman. Not sure about the Mario behind!

Another angle of the winning piece

Mainland China's entry wasn't bad (unlike my photography)

Minions make a friend

This Star Wars effort was in what must have been the amateurs' section

Without the label I don't think I'd have known this was Pikachu

Let's go back to the professional sculptures with this superb rendition of the Daikoudou at Yakushi-ji, Nara

A brass band played for us while we were there. Seemed like a recipe for frostbitten lips to me...

the Daikoudou from the front

A more detailed image of the huge Final Fantasy sculpture.

A large rendition of the old Taichung Station in Taiwan...which seemed an odd choice but was nice to see before we head to the country

Another nice large sculpture - of a slightly squashed-down Stockholm Cathedral. I think the statue outside was the most impressive

Little kids love School Idol Project!

Frogs and owls seem extremely popular right now in Japan. No bad thing!

Not sure who this fellow is but he was nicely-sculpted.

Some cute Kemono Friends

One of the best small sculptures, beautifully done

Another pic of Tezuka sculpture without my phizog ruining it

Fishies! This was the impressive Macau entry to the competition. Getting that shape not to collapse is quite a feat

Indonesia's entry was quite well-done too

Here are the winners with their creation!

This one was simply titled Dragonball

Noisy owls

This was a nice mash-up. Jibanyan should totally ride in the nekobus

Snoopy is still popular as ever

I appreciate this one at least trying with the human Despicable Me characters

A more general layout pic of the small sculptures

I feel like I recognise this guy...but don't know why. He's well-sculpted anyhow

The cutesy local TV mascot

And this crazy cute little sheep

There was certainly a commercial element to some of the park, but if the artistry was good it didn't matter so much

On now to the Susukino site for the ice sculptures. Not as amazing as the snow sculptures but still well worth the walk

Best seen at dusk, the ice sculptures are also very impressive but somehow less so than the snow, perhaps because you can see the construction more easily, or perhaps because they're transparent...

Some ice sculptures are still very impressive, with a lot of detail

Ice mermaid

I respect this one for choosing an odder subject than most - a clown with a bird on his foot

Lovely fish

Some look beautifully fragile

Frogs!

Impressive unicorn

There was plenty more to see at night:

The Final Fantasy XIV piece came to life spectacularly, with an epic battle taking place with lots of flame and lightning effects

Naturally, good prevails over evil!

Taichung station looks rather more impressive illuminated

And Stockholm Cathedral got some rather odd little animal shapes

Sadly no projected action for the Astro Boy piece

But the Nara hall got by far the most impressive light show

Colourful!

And appropriately, plenty of Buddhist imagery

       

Fine Dining – Ryugin / 龍吟 (3 Michelin Stars)

Mum and Dad love their fine dining, so with them visiting me in Tokyo I had to take them somewhere special. Last time I took them to 3-Michelin-Starred Ishikawa, making a vlog about it that now makes me cringe. This time, another kaiseki restaurant that was in some ways very similar and in some ways extremely different. This time, I took them to Roppongi’s Ryugin, meaning ‘Dragon Song’, or at a stretch ‘Dragon’s Poetry Recital’, down a quiet road in the shadow of the imposing Roppongi Hills complex.

Ishikawa was more of an ultra-traditional kaiseki meal, whereas Ryugin has more of a modern twist, in cooking and experience alike. Neither was better than the other, and both had flaws as well as strengths, but both were certainly superb dining experiences and offered some of the best flavours I’ve ever enjoyed.

The primary difference between the two kaiseki restaurants was in service style. In Ishikawa we ate in a private room with each course brought through to us individually. It was nice to have very attentive service and privacy, but an open, western-style dining room like Ryugin’s is more comfortable for us and feels inclusive. It’s fun to see what others are getting and to relax in the wash of noise from other people’s chatter. We decided to start with nihonshu (saké), and I played it safe by ordering Nishida Denshu, which I know to be high-quality.

One interesting thing about Ryugin is the importance given to crafts and receptacles. We were given a choice of glasses to use, and they looked not dissimilar to fine jewels. The nihonshu itself was easy to drink, rich in flavour and complimented almost every course well, though perhaps was a bit indelicate to match with fish.

With ingredients drawn from around Japan, there was something very fitting about the first course – chawanmushi savory custard with eggs from Ibaraki (where we went earlier), yuba, or tofu skimmings, from Tokyo (where we were dining) and herring from Hokkaido (where we’re going soon). This was a lovely start, the chawanmushi extremely tasty but the herring in particular better-prepared than I’ve ever had the fish before, and a real pleasure to eat.

Our next dish came covered, with the kind staff freely conversing with us in English, except when I asked something in Japanese. It’s really the level of service that sets 3-Michelin-starred restaurants apart, and the staff here were excellent throughout, not only with us but with other tables nearby who were treated with courtesy but friendliness too.

The dish turned out to be crab with a topping of uni, or sea urchin. The crab was tasty but it was the uni that elevated the dish, the sweetness and creaminess defining the overall flavour. I’m never sure about uni, but when I actually eat it I don’t know why I don’t eat more. Well, Hokkaido’s the place to eat it so I’d better have some there!

The soup course was inventively served in a teapot, with tile fish and little prawn dumplings evocative of Chinese har gao, and an emphasis on the soup being made with water from Mt Fuji – which we were also given bottled as gifts at the end of the meal. The dumpling was very pleasant and while I never really think soup is a meal’s highlight, this was a solid addition to a strong menu.

 

For us, the meal faltered a little on the sashimi courses, which were much more pleasant at Ishikawa. ‘A Message from the Coast of Japan’ is one of the signature dishes of the restaurant, but this was a stripped down version with two kinds of fish rather than seven. And the first was fugu. I’ve had fugu raw before (as nigiri-zushi) and didn’t like it. It’s chewy and has no strong flavour that I enjoy. Here there were not only thin slices of fugu that were little better here than in the cheap Dotonbori restaurant I sampled the fish before, but scraps of fugu skin and flesh too. The yuzu dip was nice but I just can’t get on with blowfish sashimi. Perhaps I just have a very unsophisticated sashimi palate.

Next was more sashimi, this time stripe bonito. It wasn’t unpleasant like the fugu, but as sashimi it wasn’t what I would call delicious. I like the Western staples of tuna and salmon when it comes to sashimi, and might just be too inexperienced to enjoy this sort of fish, but generally I much prefer bold, simple flavours in my raw fish.

Somen noodles topped with shark’s fin followed. The somen was delicious, with a strong savoury flavour, but I wasn’t convinced by the shark’s fin. It’s something I’ve tried before, in China, and while its texture is very interesting in the mouth, it’s ultimately little more than an add-on to what it accompanies, rather tasteless on its own, and its production is so wasteful and cruel that I really could do without it. I’d much rather have just had the expertly-cooked somen.

Charcoal-grilled perch put things firmly back on track for me, with a grilled fish that was made delicious by the crispy skin. I’ve not had much perch before but I think I ought to try it again sometime.

The venison was an unusual choice in Japan and not quite as nice as Ishikawa’s duck, but was still quite delicious and well-judged in its sparse, somewhat hard accompaniments. The dish was tied together well, but perhaps could have done with some sort of sauce to bring a richer aftertaste.

Once again, rice followed the meat separately. Unlike in Ishikawa, I didn’t feel it was a shame meat and rice were separated, because the rice was cooked with pheasant and accompanied by miso soup this time. On the other hand, the rice wasn’t remarkable for its deliciousness like Ishikawa’s (harvested and cooked the same day), but was actually rather bland.

No such complaints for the desserts, which were by far the best I’ve had in Japan. The first was a little baby mandarin with milk tea ice cream and amazing little crunchy bits of sugar and pepper mixed together. The fruit was a little tart and the small granules were very sweet and the ice cream was in the middle but cold and creamy too, and they all wove together in the most wonderful and changeable way.

But that dish paled beside the superb final course, saké-based desserts served two ways – a hot soufflé and a cold ice cream with little meringue pearls. This was the most delicious meal, with the soft soufflé and the creamy, very slightly tangy ice cream matching one another so perfectly. I was by this time rather full, but could have happily eaten ten more such desserts. A very memorable highlight!

After that, just some matcha to round everything off, and gifts of the chopsticks we’d used, the fun dragon-themed placemats and the water from Mount Fuji. A less traditional but more casual and relaxed experience than Ishikawa, and a very fine companion, this meal excelled in starters and desserts and showcased high-quality Japanese cuisine from beginning to end.

Tokyo, Sapporo and Kaohsiung 2018

(Currently being updated day by day!) This year's family trip promises to be a really fun one. Mum and Dad watched Joanna Lumley visit Sapporo for the Yuki Matsuri during her lovely travel programme about Japan, and thought it would be nice to visit too. By happy coincidence, Chinese New Year is soon after, so we can go from the freezing temperatures of Hokkaido to the tropical heat of southern Taiwan to see family there. Here's a day-by-day account of an amazing couple of weeks!

On day one, Mum and Dad arrived from England. Of course, on a travel day nothing too taxing was in order. So I met them at the airport, we came home and got them settled in, then after they had a nap we had a walk around the local area. Then for dinner we went to the local Anrakutei yakiniku restaurant - where you cook your own meat on a charcoal grill in Japan's spin on Korean barbecue. A great start - but the really remarkable activities start tomorrow!

On Mum and Dad’s first full day in Tokyo, the skies were blue and it was a little warmer than it has been lately. So a trip was in order. It’s something of a tradition for my family to go and look at large Buddhas – mostly because one of the things to do on a trip to visit my relatives in Taiwan is to go to Fo Guang Shan. Looking up the tallest statues in the world, I realised that the Ushiku Daibutsu, the record holder from 1993 to 2002 and the current world #3, was just an hour and a half away in Ibaraki-ken. And it’s 2 2/3 times the size of the standing Buddha at Fo Guang Shan. So we decided to go. A couple of bus and train rides later, we were in Ushiku (haha ‘Cow for a long time’) and staring up at this colossal figure. Set in beautiful landscaped gardens (with a silly little petting zoo) it’s quite a marvel and well worth the trip just to get an idea of the scale of the thing. Then we went inside…

While not quite as psychedelic as I’d been led to expect, it’s a strange experience inside the Buddha, with very dated theme park-style effects on the ground floor, but more conventional Buddhist devotional elements above, and a rather nice viewing platform level where Skytree could be glimpsed as a long smudge on the horizon. There was a room full of small golden Buddhas that can be dedicated to a family or individual’s name just like in Fo Guang Shan, some educational material, and, most interestingly, displays detailing the engineering behind constructing this vast statue. Fascinating and well worth the trip. More frequent bus services would surely help this tourist attraction to thrive. (Oh, and I got my first 2000円 note!)

That evening, a trip to 3-Michelin-Starred restaurant Ryugin, which was pretty amazing. Click the picture for a dedicated blog entry for that meal!

On Mum and Dad’s second full day here, we had another fantastic meal – this time in Shinjuku’s Park Hyatt hotel, well-known as the setting for Lost in Translation. Up on the 52nd floor is the New York Grill, with fantastic panoramic views of the city and superb food. I wasn’t quite sure about taking them to somewhere so conspicuously non-Japanese, but the crucial part was that it serves celebrated Japanese wagyu – most famously from Kobe. It’s not cheap but that’s what we opted for, and the meal was absolutely superb. The buffet for starter and dessert was excellent, far higher-quality than any other similar buffet I’ve ever had, and this was the first time I had really good bread in Japan. But the steak was phenomenal. Alongside the tournedos I had at La Côte Vermeille in Port Vendres, I think it’s the best steak I ever had. Marbled with fat that made it so juicy and gave it such a perfect aftertaste, I would happily eat ten of them!

To Sapporo! Wednesday was a travel day, so we just had a light lunch of sukiyaki and Japanese curry at Sukiya, then headed to the airport. The flight was a short hop but the bus ride to our hotel took almost as long, so we only glimpsed the famous sights of Sapporo – the TV tower, the clock tower and one of the ice sculptures. Tomorrow we have a good explore and get into the Snow Festival spirit! Too bad there’re so many people that the restaurants we wanted to book are all full. Nonetheless, today we ate in one of the hotel’s restaurants, where they served tasty Japanese teishoku on huge, beautifully-arranged trays. Plus the Hokkaido-only classic Sapporo beer of course!

The next day we well and truly explored the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri - which was great. Click the pic above, of me and Dad in front of the landmark TV Tower, for a full entry.

Sapporo food - miso ramen, seafood teishoku and hairy crab - which doesn't look particularly appetising I have to say

I forgot to mention yesterday, but we went to Akarenga, or ‘Red-Brick’, the old Sapporo government building. The garden and the façade were very pleasant to look at, and there were interesting displays inside revolving around the local sense of identity and Sapporo’s place in Japanese culture – celebrations of prehistoric Joumon artwork, a timeline of progress made over the disputed islands xRussia claimed sovereignty over, and most interestingly the exhibits that were a mix of celebration, documentation and contrition about the Ainu, whose culture was suppressed and essentially stamped out when the Japanese moved to make Hokkaido definitively theirs. Certainly an interesting place to visit, even if I’d have to fact-check most of what I read there.

Sapporo Day 3's lunch was another Hokkaidou speciality, soup curry! It’s a pretty tasty concoction and I enjoyed the belly pork version a lot, but it’s not up there with ramen or laksa or Thai curry. Nice to try but I won’t be seeking it out in Tokyo. Afterwards we had soft serve made with Hokkaidou milk, which was very nice. I had mine with Hokkaidou melon topping. Mum had it with azuki / red bean paste, and loved it so much she wants to go back tomorrow!

In the morning, we had a nice long walk to the Hokkaidou Jingu, or Hokkaido Shrine. It, as well as the grounds surrounding it, is a very pretty place in the snow. They also had a rather pretty display of Hina Matsuri dolls. Rode the subway back, where the youth of the city is shown by the unimaginative place names in Japanese – ‘Big Avenue, ‘White Stone’, ‘High Station’ and far too many variations on things like ‘West 5th District’. An old city like Tokyo has all sorts of interestingly-named places like ‘Tea Water’, ‘Doll Town’ and ‘Two Countries’…

At night the Akarenga lights up! We went there first and then to the Snow Festival for the night-time experience. Click above for another link to my Snow Festival pic post!

Tonight’s dinner was a crab extravaganza! Often recommended as delicious in Hokkaido, it was difficult to get to a specialist place during the busy festival. But the concierge managed to book us a table at Sekkatei, which was perhaps a little more refined than the chain restaurants, though perhaps less fun too. But it was still very enjoyable to have crab served seven different ways – hairy crab, crab hot pot, king crab boiled and then served sashimi-style, crab tempura, crab siu-mai, crab in rice porridge and crab in a strew heated by candle – followed by a delicious yuzu sorbet. The service was also impeccably friendly, and the restaurant very pretty with mini zen gardens throughout. Crab isn’t my favourite but Mum loves it so I was happy to have a chance to show her this.

Sapporo day 3: Sapporo beer museum is a great place to tick off two must-do-in-Sapporo boxes. First, visiting the museum itself, the former brewery originally built as a sugar factory in 1890. Secondly, eating local specialty ‘Ghengis Khan’. The building itself is a nice English bond red-brick factory that could easily stand in the historical industrial district anywhere in the US or Western Europe. Inside is a fairly detailed account of the history of the Sapporo company, reproductions of pleasantly twee older advertisements, and some equipment left from the brewery days. There was ample translation into different languages, and we probably did well going early, because during the Yuki Matsuri, the place purportedly gets very busy!

Lunch was Ghengis Khan, or to use the katakana version, Jingisukan. which I thought was derived from the Taiwanese ‘Mongolian Barbeque’, but actually predates it and probably inspired it. Neither have much to do with Mongolia other than centring on mutton, which I actually wasn’t aware of. With as much as we could eat, we really chowed down. It’s very similar to yakiniku or teppanyaki or indeed Mongolian Barbeque, but very delicious. It’s really the dipping sauce that makes it so good, and while it was fun to eat in a big hall full of other diners, that many people cooking lamb on a dome-shaped skillet definitely makes the air smoky and oily! I also tried Ribbon Citron, Sapporo Beer’s soft drink (and also the reason the retro adverts have a few aimed at kids). It mostly tasted like Irn Bru.

One last tourist stop in Sapporo - the city's oldest building, the clock tower! Sweet little exhibition inside where they tried hard with English for a while before giving up. Boys, be ambitious!!

Back to Tokyo, with enough time after the flight to have a walk from Ueno to Asakusa and get some tasty tempura!

The Edo Tokyo Architectural Museum, which we visited today in pleasant winter sunshine, is like a zoo – only instead of animal exhibits, there are buildings from Tokyo’s history (though generally not, as the name may suggest, from the Edo period – an ‘old’ house in Tokyo can be about 50 years old and it’s kind of weird that I grew up in a house twice as old as most of the ones we visited as museum exhibits today!). Some are strange novelties, like huge residences foreigners built for themselves in Western style, and some are more ordinary farmers’ houses with thatched roofs and what would no doubt have been freezing cold interiors in winter. A couple are enormous mansions built for the kids of industrialists or politicians, which gave me house envy and had some extremely beautiful fixtures. Then there was a very interesting road of commercial buildings, some of them beautiful, some hideous, and some beautiful in their hideousness. All were staffed with enthusiastic elderly volunteers, who did their best to explain things in English and made the visit much more pleasant. We’ve already decided to come again next year to see what we missed and the houses under refurbishment!

Dinner was at Seryna Shinjuku, or more precisely in their amusingly-named teppanyaki section, ‘Mon Cher Ton Ton’. Silly name aside, this was the second time we dined on the 52nd floor of a Shinjuku restaurant this trip, this time in the Sumitomo Building. At the New York Grill we looked east to the Skytree and Chiba, but this time we looked West to Mt. Fuji – a magical sight as the sun went down, even if I know that part of town less well and could only recognise Nakano by sight. The food was fantastic – a set menu of sashimi, lobster, sirloin steak and a variety of other smaller, delicious dishes. Unlike the gimmicky Teppanyaki of the west, all onion steam trains and flipping food into people’s mouths (fun though that is), this was a serious affair with very high-quality ingredients and tasted superb. Because we ate early it was very quiet, and I wonder what it’s like when it’s bustling.

Dessert was a delicious little crème brulée, the first one I’ve had in Japan and very agreeable indeed. But more interesting was the whiskey I had to finish – 12-year-old Yamazaki single malt. Japan’s whiskeys are now world-class, and while it will take a lot to shake my favourite Scotches, this smooth and honey-tinged flavour was definitely a match for any but my very favourites like Caol Ila and higher-end Macallan.

Last day in Japan for a while! We had one more meal before heading to the airport – soba at one of the station restaurants.
Had a bit of a crisis as I left my backpack on the train. Luckily I had the station office attendant call the other terminal to locate it and then could go and pick it up. Definitely unneeded stress but in the end it worked out well. Would have been pretty tricky with no Japanese, though, since the station staff didn’t speak any English.
The flight was very comfortable and our meal was tasty. Had time for two movies, and should have the same for the return journey – though it’s a fair bit shorter. The extended family met us at the airport and we all went together to our hotel, the Lee’s Boutique. It’s a bit old and has some very odd art choices, the fridge is noisy and the mattress isn’t the most comfortable, but it’s spacious, well-decorated, warm and cosy. I will enjoy spending the next few days here, though I really have to get on with my writing!

Typically weird Taiwan! Bao and chicken nuggets for breakfast, watched over by a big froggy, then on the MRT with imitation anime information signs, followed by nice old steam trains on display and the hipster gentrified neighborhood we went to before with all the artworks - and finally a nice custard tart. Also visited Grandma in hospital, who we like to think managed to recognize us.

First big meal in Taiwan - a feast of dishes meant to symbolise long life and prosperity for the new year! Lots of fried things and bold flavors to remind me that Japanese and Chinese cuisines are so very different. Chinese food revolves around bold tastes and no subtlety whatsoever. We've eaten better food in the same Hong Kong style restaurant, but they had to prepare a huge amount of food to cope with the crowds for New Year's Eve.

To the museum part of the Fo Guang Shan monastery on the 16th for the New Year celebrations! There were lots of cute dog decorations about. We did similar to last time, going to the twee Life of Buddha exhibit and looking at the large seated Buddha - though it's not on the scale of the Ushiku Daibutsu. Then we had a vegetarian meal - most of the best vegetarian meal I've had have been in monasteries, and this one was also good, but unfortunately I had an allergic reaction to something in there and had a couple of hours of pain, nausea, swelling and difficulty swallowing. Yikes! Recovered after a while, though.
(Click the pic to read about my last visit to this monastery)

Because it's Chinese New Year, there was also a lot of revelry! The best part was the lion dance at the entrance, but there was also a cute parade and then a free short acrobatics and circus skills demonstration. The Chinese (and Taiwanese) usually do circus skills extremely well and this was no exception, with plate-spinning, tumblers jumping between human pyramids on bikes and most impressively, juggling large pots and tables using the feet!

While visiting this monastery is usually a fairly sober occasion with some surreal twee parts, the weirdness was ramped up this time for New Year. We discovered knock-off Pokémon lanterns, dabbing dog lanterns, a big money king statue and even a very peeved and possibly neglected live ostrich. I had to start to wonder if this was all an allergen-triggered hallucination!

Dim sum feast tonight, my favorite meal in Taiwan so far, even though we weren't very hungry yet. Nice char siu bao and Xiao long bao! Plus sashimi thrown in for my Japan-loving cousins! Then a walk by the Ai-he, the Love River, though their lantern festival doesn't start till the 18th. The lantern of their mayor is funny and cute! Night markets have sprung up everywhere for New Year and it's a great time to be in the city. So different from the visits when I was a kid!

A little quieter the next day. Visited Grandpa's grave to pay respects, then headed to Pingtung City in the neighboring Pingtung county for a great Szechuan-style spicy noodle dish. I could sense the origins of ramen there! This evening, another huge meal in a restaurant we've visited before with a very nice decor including a somewhat temple-like roof. In the evening, went to the night market for clothes, though it’s gotten a lot more tame recently. There’s still one shop I always like, and they actually had the jeans I used to like so much, so I got another pair, plus two new tops.
Tomorrow I really really need to get some writing done.

                           

House Tour!

It’s time to have a little house tour! Since April I’ve been living in this nice little house in an outer suburb of Tokyo. While it’s a fair bit smaller than the house I grew up in, it’s many times the size of the little apartment I lived in when I first came to Japan and it feels just about the perfect size for me! You just about see my little hyousatsu (house nameplate) on the left next to the post box.

This is the hallway, which as you can probably see is long and thin! It used to end in a washbasin, which was a bit bizarre, so I put in the mirrored door at the end.

A long corridor means a lot of spaces for pictures. I have lots now, but need more! Also, this sliding door leading to the living room is a nice one.

This is the main part of the living room, where my mail-order sofa is set up in front of the TV.

Here’s the TV, and some calligraphy from Fo Guang Shan monastery in Taiwan. Also a froggy humidifier than generally lives in the piano room but is in this room for winter. Bit cutesy for the room’s mood but useful for making the air less dry!

In the corner are two fish tanks for my axolotls. They get fancy lighting and lots of fans to keep them cool in summer.

Other fish tanks are on chests of draws next to the sofa. Normally the top one is in the piano room, but in winter I’ve got it and a couple of other tanks in the living room so I don’t have to keep two rooms heated 24/7.

And below the axies, my turtles live. One day when they’re bigger they’ll need a much bigger tank!

Looking the other way, there’s a desk with two more tanks that don’t live here, and a view to the next room – which is probably the nicest one!

This is my ‘Japanese room’, the least cluttered, most relaxing space. You can see the ‘Toko no Ma’ in the background, with calligraphy my parents gave me as a gift when I moved to Japan. At the centre, a traditional kotatsu, which I don’t put into storage in summer. I just like the way it looks!

In the corner is a nice go-ban, a board for playing go. I can play, but I’m very weak because I never really had anyone to play with (The Cambridge go club were friendly but rather elitist, so there was no real place for anyone between total beginner getting an introduction and shodan). But if anyone wants to play I can, and it just looks nice.

On the other side of the house is the kitchen. It’s the most dated part of the house and nothing special, but after having the tiniest little kitchenette in my Shinjuku apartment, having a big fridge and space to cook is bliss!

Space to cook…and a nice big fridge. Can’t beat it after having one that fit, like, a single six-pack. With no freezer.

Off the kitchen is the piano room, or music room. For obvious reasons – it has a piano in it! It needs a service but I asked for it to be left in the house when I moved in, and the previous owner was probably happy to oblige given what a pain it would be to get rid of.

Opposite the piano are some more tanks for frogs. These ones are currently empty, though, as everyone is in the other room for winter.

On the other side of the kitchen is the bathroom. Might not look it here but it’s quite modern. It has lots of buttons that talk to you, which was all a bit confusing at first!

Attached to the bathroom is this toilet. Nice dark wood…but more importantly, it’s a Pokémon toilet!

A closer view of the mirrored door at the end, with the kanji ‘kokoro’, meaning ‘heart’ or, figuratively, ‘soul’ above.

The final downstairs room is my study. It’s definitely not minimalist! It’s my private little space so it’s also where I let my geekiness flow freely. And it is very, very geeky.

The top of my drawers is covered with figures. A LOT of them. So many the collection is more or less complete and I have to try not to get any more. Do you recognise any?

You may have also noticed a large figure. In fact, this is my BJD, Oliver. Probably the biggest indulgence I got when I made a lot of money from cryptocurrencies last year, along with my gaming laptop. Isn’t he pretty and just a little spooky?

There’s also a whole shelf for Kagamines. Almost all Lens, but there’s one wee tiny Rin there as well.

Another couple of shelves have more impressive figures or characters I particularly like. There are also Sora figurines all around the room, on the speakers from the nice surround system I have here.

This is my sorta artsy cabinet. Very fashionable, you know. Actually fashioned out of old crappy cabinets we had but I didn’t want to waste. Some arty things, flowers, and then important things for me: my books, my band’s CD, the DVD of the music video I did for SMAP, some of the nicer figurine boxes, and then two figures that are large but delicate and honestly not my favourites ever, but pretty good for feeling these spaces.

Finally for this room, my wall of anime cels. I intend to get some more of these when I have money to spare. For now, two titles are represented: the old Nippon Animation version of HunterxHunter, and Psychic Force, which (via its game intro) got me into anime in the first place. They don’t make these any more, as the process is digital, so I should really get more while I can. I plan to get cels from Cardcaptor Sakura, Evangelion and Ghibli movies when I can.

Narrow corridor leads to narrow stairs! These are a tad steep but hey, it allows for bigger rooms. Or at least, bigger closets. Japanese closets are HUGE.

You could no doubt see that there’s a big picture of London up there. It doesn’t come across in pictures how HUGE this thing is. It’s massive! I got it as a gift from someone who couldn’t have it in their home, and I’m happy I took it. It’s not only striking, it reminds me of home.

Here’s my bedroom! Nice double bed, and not that much room for anything else, though with drawers and wardrobes it looks tighter than it is. I’ll probably eventually replace the tatami but there’s nothing wrong with it!

From my bed, you can see my projector screen. Again, I hooked up speakers around the room. Soft toys of owls and axolotls look down from either side. It’s a nice place to watch movies, though someone broke one of the support brackets so the screen is slightly wonky, and in future I’ll probably splash out on a bigger one anyway.

The upstairs toilet has a bunch of random mini figures, but it’s also a Japanese squirty toilet! Lots of strange buttons to try pressing.

The spare bedroom has two beds. Sometimes people will want to move them apart, and sometimes want them together I’m sure. This room is probably the most random. You’ve probably noticed the wallpapering in the house is a bit…patchy. I did it myself using the cheapest possible materials, and when summer turned to winter, a lot of the papering shrunk. And now a lot of it looks a bit…off. One day I’ll pay professionals to do it.

Here in the other corner you can see the different wallpapers, haha. Here in the other corner you can see the different wallpapers, haha. And that’s it for the interior!

Outside, the garden is still a work-in-progress. It was just mud when I first arrived, so the first step was to get it all green. There were a few pretty flowers during summer, but they’ve gone now. I’ve planted some little trees I hope grow well, but it’s still on the plain and weed-ridden side.

Plus the pond I dug, well, I thought the blue would sort of naturally get covered over by dirt and mud after the rain. But it hasn’t. When it’s warm enough I’ll probably cover it in mud. Fishies are happy though.

The only nice blooms right now, some pleasant winter roses.

Upstairs, I have a nice large balcony, accessible from both bedrooms. It doesn’t have much on it just now, but in future I might put some nicer decking or something on it. Some potted shrubs and such.

But for now, the cool thing is the two hammocks I set up! A very nice place to dangle and enjoy cold drinks in the summer.

     

「怖い絵」展 / Fear and Painting exhibition, Ueno Royal Museum

Today, my friend Mayumi and I went to Ueno for the Fear in Painting exhibition, which has been widely-advertised for the past few months with striking images of Delaroche’s Execution of Lady Jane Grey across Tokyo.

After stopping for probably the best tempura I’ve had in Japan so far, at Ueno’s 音音(Oto Oto), we headed into the park to the Ueno-no-Mori Museum, usually called the Ueno Royal Museum in English. Instantly we knew this was not going to be a simple art gallery visit – today is a national holiday so the queues rivalled the Harry Potter attractions in Universal Studios when they first opened.

One very long wait later and we were inside. I had the same frustrating experience I’ve had in Tokyo art museums with major Western artists so far – extreme overcrowding. You have to shuffle slowly past each painting, which most patrons give a cursory glance to unless their audioguide directs them to look at something, and then get elbowed and shoved by old ladies as soon as you get a good view of a painting, at which point you have to move on to the next. At least the Delaroche painting is on a grand enough scale that it hardly matters! On the other hand, I’ve seen it several times before in London, without the overcrowding, so for all its beauty, masterful use of lighting and interesting place within the theme of ‘fear’, and for all its academic style has become fashionable again, I wasn’t nearly as impressed as I might have been viewing this masterpiece for the first time in a visit from a far-off land.

Otherwise, the exhibition wasn’t really strong enough to justify the crowds or the admission price. There were some gems, from Waterhouse (Circe), Gustave Moreau (Angels of Sodom) and Henry Fuseli (The Nightmare) in particular, as well as some famous drawings/etchings from Aubrey Beardsley and Hogarth, but the overall feeling was that major artworks that the curator would have liked were missing and had to be referred to obliquely – in lieu of The Scream, several minor Munch works had to be included, for example. In place of Bosch, anonymous Netherlandish art. No Dalí, but some proto-surrealism from illustrations of Edgar Allen Poe books. No Goya paintings, only etchings. Then, too often there was a tenuous connection with fear but no actual fear being portrayed, like an image of King Solomon proclaiming the baby should be cut in two, but the only one in terror at this facing away from the viewer. Other renditions of fear were a bit clumsy, like Ford Maddox Brown’s melodramatic (but expertly-painted) rendition of Manfred. There was something to be said for fear inspired by a place in Sickert’s image of Jack the Ripper’s room, but within more of a context of actual fear portrayed, I think that would have been more successful.

Perhaps the most interesting section was a series of paintings by Charles Sims. I don’t know much about Charles Sims but I feel I should find out more. This was one of the most questionable links to the concept of fear, but in several pictures in different styles showed a creative mind tortured by trauma. As a scholar of the First World War, that was very relevant to me, and as a writer and musician who admires the ability to work in different modes and styles, seeing Sims now working as a realist, now a post-impressionist, now a kind of Modernist, was impressive to me. I think I’ll look out for his work in future.

At the end of the exhibit, the crowds and slow pace actually felt exhausting. We had to agree that this isn’t really the way to view art, and far from the relaxing experience we had been hoping for. While there were gems, and I’m happy to have been introduced to Sims, it wasn’t an overly enjoyable experience. Also for some reason the curator, Nakano Kyouko, seems to have a significant bias towards England. English painters were dominant here, or borrowed from English galleries. Or both, of course. The centrepiece may have been by a French painter, but it was an English subject and on loan from the National Gallery. With Hogarth’s Beer Street and Gin Lane, a map of the Tower of London to flesh out the Delaroche painting, Sims’ fairies, Sickert’s squalid London room, Waterhouse, Beardsley and, through an adopted homeland, Fuseli, it may have been the most English-dominated art exhibition I’ve ever been to that wasn’t a collection of a single artist’s work. Which was entirely unexpected and seems a little constraining given the multitude of artworks dealing with fear from around the world.

Overall, while the exhibition had its highlights, I didn’t feel it dealt with the subject very well and was limited by a strange narrowness of vision as well as, presumably, budget. But judging from the demand, it was an undoubted success, and was of course much better than seeing no art at all.

WWE Live Tokyo

I was never a big fan of wrestling when I was younger. I played some of the video games with friends, and knew the biggest stars, but I rarely if ever watched any actual matches. 

Recently, though, I've been introduced to the wrestling going on right now and started to get involved in the funny storylines of heels and faces, grudges and partnerships, and found it more and more fun. So when there was a chance to go to see a show live in the Ryougoku Kokugikan as a birthday excursion, I got the ticket and got hype!

It's a bit of a shame I'm a bit late to see the legends of the show. The Undertaker just retired and there's no chance to see the likes of The Rock, Stone Cold or Kane. Golddust was scheduled to be part of this show, but when his tag team broke up. his slot got replaced. Of the older wrestlers, there were only Chris Jericho - who put on a great opening performance against a Japanese upstart from NXT - and I guess Rhyno. But watching wrestling live isn't about nostalgia - it's probably better to see new talent, and it's the wrestlers I have never paid that much attention to, like Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose and Neville, who really put their all into this show. 

There were some other storyline-based disappointments. Enzo Amore and Big Cass were another tag team that just broke up, so all we saw of them was a 1-minute scene continuing that storyline that made it feel like a big waste that they came to Japan at all. While it had its moments and it was great fun to see two women's champions facing off against each other, the bi 6-woman tag team match was a bit less impressive than I'd hoped, with no big grappling throws or aerial showboating and a whole lot of Asuka's obsession with her butt spreading to the other women. In particular, Nia Jax didn't get to do enough. 

But the overall show was incredibly enjoyable. What surprised me was how exciting it was to LISTEN to the show. I expected the pumping music with fantastic bass coming through an arena sound system, but the surprise was how great the ring itself sounds, the stamping and slamming and heavy landings. Plus getting involved in all the crowd chants and claps and waving of phone lights for Bray Wyatt's entrance is undeniably fun. 

Honestly, I lost track of who's heel and who's face most of the time, and don't understand why Roman Reigns attracts such polarised reactions - the crowd was very vocal over whether they loved or hated him - and it's interesting how they seem to be building up Finn Balor as a major up-and-coming character. 

This was a great show to be caught up in, one  i never thought that I would enjoy as much as I did, but it's definitely something I'd like to do again. 

 

 

Buying a Property in Japan

In a few days, it will be my two-year Japanniversary. Two years since I arrived in Japan and moved into my apartment in Shinjuku. I’ve had good times in the little place in the centre of town, but there are some big drawbacks to living in such a convenient place. First, my apartment is expensive but small – I only have a mini-fridge and a single hob, with no food preparation area. Second, Shinjuku gets a little too busy for comfort, especially on weekends. And lastly, the most important thing – in Tokyo, there’s an annoying system where if you stay in an apartment for 2 years, you get charged a ‘renewal fee’, or double rent for one month. No thank you!

Last year, my grandmother passed away. She was a real character and I miss her presence in my life, especially when Christmas comes. She had enough savings squirreled away that when it was distributed between family members, it became a possibility that I could buy a cheap house in Japan. I’ve been working in Japan since I arrived, with several sidelines like proofreading and random TV work, plus made some well-timed investments into Cryptocurrency, so for the first time in my life, I’m ready to get onto the property ladder. Thank you, Grandma!

Buying in Japan is in some ways surprisingly simple, and in others surprisingly difficult. Firstly, there are no legal restrictions on foreigners buying property, which makes sense when you consider that the Japanese economy will benefit from foreign investment, especially from China. On the other hand, someone like me who has been here for just two years on a working visa, unmarried and with an uneven income, has no chance of getting a mortgage. So while it was possible to buy a place, I couldn’t look at anything very luxurious that I would ordinarily fund with a mortgage.

On the other hand, I feel that if possible, buying outright is a much better investment choice. The debates between buying or renting largely revolve around whether mortgage interest repayments are effectively the same as renting anyway, with various inconveniences. Buying outright has very few disadvantages in investment terms.

So I began the property search. Helpfully, there are various agents in Japan that are eager to help foreign-language buyers, especially in English or Chinese. My Japanese is getting…passable by this stage, but I didn’t feel prepared to deal with the complexities of contract negotiation without someone to interpret! I found various agencies who were helpful, but ultimately a relatively new company called Beyond Borders was most helpful, bilingual agent Mori-san having been very helpful and accommodating throughout the process.

I started out by looking at apartments near where I was living, but didn’t fall in love with any of them. Everything changed when I viewed a house a little further out from the city, in Koenji. It was a great little property by the side of a river – and it reminded me that buying land is far better than an apartment in Japan, where property depreciates but land holds its value.

I made a bid on the house. In fact, I was the highest bidder. Sadly, the seller thought that dealing with a foreigner was too scary and turned down my bid. In other countries, this might be illegal on grounds of discrimination, but there’s no protection against this kind of decision in Japan. Whether renting or buying, watching out for ‘no dogs, no gaijin’-style messages is a necessity. I was angry at the time, but it’s the current social reality here.

That experience totally changed what I wanted in my property search, though. I had been putting price first, then location, with size last. I realised I would be happier commuting for a longer time every day if I could get a much bigger place. That’s why I decided on Edogawa, where land prices are cheap but the trainlines are well-connected. Plus there’s a famous fireworks festival there every summer, and it’s halfway to the airport. I made sure to look for places on relatively high ground because Edogawa is at risk of flooding, and eventually found a house that was big, sturdy, but because the road approaching it is too narrow, cannot be completely rebuilt – something that in Japan sends the property price tumbling. I can reinforce it against earthquakes, even entirely rebuild the structure within the same blueprint, but can’t tear it down and build something new. If a natural disaster completely destroys it, I’ll be in trouble, but that’s a risk I decided to take.

The actual process of buying has not been straightforward. Japan has a lot of odd traditions connected to buying property. For example, the 10% deposit at the beginning of negotiations has to be made in cash. For my house that was a fair wad of banknotes, but I imagine luxury apartments in the city centre must involve briefcases full of them. It’s lucky Japan has such low crime rates, because that’s a very risky system!

I also had to have a jitsu-in, an officially-registered wooden seal, made in my name. This was surprisingly fast and inexpensive, and it’s probable that it would be waived in most sales to foreigners, especially those who don’t even enter the country for negotiations, but it was something of an oddity.

Now, I’m waiting to move in. Unfortunately, the seller can’t hand the property over in good faith until the land has been surveyed, and it’s taken a very long time to schedule that survey. But it’s finally around the corner, my belongings are all packed, and all that remains is the final settlement – which will be slightly surreal. The seller, her agent, my agent and me will all gather in a bank, where I will make a transfer to the seller and a transfer to my agent under the watchful eyes of everyone involved. Then comes registration, connecting utilities, getting insurance and all the other necessities.

It hasn’t been a simple process, and there have been some big bumps along the road, but I’m about to move in and get decorating. Frankly, I can’t wait!

Memorial Symposium in Tokyo University

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At Tokyo University

Though many good things happened in my professional life, the past year has been a sad one for my family. My aunt died much too young in November, 2015 and then last month her mother, my grandmother, also passed away. By unfortunate coincidence, both were while I was in Japan, and at times I was unable to return to England to attend their funerals, so I haven’t honestly been able to feel I’ve had a chance to pay my respects or fully reflect on their lives. Next month, I’ll be returning to England, and will be able to visit their graves, but fortunately there was also a memorial event for my aunt yesterday in Tokyo University.

My aunt was a prominent scholar of French literature and had attended a number of academic conferences here in Japan, as well as hosting many Japanese scholars who were interested in visiting the Samuel Beckett archives at Reading University. So her kind friends and colleagues over here in Tokyo arranged a memorial day, in conjunction with a memorial symposium a year after her death over in England. Since I’m living in Tokyo, it made sense for me to attend and deliver a message from my uncle, giving me a chance to pay my respects.

My hosts set up a lovely event. This was my first time in the University of Tokyo, and the Komaba campus is small and pretty. After finding the correct building, I was led to a room full of scholars, some young but most older, with the somewhat languid air of lifelong academics. Most were Japanese, though there was one other Westerner, another Brit named David whose life, it seems, was intertwined with my aunt’s right from their undergraduate days.20161122-02

I was greeted very warmly, and though the event was in a typical academic meeting room, there was a smiling photograph of my aunt, a display of her books and pretty floral displays.

The opening memorial service was touching. Friends of my aunt from her academic circle ran through her biography, and then gave their personal reminiscences, often with photographs - both of her visits to Japan and their visits to England. They found a particular significance and comfort in her last words being, ‘It’s exciting.’ I was invited to read my uncle’s message, which was received with appreciation, and later had a chance to give my own account, centred on memories of the family gathering at Christmastime. Even though I was in a room of strangers, we were all connected through my aunt, so I wa20161122-03s grateful to have such a chance to pay my respects.

20161122-05This was followed by an academic symposium responding to my aunt’s legacy. Admittedly, while I could follow the personal reminiscences, which other than my own had all been in Japanese, when it came to academic vocabulary and analysis I was mostly lost, really only able to follow one lecture on Samuel Beckett and Music. Nonetheless, I was pleased to be part of the event.20161122-04

Next, we went to nearby Shibuya to enjoy a meal in my aunt’s honour. As is traditional after a symposium, we went to an izakaya, a Japanese restaurant where the emphasis is on drinking, and my hosts had selected Gonpachi. Gonpachi is a famous chain in Japan with very traditional décor, a different branch made particularly famous recently as a location in Quentin Tarantino’s movie Kill Bill. We had a private room where we enjoyed an extended ‘Nabe course’, which culminated in a hot pot but mostly delighted me with the smaller dishes that came first – delicious sashimi, large korroke and a kind of Chinese-style dish slightly reminiscent of hairy prawns. It was a superb meal, accompanied by plenty of beer with which to toast my aunt.

20161122-06I didn’t speak much Japanese that evening, as I sat with David and listened to his stories about my aunt and his own interesting career. Like me, he studied at Cambridge, plays in a band and has a keen interest in progressive rock. I learned a

The flowers I was given from the event

The flowers I was given from the event

lot about Samuel Beckett, particularly regarding his interest in sport, and felt quite emboldened to be able to talk about my thesis for the first time since finishing it, as well as my book. I am grateful I had a chance to meet such an interesting group of people, and this was really my first time interacting with academia in Tokyo, so I feel quite grateful to have had the opportunity.

I’m not sure if I will ever return to the university, or see any of the other campuses, but who knows? Perhaps in the future I’ll be able to return.