Dispatches from the back of the sock drawer of life

Month: March 2017 Page 1 of 2

Geek #1: Sakura in Tokyo

Friday 31st


Naha Airport has wonderful displays of tropical orchids dotted throughout, a nice reminder of the place you are arriving into – or leaving.

2hr 30mins flight back to Haneda Airport in Tokyo, where I was very excited to purchase a Suica card – personalised with my name! These ‘IC’ cards (SuICa, ICoca, Pasmo and others) are similar to London’s Oyster transport cards, but also allow you to make contactless payments in combinis, vending machines etc.

My home for the last few nights of the trip was the Hotel Kaminarimon in Asakusa, sadly closed for renovation until 2019. Simple hotel with traditional rooms, right next to the gateway to the shrine.  Quick trip to Shinjuku for dinner, then an early night.

Saturday 1st

Breakfast at Cafe Danke in Asakusa, tiny cafe with just 4 stools at the counter. Their speciality – Butter Blend Coffee, the beans are roasted, then steeped in melted butter before grinding and brewing. Very smooth flavour but still strong. Interesting technique! Paired with a very tasty cheese on toast.

Walked through Kappabashi to pick up a sharpening stone for my knives, then on to Ueno Park. Spent a few hours in the Tokyo National Museum, impressive collections of artwork across many centuries.

Then on to Ueno-koen (Ueno Park). I’ve visited several peaceful spots so far to view cherry blossom (sakura) – this wasn’t one of them, but it was fun! Loads of sakura viewing parties (hanami), and plenty of food and drink stalls. As you can see from the photos, much drinking to be done.

Walked on to Yanaka district, an area that escaped most of the devastation caused by the Great earthquake of 1923 and the Second World War. Many fine old buildings and temples. Strolled around Yanaka-reien cemetery, visited the resting place of Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last of the shogun – fitting, as we had visited the shrine of the first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu in  2 years ago.

Rounded off the evening in Campion Ale, a great little brew pub run by English owners. Selection of beers all brewers in house, plus a proper handpump on the bar!


Sunday 2nd

Set out after a lie in and packing. Headed over to Shinjuku to try and find a Nintendo Switch for James – alas Tokyo appears to be a Switch free zone. However there were a group of real life Mario karters riding the road…

In search of another craft beer place (sadly closed at this time on a Sunday), I came across a magnificent bronze statue of a noble beast, the Tanuki Yokai. Notable for his large… package, these tricksters are legendary in Japanese folklore.

Train back past Asakusa to the Tokyo Skytree – however as it was Sunday, and school hols, queuing would have taken a very long time. So walked back to the Sumidagawa (Sumida river) to discover many more Sakura revellers lining the banks.

There were also what I only describe as floating karaoke party boats – touring up and down to look at the trees and blossom, while belting out distinctly Japanese songs.

Then on to the Sakura-bashi (Sakura bridge) where I found a local Taiko group entertaining the crowd – very talented, including the young new recruits.

And so back to the monorail and Haneda Airport for a very late flight home. Until next time…

Geek #1: Okinawa bound

Tuesday 28th

Compact and bijou…

Bus to Kumamoto airport for a lunchtime flight to Okinawa. My kind of airport – very small, only a handful of gates so no massive long walks.

Karashi Renkon

Airport duty free had an ‘interesting’ local delicacy – Karashi Renkon (Renkon = lotus root), where the holes of the lotus roots are filled with a mixture of miso paste, mustard and honey (which also coats the surface). Unsurprisingly, I passed on this opportunity…

A 1hr 40min flight brought me to the capital, Naha. The monorail from the airport, busy but very efficient, drops me a couple of minutes walk from Tokyu REI Hotel, my home for the next 3 nights.

The hotel was very central, at one end of 2km long shopping street called Kokusaidori, ‘International Street’. Crazy vibe to the place – like a seaside resort, hundreds of shops in the main street and side arcades, mostly selling tourist tat. Bustling, and very few western faces – mostly Japanese, with some Chinese. It’s a popular tourist destination, as well as being home of an American air base, a hangover from the second world war when American forces occupied Japan.

Dined on local sausages and garlic breadsticks at Helios brewery, very good locally brewed beers. They also had snakes in jars of Habushu – their Habu (local venomous snake) liqueur, bit like the worm in a bottle of tequila but way more heavy metal! Apparently the alcohol helps the venom to dissolve and become non poisonous – I felt disinclined to test this theory.

First sighting of American military types, technician chatting to a newcomer further down the bar. Didn’t introduce myself – quickly got the sense he probably would have talked my ear off. Settled for a book instead.

Wednesday 29th

Early bus ride to Gyokusendae – ‘Okinawa World’. Very bouncy suspension, luckily I kept my breakfast down!

I booked myself onto the 10:40am tour of the Gangala valley, then headed over to walk through the Gyokusendae cave. A 900m walk through the most amazing set of stalactites and stalagmites that I’ve ever seen – so good that after doing the Gangala valley walk I went and walked through again. Apparently there are another 2 km of caves that aren’t accessible to the public – I wonder if I could arrange a proper caving visit? It even had an escalator at the end to bring you back above ground.


The Cave Cafe

The Gangala valley tour starts in the Cave Cafe, where umbrellas are needed for the diners to protect from water dropping off the cave roof. This is a collapsed limestone cave that opens up into a beautiful subtropical valley, with stands of bamboo and banyan trees.


No caption required

We visit a couple more caves, one of which (Ikiga-do, or ‘Male Cave’) was thought to be occupied by a male deity – I wonder why? Local women have been coming here for centuries to pray for good fertility. There is also Inagu-do (Female Cave) with rock formations of a more curvy nature – however this is inaccesible due to unstable rocks.

This is also the site of the discovery of one of the 4 examples of Minatogawa Man, his remains were found in a rock fissure and are dated between 16,000 and 14,000 BCE. These are among the oldest hominid skeletons found in Japan.

Rounded off the trip with a beer or two at the Okinawa Sango Brewery, based at the attraction. Beers brewed with coral filtered spring water –  tasty! They also had some tanks where they were maturing habushu –  not one for ophiophobia sufferers.

On arriving back in Naha, rode the monorail to the far end of the line and took a walk up to the reconstructed Shuri Castle. In 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa, the castle was almost completely destroyed, leaving only foundation stones – some of the approaches bear the craters of Allied bullets. A beautiful rebuild job, based on historical records, photographs and memory.

On leaving the castle and walking back down the hill toward the monorail station, a rather odd looking car pulled up at the traffic lights ahead. Clearly the owner was an ecological enthusiast, as it appeared he had a mat of sacking or similar material containing soil tied to the roof, which supported a rather natty roof garden of ferns etc. Only in Japan…

Thursday 30th


Took a ferry from Naha to Tokashiki island for the day. Seriously underestimated the strength of the sun, so ended up looking like ‘The Vision’ or maybe Hellboy. Belatedly thought to wrap my towel around my head, alas too late…

Beautiful coral beaches, where it’s often possible to swim with sea turtles – must try that if I get a chance to come back again.

Hiked 3km or so to Tokashiku beach, explored and cooled my feet at the waters edge. Found an interesting cave carved into the cliffside, an information panel informed me that it was a suicide boat cave – speedboats packed full of explosives would be hidden here, then brought out under cover of darkness to be sailed across the water and rammed into American ships.

Then walked up and over to Aharen beach, allegedly 2.2km, but the winding road and 200m ascent to the viewpoint made it a lot further. Spectacular views, and it was about at this point I decided I should cover my big forehead…

Bus back to the ferry port, bought aloe vera gel there from a very friendly local – much needed! She didn’t speak much English but one look at me and she knew exactly what to sell me. That evening sitting in Helios bar, people must have been thinking ‘who is that angry looking Westerner?’


Geek #1: Beppu and arrival in Kumamoto

Sunday 26th

Emergency rations

Awoke to good news from James – new Gorillaz tracks! Now off to find breakfast at 6am… Luckily James warned me off of trying the Calorie Mate protein bars shown here. Apparently they are truly dire…



Beppu manhole

Helpful ticket office staff called me a taxi so I could get to the centre of Beppu, dropped my case in a station locker. Sadly Mister Donut not open until 7am, so went for a stroll – always interesting seeing a deserted town waking up. Sunday morning so particularly quiet…


The next part of my trip would involve monkeys. As can be seen here, there are many monkey motifs around this town.

Mount Takasaki national park opened at 8:30am, hopped on the bus to get there. The mountain is inhabited by many macaque monkeys. Was met by a young lady who apologised and said that the monkeys hadn’t come down from the mountain yet – in spring, they have a lot of natural food available. So decided to wait for the aquarium over the road to open – then 15 mins later she came jogging across to say that the monkeys had heard I was there and figured I was worth gawping at. Or something. Here’s a monkey trying to figure out how to make tools – or just bang two rocks together:

Two groups live on this mountain, one comes down in the morning and one in the afternoon so they avoid fights. In total there are around 1500 monkeys, the larger group of 800 comes down first followed by the smaller. The idea behind the project is to feed them so that they don’t raid local farmers crops, this has worked well since 1953 when they first opened.


It was really quite amazing just having them wander around you. Wild animals – but with little quirks and behaviours as you observed that were so very human. There were notices cautioning you not to make eye contact (they would perceive that as a threat and would likely attack). Certainly there was a lot of gaze avoidance going on. And yes, the boss man (dominant male) really did seem to have the biggest balls. Oh, and these two youngsters showed James just how much he has to learn about climbing:


And finally: if you wondered what feeding that many macaques looks and sounds like:

Beppu is known as a hot springs town, with many onsen and public baths. I headed back into town to have a wander around the springs area and see if I could have a soak – sadly signage everywhere was in Japanese, so I didn’t know if I would be walking into a restaurant with a particularly steamy kitchen, or a bath house. Still, I did get to steam my feet for 10 mins – was most relaxing, You take a seat, lift the lid from the steam chamber, then cover your legs with the wooden box.

The steamy streeets of Beppu

Beppu also features a number of sites with geysers and mud that you really wouldn’t want to bathe in – they are around boiling point, some brightly coloured by the minerals in the mud. These Jigoku (“Hells”) are spread around the onsen area, I dropped in on one special one where they take advantage of the naturally hot mineral waters (suitably cooled) to raise crocodiles – and my are they big beasts.

Stopped off for a very nice coffee and cake, they do pride themselves on sweet things in Japan.

Onwards by train to Kumamoto via Kokura. On the way, I saw a big hillside sign saying USA, wondered what Trump was doing here – then realized we were just passing a town called Usa….

Got lucky (again) – I promised myself I wouldn’t fall asleep and miss my stop – so after falling asleep it turned out a fellow traveller had set their alarm for 5 mins before our stop and I made the shinkansen connection. Saw a new variant train, unusual livery – and a lot of people photographing it!

Nice hotel – spotted this parked outside…

Hopped in a taxi at Kumamoto station, and had a rather confusing discussion with the driver. I asked to go to the Hotel Kumamoto Castle, and he repeated the name to me sounding rather puzzled. He started looking things up in his satnav, muttering the whole time. This was perplexing, as Kumamoto Castle rates as the #1 attraction in Kumamoto. Suddenly he says ‘ah, Kumamoto Castle!’ but pronouncing the ‘castle’ like a Geordie would say Newcastle – and we were off. Seems my Surrey pronunciation of Caaastle with a long ‘a’ confused the hell out of him.

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A websearch tracked down a local craft beer bar – Voyager Beer. Spent some time there after dinner, with Akira the friendly barman practising his English with me. Interestingly they specialise in American craft beer, and I didn’t recognise anything on their list – always good to be surprised.


Monday 27th

After breakfast, rode the tram down through town. Got off two stops past Suizenji Jojuen garden, to walk back there through Suizenji Ezuko park – luckily reached the haven of the Boat House as a thunderstorm hit. Drinking beer, watching the rain, waiting for the sun to return.

You can see extensive damage to the lake banks from last years earthquake, rebuilding underway, luckily the bridges seemed unscathed.

Afternoon tea Kumamoto style

Suizenji Jojuen garden was beautiful, stopped for matcha (green tea) and a sweet that looked rather like a poached egg – very tasty.

The garden represents the 53 stations of the Tokaido road, which connected Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo). It was the most important of the Five Routes of the Edo period in Japan, and walking it some day is on my to-do list.


Walked Kumamoto castle grounds. Absolute devastation in places, the only happy sight being the first of the cherry blossoms in bloom. After the earthquake in March 2016, there is a 20 year rebuilding plan in place.

Wouldn’t want the job of the guy in the first picture – there were a number like him, and it seemed they were just there to make sure people didn’t try entering the castle grounds.

Top right and bottom left – huh?

Katherine’s bar for a swift Suntory and a snack. Huge picture of the owner and her two daughters (apparently one is quite famous), and branded snacks with Katherine in cartoon form. Then on to a restaurant for Kumamoto ramen with gyoza for dinner. Amazing flavour – one ingredient is garlic, which is slow roasted and turned into black stock which they add to the broth – intense. Mind you, not sure what I make of some of their menu items…

Back to Voyager for a nightcap. Mickey – one of the owners – was there, her day job is as a translator for businesses. Spoke English and Spanish, as well as an extensive knowledge of beer, her business partner is American hence all the American craft beer.

Got chatting with another customer, couldn’t pronounce his real name but everyone there seemed to have nicknames – his was Yohai. Man Utd supporter, very funny guy – would say ‘sorry God’ before saying ‘holy shit’ 😊. Said he will cheer on James if he competes at Tokyo 2020!

Me and my new pal!

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