Monday 5th April
Today I am setting off to Japan, a country that is ostensibly my second home since I lived there as as English teacher almost ten years ago. I loved teaching my native tongue even if the school insisted upon a bastardized American version upon their maleable Japanese students. There was no way I was going to teach them words like weener. With me, you were force-fed the Queen's English, so make that a sausage, will you?
Many excruciating hours were passed in silent classrooms desperately coercing timid, taciturn students with the sociological skills of J D Salinger to utter one syllable. They ranged from pig-tailed schoolchildren resplendant in their sailors uniform to United Nations delegates to local prostitutes winding down after a shift at "Soaplands" (imagine a brothel where the clientele always leave very very clean.) The most infamous student was some crazy guy who took half a lesson to ask: "What does what mean?" After considering various answers to this unintentionally existential conundrum, I decided that it was a futile case and spent the remaining minutes offering pyschological councilling.
Anyway I am bound for Japan on JL 402. Let me give you a brief resume of Japan for those whose knowledge extends to "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "Lost in Translation" (Sophia Coppolla's unerringly accurate portrayal of life as a foreigner or "gaijin" in downtown Tokyo.)
1) Tokyo has a distinct body odour. This is true - its a difficult smell to describe, a fishy odour mixed with a
whiff of the sewers.
2) Japan is the grastromic capital of the world. Of course every country has its share of Michelin starred restaurants, but what distinguishes Japan is their reverence, their deification to food, be it your local Mosburger or high-class sushi restaurant. Here, food is king. At times you can be surrounded by a dizzying array of tempura bars, sashimi restaurants or izakayas, the ubiquitous Japanese equivalent of pubs, except there is less chance of getting knifed and you order delicious tapas style dishes instead of gammon and micro-waved chips. Foreign cuisines are purloined from other countries, Italian, Thai or Mexican and served back as if the pizzamaker from Shibuya had spent ten years apprenticing under Escoffier.
3) In Japan, there is no such thing as an inanimate object. Everything in Japan comes to life: your credit card will be based on a Disney character, the jumbo jet is painted with Mickey Mouse, your train has a big smiley face on the front carriage and so on. According to Japanese advertisments, practically every household utensil has the ability to spontaneously sprout two eyes, pirouette around the room and burst into melody. It is often difficult to distinguish between Japan and Fantasia. Imagine the Teletubbies striving for world domination.
4) Tokyo is an ugly city. Afraid so, a sea of non-descript edifices, tower blocks and shoebox-sized apartments stacked one upon the other. However after the sun sets it becomes an electrifying Bladerunner-like megalopolis that can be thrilling, especially around Shinjuku. Conversely the interior countryside is unspoilt: snowcapped mountains, ice-cold rivers and spooky forests with the odd volcano here and there. Also, the first time you see a snow-capped Mount Fuji it will take your breath away and you will understand exactly why the Japanese are so bestotted by its watchful presence.
5) Tokyo is inhabited by giant crows. For some inexplicable reason, Tokyo is devoid of wildlife with the exception of giant black crows who have migrated in from a 1950's Hitckcock movie. Wherever, whenever you are, there is always a crow with one beady eye watching your every move like some harbinger of death lurking round every corner. I assume they scared all other species of birdlife away some years ago.
6) Shopping is everything. Never take a shopaholic to Tokyo. It is like taking a heroin addict on a guided tour of poppy fields of Aghganastan. Japan's economic miracle was not based on industry or electronics, but the Japanese ability to construct a metropolis dedicted to retail therapy.
7) Japanese fashion is odd. I have only been here for 2 or 3 days at time of writing and already I have seen some fashion trends that should be quarantined if they attempted to leave the country. There appears to be a vogue for wearing two hats and I saw one girl with elasticated flares that attach around the knee.
Anyway, the 11 hour flight passes remarkably quickly thanks to an excellent film (School of Rock), an absorbing book ("The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" by Mark Haddon which should be made compulsory to anyone with any prejudice against disadvantaged people) and five hours kip. I spot Sir Peter Hall, the famous opera impressario looming large in the queue for passport control, I answer a few feeble questions posed by a 20-year old clerk to check I am not a member of Al-queda and then its on to the "Skyliner" down to Ueno in central Tokyo to meet Tomoko.
At the station I have the pleasure of meeting her family for the first time and fortunately we seem to get on well despite the sizable language barrier; just a few nods and hand-gestures can go a long way in these situations. We eat at a local Ueno restaurant where I devour shabu-shabu (delicious thinly sliced beed quickly boiled in water, dipped in a sauce and eaten with greatest pleasure) and then head towards Hikawadai to their apartment where I am staying. It is approximately the size of my parents' living room, but this is normal in Japan and I am soon accustomed to it. What intrigues me is that however miniscule the dimensions of the room, they will always manage to fit in a wide-screened television which takes up half the space. I am now back in Japan mode and ready to enjoy the week and get to know Tomoko's family and already I can see that her mother looks 20 years younger than her actual age, which is probably 137.
Tuesday 6th April
Wake up in the morning but jet-lag kicks in around midday and I fall back asleep. In the afternoon we head into Shinjuku, the most Bladerunner-esque area of Tokyo to meet my friend Pip who came to Japan at the same time as me but has remained ever since. Its great to see him, we have not met for a couple of years and fortunately he is still as mad as always despite getting engaged. I extract all the gossip from the last two years, then Tomoko heads home so that we can enjoy a "boys night out" in Shimokitazawa. We end up in a bar eating in front a large aquarium, where we have the joy of seeing a carp attempting suicide by headbutting the bed of the tank. We inform the waitress of the aquatic fatality and it is on the menu within minutes. After this we end up in two funky bars the size of a bathroom, one so small that we calculate it could only accommodate seven customers at a time. We drink an admirable amount of Asaki Super-dry before I meander my way home across the complicated Tokyo metro system, managing to catch the penultimate train home. Tomoko's family are up waiting for me, convinced that I would be lost somewhere in the infinite suburbs never to be seen again. But I survive without Harrison Ford trying to exterminate me.
Wednesday 7th April
Spend the morning chilling out in Tomoko's apartment. The good thing is that I visited all the tourist traps when I lived here, so I prefer to spend the time mooching around and eating Mosburgers. I am please to report that their teriyaki chicken burger meets my demanding standards and is worth travelling thousands of miles for. Japan has unparalleled service, unlike in Britain where you get some petulant cool-dude whose expression reeks of loathing as another customer blemishes his day. Here, patrons are welcomed like the Emporer himself, obsequiousness is redefined to the point of embarrassment for even if you leave without purchasing anything, they still shout their appreciation as you leave and then burst into tears.
In the afternoon we visit Tomoko's octogenarian grandfather who lives in an ancient original wooden house near Shinjuku. He is old and rickety, yet still proud that he was one of Japan's eminent jewellery makers whose products are sought-after antiques in Japan. We stay there for thirty minutes. At times he gets confused exactly who we are, but it is fascinating to see his watches that are prized away in a dark recess of the room beneath butsudan (a small shrine that is found in most Japanese houses.) After that we have coffee with one of Tomoko's cookery pals at Mitsukoshi and then visit a wine shop whose selection would beat any retailers in the UK, everything from cheap chardonnay to all the First Growths and rare Burgundies. We return chez Mitani where her mother cooks us some delicious sea-food and watch some bizarre, mind-warping Japanese TV before bed.
Thursday 8th April
Living in Japan is putting yourself in the fate of the gods, for they could descimate the country in a single earthquake. These seismic catastrophes occur approximately every 75 years and the next is long-overdue. To compensate the Japanese for their perilous existence between two hot-tempered tectonic plates, they are blessed with natural hot springs or onsen to take their mind off impending doom. The soothing hot waters absorb both physical and mental pains in an enigmatic form of reverse osmosis. For mere tuppence, you can strip naked and soak yourself in steaming mineral-rich pools dotted around the mountainous countryside under a canopy of twinkling stars. Strip off, step in, bathe out. After ten minutes (about medium-rare) you can cool down in whisps of night air, preferably with an ice-cold Asahi beer, before re-entering the steaming pools for a second dose of aqua-therapy.
Tomoko has booked two nights at a private onsen down the south coast of Japan in Izu-Kogen, a moutainous peninsula bespeckled with an array of onsen a mere two-hour journey from Tokyo Station. I have mentioned elsewhere how the Japanese train network operates with metronomic efficiency, like a grandiose Hornby train set. If your train, God forbid, should run late your employer would expect to be presented with a small document called a shomeisho which validates your excuse, since trains are never late. (By the way, the most common cause of delay are suicides, although prospective suicidees should bear in mind that your family will foot the bill to compensate Japan Railways.) When I lived here for one year, my daily commute from Tamachi to Kamata was interrupted by just one late train caused by a suicide. Needless to say, our train departs precisely on time, spotlessly clean, a uniformed lady welcoming us personally onto the carriage and we wend our way southwards.
Another great facet of Japanese trains, with the exception that unlike in Britain they actually run, is that there are multifarious trains to observe, it is a trainspotters' Nirvana. Apart from the bullet trains (of which there are several types) there are double-deckers, silver ones, green ones, some with front carriage designed like an ampitheatre so that passengers can admire the scenery in comfort, trains where the seats are turned 90° so that you can watch the dramatic coastline without straining the neck, trains adorned with flowers, even a "French" train that I assume does the Tokyo-Paris run in three hours. As we speed through Yokohama I am sure Thomas the Tank Engine and James the Red Engine pass the other way tooting konnichi-wa.
The first thing I notice about Izu Kogen is that everything is painted with a Gallic brush: French-named hotels, a small museum dedicated to Paris, the aforementioned French train. Just a beretted man cycling past with a garland of onions is missing. We catch a bus to our hotel Hotel Parterre (pictured left, click link for more information), specially chosen for its five-course French dinner included in the price.
I am ambassador for the outide world, our landlady overcome with emotion as I step inside to take off my shoes, elated with the notion of a foreigner residing chez Parterre. She guides us to our room overlooking the Pacific and the mountainous island of Oshima some twenty miles out to sea. We are the solitary guests on this weekday (a couple of teenagers arrive later to bonk each others brains out) and so we receive one-on-one service from our host, each course accompanied by an inquiry. When I reply that we live in London she has to steady herself with a chair, when we inform her that we are both wine professionals she becomes dizzy with jubilation and when I tell her that I was at Chateau Latour just last week, the exquisite fresh tuna salad nearly ends up on the floor. What would happen if a Frenchman turned up?
The cooking is absolutely top-class (see left) and we commend her more laconic husband who is the chef. Every dish is immaculately presented, nothing over-complicated or fussy and each course is embellished with a Japanese ingredient to remind you that you are in Izu and not Dijon. After our gourmet feast we while away the rest of the evening submerged in subterranean heated waters underneath the Milky Way, surrounded by silence and darkness.
West Norwood seems far, far away.
Friday 9th April
Wake up feeling reinvigorated. The sun beams onto the vitreous ocean waters although Oshima Island is shrouded in a haze that bodes well for a warm day. In the morning we take another onsen, before heading up towards an extinct volcano just a brisk walk up the road. We stop at a local convenience store to take on provisions (in case you were wondering, yes, they did have two First growths stocked in the fridge.)
The volcano itself juts out like a giant spot of acne that sprouted during Japan's adolescence. Our weary legs find reprieve with a cable car that whisks us 500 metres to the lip of the crater. The view is magnificent: to the south the Pacific ocean which abuts a rugged landscape of mountains, precipitous cliffs and pine forests. But it is inland that the most dramatic view is found, looking northwards for miles of mountains to the captivating sight of a snow-capped Mount Fuji floating above the horizon. The majesterial mountain casts an imperious gaze over vast swathes of Japan; twice the height of surrounding peaks with a beguiling symmetry; the silent king.
I encircle the lip of the smaller volcano against gusts of winds that threaten to blow me into the pit, though fortunately the lava has been replaced by archery centre. After admiring the view, we walk downhill back to the hotel for more baths and another splendid five-course dinner courtesy of Hotel Parterre.
Saturday 10th April
After weeks of endless miserable, overcast English weather, I rejoice as sunbeams stream through the window at dawn. We have a final onsen before checking out and our hosts (pictured right) bid us a sad farewell. At the station we leave our luggage in lockers (every Japanese station is furnished with lockers to dump your bags and toilets, those conveniances banished by privatised rail companies because they do not make any money.)
We walk down to the coast where the coniferous forests come to an abrupt halt at the azure Pacific Ocean that pummels the craggy coastlike moulded by cooling lava flows. At noon we walk to a local shrine, stopping at an incongruous udon (noodle) shop on the way. We are greeted by an old lady, honoured by our presence and serves us a simple but flawless bowl of homemade noodles, mine crowned with what is undoubtedly the most flavoursome shrimp in the world. The miso soup and garnishes are beautifully prepared and the whole meal for two costs the same as two Big Macs: something to ponder when you receive your astronomical bill in oh-so-trendy-it-hurts Japanese restaurants in London.
At the shrine I pay 100 yen to say a prayer, for which I get to sound the large cast iron bell. Before Tomoko can translate the Japanese which basically says: "please do not bong the bell too loudly as this is a religious temple shrouded in Zen-like tranquility", I give it the biggest sacriligious whack of its 1,000 year life and for miles around people think: "There goes some twat ringing that bloody bell again." I depart with an admonishing glare from a gardener and realize that with reverberating 'dong' I secured my reincarnation as a particularly stupid dung beetle. Bugger.
On the left: a quick foot onsen while I wait for the bus. I doubt whether Ken Livingstone will be introducing them at London bus-stops for the foreseeable future.
We travel home back to Tokyo whereupon Tomoko's mother prepares yet more outstanding Japanese cuisine that never leaves you bloated. I leave her to chat with her family while I update the diary on her brother's laptop whilst watching the Chelsea vs. Middlesborough game, live on TV.
Sunday 11th April
A day of rest before beginning business with my company. At lunch I make a pilgrimage to Mosburger: the Japanese equivalent of Burgerking but with the service of a Michelin starred restaurant. In fact, every Mosburger should receive a couple of Michelin stars. Following this I go to "Bic-Camera" in Ikebukero to purchase a digital camera.
Japanese electronic shops are like Dixons on steroids: several floors stacked with every gadget under the sun of which 10% have any practical use. There is often a blaring techno soundtrack in the background to enhance the feeling of being at the cutting edge of technological progress, even if you are shopping for a deluxe nasal-hair remover. As in any Japanese retail outlet, there are about three million different models to choose from, available in any colour under the sun, although it will be superceded by a new model on Thursday next week. Despite toying with several models I leave empty-handed but the shop-assistant still bids farewell as if the last hour explaining the features of the Olympus Myu-25 had represented the apotheosis of his young life.
In the evening, a large rabble comprising of Tomoko's friends and mine convene in Ginza for a night of serious libation. The restaurant seems to have a stream running through the middle of it and the food is exceptional albeit a tad expensive. It is one of those nights when there are too many people to meet and you end up spending insufficient time with everyone. Oh well - they will have to come to England. Afterwards Pip, his mad Canadian comrade Derek (who looks more like Colonel Kurtz every time I see him) and myself continue drinking at the art-deco Suntory beer hall. We are the last people to leave, the staff waiting patiently for us to finish our pints and deploy the strategy of pitiful expressions to ease us from our chairs, unlike in England where they use a combination of intimidation and violence.
Monday 12th April
Today is the first day of my business week, the culmination of six months of blood, sweat and tears organizing a grand tasting ne plus ultra at the Hotel Okura. The dinner and seminars will be presided over by our most eminent pre-phylloxera wine-connoisseur, Michael Broadbent MW and the events inaugurate the "Baron Okura" restaurant which must boast the most audacious wine-list in the world. How many times have you mused over exactly which Montrachet 1990 you should chose. Comtes-Lafon? Ramonet? At this restaurant one customer could not make up his mind so chose both...at lunch.
The seminars are a great success, Michael is the consummate professional despite the jet-lag and the whole event is a resounding success. In the evening a small group of us venture to a famous Japanese restaurant called Kojyu where we sit in spartan, traditional tatami-matted room with a sunken table. I worry that Michael might not be able to get up off the floor once he is down there. The food is extraordinary and includes congar eel and soft-bellied turtle, a delicacy that the Japanese regard as a potent aphrodisiac. Certainly it seems to have had an effect on Mr Broadbent, who tells an anecdote so carnal that our translator blushes crimson as she works out the meaning. Her expression says: "Did he really say what I thought he said?" The biological quip worthy of prime Eddie Murphy actually comes from Anthony Barton and it brings the dinner to an awkward silence as our non-English speaking colleagues await the Japanese interpretation with bated breath. I tell her not to worry and spare her blushes, diverting the conversation into a less salacious direction.
We leave around 11ish, escort Michael through herds of Japanese girls in micro-skirts designed to kill and head back to the Hotel Okura. After bidding farewell, three of us end up back in the restaurant where the chef cooks our second meal of the evening, the sommelier now well inebriated and jubilant at the success of the tastings. I struggle to consume courses that would normally cost a small fortune although I manage to down a bottle of Pol Roger Winston Churchill 1993 and a sublime Chambertin 1988 from Armande Rousseau. I make my excuses at 3a.m., tired but elated.
Tuesday 13th April
Business. I will not bore you with the details. But I will say this: some people have a romantic concept about the wine trade and erroneously believe that days like yesterday are common. This is not true: the wine-trade is damn hard work and you will probably be paid pittance. It is as cut-throat as working as a stock-broker, full of menial tasks that make accountancy look stimulating and is plagued with politics and double-dealing just like anything else. It is just a warning for those who think every day is a DRC vertical. Yes, they do turn up from time to time, but not as often as a case of broken bottles, claims from irate customers over corked Cheval Blancs demanding their money back along with a lifetime of servitude, Bills of Lading that customs will dissect and query, days when you sell bugger all and wonder whether anyone will ever buy wine again.
Wednesday 14th April
More business meetings and a tour of customers around Tokyo. It's all very boring and as dull as the weather: today it is pouring down. Tokyo is a gloomy, etiolated metropolis in the rain, it turns from grey with a hint of colour to just plain grey. I have a glamorous lunch at Denny's (see, it is not 3-star Michelin all the way) and in the evening meet colleagues in Ginza.
Thursday 15th April
Yet more business meetings. Then in the evening we head to Roppongi Hills, a new complex in the heart of Tokyo, a paradigm of future urban planning in Tokyo: tall skyscrapers and self-enclosed complexes that bring the Bladerunner landscape one step closer to reality. From the 60th floor you can see over Tokyo, an endless urban labrynth that only comes to a halt when the 2,000 metre mountains prevent its bloating.
In the evening a splendid dinner at the French Kitchen at the Grand Hyatt: all "Lost in Translation" chrome and marble. The meal is fabulous, the Figeac 1981 disappointing, the Echezeaux 1985 from DRC absolutely sublime. I politely decline an invitation to a hostess bar so that libidinous mini-skirted women can pour my Asahi and empty my bank account in one deft movement. Explaining a 1 million yen beer to the accounts department might prove difficult.
Friday 16th April
The final of day of an arduous week meeting customers, bowing with the appropriate measure of deferential degrees, muddling through with my terrible Japanese and drinking copious amounts of beer. In the afternoon we visit Ukai-tei, possibly one of the most beautiful restaurants in the world located one block away from the famous kabuki theatre in Ginza. The interior was constructed from a derelict French chateau which was dismantled piece by piece and reconstructed on the other side of the world. The owner is an avid collector of French antiques and the place is adorned with priceless Lalique glassware and Napoleonic silverware purchased at European auctions. Of course, the food (teppen-yaki) is a gastronomic feast and the service is exceptional.
Afterwards I return to the hotel and then arrange to meet Tomoko at Ikebukero Station. Unfortunately, Ikebukero Station at rush-hour resembles an ant-colony on amphetamines, a disorientating catacomb of swarming communters that renders any hope of a rendezvous impossible. Tomoko is nowhere to be found (unbeknownst to me she is standing at the other exit), so I venture outside to purchase a digital camera. To regain my bearings, I just need to leave the Seibu Department store and the shop should be on my right. The only problem is that I cannot find the Seibu Department store. Given that this is the largest department store in the world, you can imagine my state of confusion, which is no different to normal really.
I eventually locate the shop and manage to purchase my Olympus Myu-25. I head towards Hikawadai for our final evening summit with Tomoko's mother and brother. She prepares some delicious sashimi using fresh sea bream and tuna and interrogates me upon my intentions for her only daughter. I keep secret my plans to sell her to a Thai brothel and assure her that there is nothing to worry about. If only we knew what had transpired in the onsen.
Saturday 17th April
Visiting an alternative culture leaves an indelible impression upon your mind, however familiar you are with it. I love returning here, a country that never ceases to amaze and alarm in equal measure. However I had my fill of the Japan in my early 20's, and now I begin to yearn for the crapness that makes our country unique. Back to the nation of short-tempered shop assistants, graffitied streets, Pop Idol and micro-waved ready-meals. After a couple of weeks of consuming some of the finest cuisine Japan has to offer, I still hanker after a pile of baked beans slopped on a mound of mashed potato.
I will therefore leave you with a factoid from Neal's vaults of useless information:-
The Japanese are unable to blow raspberries.
Funny old world.