Travel

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.

                           

Travel: Bodiam Castle, Sussex

I escaped the uncomfortable humidity and summer rains of Tokyo to spend a couple of weeks in England. I’m mostly staying in London but have come down to my hometown in Sussex for a few days. I wanted to see the area afresh, like a tourist during the pleasant summer sunshine, and that’s what I’ve done today, with a visit to Bodiam Castle.

 

I have a lot of affection for Bodiam Castle. It really is an iconic construction. It’s not as old as perhaps it feels to the imaginative visitor – it was built in 1385 during the Hundred Years’ War. That means it isn’t as ancient as several of the churches in the area, nor many structures in London, Oxford or Cambridge, nor indeed the more imposing and better-preserved keep in Rochester Castle – let alone the Roman ruins in Dover, Bath or, well, Rome. Its lake isn’t as expansive or effective of that of Leeds Castle and of course it lacks the grandeur and scale of Windsor or Edinburgh castles. Internally, it remains a ruin, unlike nearby reconstructed Herstmonceux Castle.

Yet with its simple, square construction, its moat and its fine crenelated towers, it is the perfect iconic medieval castle. It aligns perfectly with what a child would draw when imagining a fortified European castle, even if it never saw real combat and wasn’t taken particularly seriously in defensive terms. It just fits the image of an old English castle so well, and I find it beautiful. Today, it’s a fun place for children to visit, with educational films to watch, carp and ducks to feed in the moat, and activities on the grounds like trying some archery or visiting some cute owls that hopefully aren’t kept awake all day every day. Well worth the trip.

It’s also just been nice to spend the day in Sussex, a beautiful part of the country, and to see it with fresh eyes. The weather was perfect, everywhere around were rolling hills, oast houses and happy-looking families – and I enjoyed a tasty meal at a pub run by a family friend. Steak and red wine pie with twice-cooked chips. Fantastic!

Taiwan trip 2017 – in pictures!

One place I can say I travel often is Taiwan - after all, my uncle, aunt, cousins and grandmother all live there!

This year, we had a gathering with all my mum's siblings. Since they all live in different countries, it's a rare treat to have them all together in one place.

Let's have a look at some of the things we saw this year in Kaohsiung!

The new great Buddha at Fo Guan Shang - last year we entirely missed the new part. It's less like a monastery than the rest, more like a theme park, but that Buddha is undeniably impressive.

More from Fo Guan Shang, always eccentric!

 

If it's Taiwan, it's got to be Din Tai Fung!

And dim sum. Got to have dim sum.

I have strong memories of this place form when I was a child

Fancy decor - but rude service!

The view from my hotel room

The room itself was fancy. When I arrived, I had remarkably tasty belly pork instant noodles and watched Adventure Time in Chinese, haha

 

A Day Out in Kichijoji and Inokashira Park

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Ramen, capybara and many many Guinea pigs in Kichijoji

Kichijoji, often ranked by locals as the best place to live in Tokyo, is a really pleasant suburb a few stops down the Chuo-Sobu line from me. I’ve been there before a few times – as a tourist to go to the Ghibli museum (though we didn’t see any of the surrounding park either time I went) and more recently with my band to record our album. But as yesterday was a beautifully sunny winter’s day, we decided to take a trip to see the park and zoo. I had an errand to run first – I wanted to go to Tokyo Fencers to get my épée rewired. Unfortunately, I don’t know how long the Japanese New Year’s break is and the shop was still closed. Better try again next week – and maybe go to the Ghibli Museum!
Ghibli museum visit in 2013!

Ghibli museum visit in 2013!

Headed to the park and the cute little zoo. It’s split into two parts, and the first part we found was the smaller bit mostly housing waterfowl, but also a little aquarium. We went there to coo at the giant salamander (not as big as the ones in Ueno Zoo) and the fire-bellied newts (much fatter than my pet ones!), then headed over to the main part. Hanako the elephant, Japan’s first and the oldest living Asian elephant, wasn’t anywhere to be seen – and has actually been subject to a lot of controversy lately, with British tabloids running sob stories about the elephant having been there for 50 years with a lot of unsubstantiated claims of it being violent or ill. I didn’t see the elephant so I can’t make any informed judgement, but I sincerely doubt its level of care or level of suffering is significantly different to that of the elephants in London Zoo used to be for 70 years. Or are we pretending to be enlightened because we moved those animals to Whipsnade in 2001 after they killed a man? With emotionally-loaded words in the media, memories are short. I think animals should get decent care, but my point is that I don’t think a badly-researched article or two leads to the definite conclusion that this particular creature is suffering or that its habitat is inappropriate compared with that of any number of other comparable animals. And given Hanako is currently the oldest Asian elephant in the world, surely the standard of care can’t be that dire? Anyway, elephants aside the zoo was small-scale and sweet. There was a focus on indigenous animals, with tanuki, Japanese foxes and flying squirrels on display, plus a very large, green expanse for some deer that looks like it might have been a good place for Hanako, given how much those articles complained about the concrete. I was a little surprised that a large monkey habitat was given to Rhesus Macaques instead of Japanese Macaques, but they’re quite hard for the layman to tell apart anyway. There were also some very cute penguins, owls and fennec foxes.
20160105 08

And this stork

After the zoo, we went around some of the shops around Kichijoji station. There seems to be just about everything you could want there – the place has a small-town feel yet just about every shop you could want, which must be why it’s considered such a desirable place to live. We went to look for a place to eat in Harmonica Yokocho, with its pleasant smoky post-war feel, but everywhere was very crowded so we went to a ramen place we’d passed earlier and had no regrets, because it was absolutely delicious. Overall, our day in Kichijoji was great – will have to go back next week to try and get my épée rewired!
Scenic!

Scenic!

Travel blog: Puli, Taiwan

20151126 03Today, we had a trip around the mountainous region of Puli in central Taiwan. After getting the high-speed train to Taichung, we were met by a driver and taken through a whole lot of tunnels until we reached central Taiwan. My uncle was arranging everything, so we didn’t know what was coming – and the itinerary turned out to be typically eccentric. First, we visited the impressive, ostentatious Chung Tai Chan Monastery. It’s a huge and imposing edifice, built around 15 years ago with the polish, scale and brash inelegance of a Disneyland themed ride. But it’s not meant to be tasteful, it’s meant to be brash and spectacular, and I very much enjoyed it for that. 20151123 02 In the main hall were huge floor-to-ceiling statues of the Four Heavenly Kings of Chinese Buddhism, with fierce expressions on each of their four faces. Then upstairs were serene seated buddhas, inspiring devotion in many of the visitors. Heading outside was a room full of golden statues, though the ones in the corridor outside were more imposing, and nearby a smaller room displayed more tasteful small-scale religious sculptures. Outside could be found a deer park with only cartoony stone deer, plus a prayer bell it was fun to ring. The bell had a twin but that one had a long queue. 20151124 02 I think I was lucky to get in an elevator with a group I wasn’t really supposed to be with, which took me to a floor with an indoor pagoda and thousands of little buddhas on the walls – an odd but very impressive sight, again with nothing at all compromised for the sake of good taste. Unfortunately I went only to that floor and not the others apparently only accessible by lift. Afterwards, I rushed to the museum because all this was crammed into just 40 minutes (and I had to leave behind the rest of the party for being too slow!) but it turned it was under renovation. 20151124 01 Next, to the unimpressive pole marking the geographical centre of Taiwan, which surprised me because until then I didn’t realise we were in the centre of the country rather than by the coast (as I’d slept on the drive through all the tunnels). 20151126 04 From there we went for lunch, which as with much of the rest of the day, was strange – they roasted whole chickens in drums with lychee wood for a vague flavour, added huge amounts of garlic and plopped the thing in front of you on the table. I was tasked with ripping the thing apart for us to eat, wearing thick gloves. Though not a very pleasant task, it was only like having a Nando’s, really, only with the feet and head still attached. I feel it’s hypocritical to eat meat but pretend it wasn’t a creature, though, so wasn’t squeamish. Found the meat a tad bland and the sauce greasy, though. 20151123 03 The next point of call, after driving past very weird buildings from around the world, built as tourist attractions up a mountain (because why not?), was the highest road in Taiwan. Being a very mountainous country, Hahuen-Shan was a long way from the highest possible peak to climb – though the tour guide thought it was the 2nd, it was actually the 43rd – but driving to altitudes only about 300 metres lower than the summit of Fuji is still quite impressive. 20151123 04 On the way down the mountain, we had the kind of surreal experiences typical of our family outings in Taiwan. For some reason, there was a farm up there on the mountainside set up as a tourist attraction. With sheep and ponies and really, really stinky toilets. So we ran around trying to take photos with sheep. Silly creatures. 20151123 05 Stopped at the English country manor part of the buildings-of-the-world attraction, but while we could have had very cute-looking cakes in a fantasy tearoom in a strange neogothic-Tudor-neoclassical manor, instead we found a Swiss chalet tucked around the back of it and had very tasty cakes there, and coffees out of quaint little mugs. 20151123 06 It may sound like the opposite of what you’d expect from Taiwan, but this is exactly the sort of thing we always seem to find when we do the kind of tourism trails that attract the locals and the mainland Chinese! 20151123 07 Took some silly pictures with my brother and then got back in the car for the drive back to Taichung. If we carried on down the same road, we would get to Taroko Gorge, but we’d been there back in 2015 so didn’t go again. I wouldn’t mind actually seeing Taichung City itself, which has enough temples and other attractions for a day trip, but this odd little adventure was fun, too – and the strange kind of thing we always seem to find ourselves doing in Taiwan! 20151123 08

Hallowe’en and Modelling in Korea

Definitely not real

The last few days I definitely had more photographs taken of me than at any other point in my life!

Hallowe'en is time for dressing up!

First, I was part of a cosplay event for Hallowe’en in Ikebukuro. If you’re unfamiliar with the place, Ikebukuro is very pleasant entertainment district just two or three stops north of where I live in Shinjuku, where there is a strong bias towards the female fans. Thus, if you like cute female idols, big-busted sci-fi heroines and pervy books about little girls, you go to Akihabara. If you prefer butlers, boys who get very intense over sports rivalries and pervy books about young boys, ’Bukuro is the place to go. Plus there are plentiful arcades and an extremely nice mall where you can find Jump World, Namja Town and as of fairly recently, the new Tokyo Pokémon store.

The kind of thing you find in Namja Town

An event had been set up for Halloween in the park outside Sunshine City, usually famous for having lots of cats. The World Cosplay Summit representatives had a time slot, so they decided to use that time to showcase Japan’s representatives, Mariko and Mahio (https://www.facebook.com/marigon1013 and https://twitter.com/mahigaku) in their phenomenal costumes from Magi.

As well as them, the WCS, being focused on global cosplay, wanted some international representatives. Happily, I was asked to be one of them, and so for the first time in quite a while, I cosplayed. My last two cosplays (including one from Magi!) were at a point where my self-confidence was very low and I really didn’t look good, so it was quite a relief for me to actually return to cosplaying and feel good about it. So I decided to fulfil a longtime urge and cosplay Kagamine Len. As it was Hallowe’en, my first idea was to cosplay him in a ‘Trick and Treat’ costume, but I didn’t like them much. Alice in Wonderland is one of the most popular choices for Hallowe’en costumes over here in Japan, so I decided on Alice in Musicland Len.

I'm late!!

Bunny bunny bunny

I don’t have a sewing machine or hot-glue gun over here so I wasn’t about to make the outfit. I bought the ears, bowtie and waistcoat and then used my own shirt and shorts and socks. I’d bought a clock-bag with the rest of the costume but I didn’t like it so bought a working one and added one of my necklaces. I made a winder thing but it was terrible so last-minute I ended up replacing it with some cap from a squeezy bottle. Which worked! I met a great crowd of international cosplayers from America, Israel, France, Brazil, Russia, Spain and the Philippines, who were all super-friendly. Most of them had cards with their cosplay pages to hand out, but I don’t have anything like that! It seems it’s typical here for cosplayers to have a whole book full of their different costumes to pick from. 20151101 19 The first thing we did after rehearsing and preparations was take part in a mini-parade. We thought it would be down a road, but it was just along a red carpet to a tiny little box-stage where you could pose and then move on. There were a huge number of cameras waiting there. A little odd, but fun! After that we did our stage event, which was a straightforward appear-and-pose type affair, and once again there were huge numbers of cameras – including some truly enormous L-series bazooka lenses worth a hundred times what my costume cost.

Mahio takes a group selfie

That selfie

On the mini stage. So mini!

I’m happy I went to the event. I got the bug for cosplaying again and no longer consider it something to keep hidden away. I met some very cool people, all of whom I’d like to see again, and I’m looking forward to similar events next week.

The group

Up on stage

I really like this one

Vocaloids!

There was a karaoke event for the participants afterwards, but I was meeting friends in Shibuya for Hallowe’en. It was everything it was promised to be from last year’s pictures, and about twice as crowded as I expected. The whole area around Scramble Crossing was just a throng of people, and it took about 20 minutes just to shuffle to 109. We got a lot of people posing with us and wanting pictures and it was fun to meet a group of friends for a while. Couldn’t stay for long or drink much, though, because the next day, it was off to Korea!

Out in Shibuya

Unfortunately we missed the flights from Haneda to Gimpo at a decent price, so had to go via Narita, Kansai and Incheon, but it wasn’t really difficult. I came to take part in a fashion event in Seoul for a Japanese magazine, modeling some body art. I’m very glad I took part because it was a lot of fun and the tattoo-style art was impressive. It isn’t going to change my life or take me to the runways of New York, but it’s a fun sort of thing to do as and when I can. The next few times I do something similar, as there are a couple lined up, it will be clothing-related.

I had a sparkly design on the back, too!

Tomorrow, back to Japan – then back to work the next day. But weird adventures will continue very, very soon after!

Strutting my funky stuff

Pic sources: http://news.livedoor.com/article/detail/10775753/ https://twitter.com/dwangojpnews https://www.facebook.com/paula.k.gerhold https://www.facebook.com/yuichiro.morita http://nlab.itmedia.co.jp/nl/articles/1511/06/news136.html www.facebook.com/celestialshadowcosplay