Friday, 27 May 2011

Jottings from Japan

(I wrote this back in November, on my way back from Japan, but for some reason never got round to finishing and posting it). More pictures here.

My second trip to Japan this year, for the usual reason: trying to spend some time with my wife as she zooms around the world, bouncing off of various cities such as (in this case) Belfast, Seoul and Paris, in that order. I'm burning up my collection of airmiles and so (poor me) the only way I could get the dates I wanted for this trip was First Class on Singapore Airlines. Summary: not bad! Unfortunately on the LA-Tokyo route, they aren't yet running the Airbus 380 - I would have loved to have tried that in First. But the 747 wasn't bad either. Though there are things they do which, in my opinion, create unnecessary stress for the passenger- such as having to choose between Dom Perignon and Krug.

I tried both, alternating every time I had a top-up. The Dom, I can report, was much lighter than the Krug - surprising since compared to lesser champagnes Dom has a lot of body. But it was almost spring-like compared to the Krug's biscuity heaviness. Both were pretty good though, as was the Griotte Chambertin I had with the main course. My only disappointment with the flight was entirely my own fault - I left a half-finished book, which I was thoroughly enjoying, on the plane.

I stayed, as usual, at the New Otani. This is a wonderful hotel, in my opinion the most agreeable in Tokyo. It's the only hotel in the world to have its own private 16th century samurai garden, which guests (and indeed anyone else) can wander around freely, or admire over breakfast from the restaurant. The story is simple enough: in 1964 Japan hosted the Olympic Games, but didn't have a large, modern, western-style hotel. Mr Otani, a successful industrialist whose statue can be found tucked away in a corner of the samurai garden, was asked to help. But where to find the land in super-crowded Tokyo? In addition to the Imperial Palace, Tokyo has a second palace used for visiting heads of state and such. What could be simpler than to use some of its vast grounds for the hotel? And somehow, Mr Otani managed to get the part containing the samurai garden. Incidentally the New Otani appears in the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice as the headquarters of the evil empire - construction was complete but the hotel had not yet opened when the film was made in 1964.

The first day I worked, visiting our Japanese reseller, a typical Japanese "fireside chat" type of meeting. Then in the evening I traveled down to Haneda, Tokyo's domestic airport, to meet my wife. Well, it used to be Tokyo's domestic airport. The Japanese government has finally opened it to international flights, as an alternative to the super-inconvenient Narita. Now there's a vast new international terminal, complete with its own subway station. Quite a change from a couple of years ago when I flew to Korea from Haneda - the terminal was a tin shed somewhere on the outskirts of the airport, with only an infrequent shuttle bus service.

The next day we took the train to Hakone, a journey I've already described here. But first we went to Shimbashi for sushi, to the same kaiten sushi restaurant we've been visiting now for nearly 30 years! It's a low-price operation for the salarymen in the area, but because the turnover is so high, the fish is wonderfully fresh.

Hakone was wonderful, we were incredibly lucky with the weather - the previous day had been overcast and damp, today was bright sunshine. We stayed at a traditional Japnaese ryokan, selected through the wonderful service of japaneseguesthouses.com. The bath was at just the perfect temperature, which means just bearable, the kaiseki dinner was excellent. And in the morning, looking closely at the prints which lined all the corridors, we realised that they were original Hiroshige - which means worth a small fortune, tucked away inconspicuously in a modest inn.

Hakone can be visited as a day-trip from Tokyo, and everything is organised for just that. The train ticket includes all of the various means of transportation required - a bus along a twisty mountain road to Lake Ashi (Ashinoko), a quick walk to find the ancient cedar avenue which was once the main road from Tokyo to Kyoto, then a lake steamer disguised - improbably - as a pirate ship, complete with swashbuckling pirate captain, photographer in tow. In the 25-minute journey the pirate captain walks around the whole boat, and just before you dock he returns with the pictures for sale.

One reason why Hakone is so popular is the fantastic views of Fuji-san, first from the lake and later from the cable-car that crosses the mountain. There's a change in the middle, at one of the surreal, hellish, sulphur-laden volcanic springs that are found only in Japan. But the journey isn't over yet - at the bottom of the cable car is a funicular, and then a tiny train that twists and turns around corners that even a car would struggle with, back to the mainline train station. Along the way we visited the Hakone Art Museum. There were two things to see there: the wonderful autumn foliage on the maple trees that fill the garden, and the throngs of photographers, all with the very latest cameras and extraordinary lenses, taking pictures of the wonderful autumn foliage.

On Saturday, we had the great good fortune to go along to a Japanese family event, the annual sushi party of the company where I used to work. It's difficult for westerners to get to meet Japanese families, and we're really very lucky to have such good friends who will invite us to something like this. Everyone was there, colleagues, spouses and their children. The food was truly amazing, and went on forever, and the company was wonderful too. I'm incredibly lucky to have such good friends in Japan.

I spent Sunday on my own - my wife had to return to another meeting in Europe. I went to Ueno Park and visited the Science Museum, recalling my first ever visit to Japan in 1982. It has changed a lot - for one thing it has doubled in size, and it is much more modern and visitor-friendly. Back then it was just a lot of dusty display cases. But one thing that hasn't changed is that there is absolutely no allowance whatsoever for non-Japanese visitors. Apart from a few signs in the hallways, nothing is labeled in English. Now - unlike then - I can just about read the signs, though it takes a long while. But it is reasonable enough when you consider how few foreign tourists there are in Japan, apart from Kyoto. A while back we went to the Museum of Modern Art, in another corner of Ueno Park, and
we saw just one other foreign visitor there. Of course it's self perpetuating - Japan apparently does want to attract foreign tourists but for as long as you need to be able to speak and read some Japanese to survive, it just isn't going to happen.

Finally on Monday it was time to return. As usual I took the bus out to the airport. At the first-class check-in desk the lady was very concerned - never a good sign, especially when you're using an airmiles ticket. There are just so many things to go wrong. She walked away, talked to colleagues with a worried look on her face, made a phone call. I feared the worst, beginning to envisage a hasty one-way ticket purchase and the uncomfortable return journey in economy. Finally she turned back to me.

"Mr Harper... did you leave a book on the aircraft when you arrived?" Well yes, I did.

"I'm very sorry, the book is in our office, would you mind waiting a few minutes while my colleague collects it?"

This could only happen in Japan! Once I left a valuable (to me) notebook on Swissair (yes, it was a long time ago), in Business Class. When I called, they said, "Oh, we never keep anything, it will have been thrown away." But Singapore Airlines - in Japan - even kept a $5 paperback for me, unasked.

It got better, too. As I was waiting in the emigration line, after security, someone came running up to me, apologising - I'd left my laptop behind at security... and they had to run after me to return it! If I'd done that at Heathrow it would already have been on E-Bay!

The return journey on Singapore in First was as good as you'd expect - there's really nothing to be said.

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