Dear John,

How many holidays have you returned from thinking how pampered your posterior has been? I myself would have been unable to even start a tally, until visiting Japan that is. Indeed, a certain part of my anotomy could now be labelled a bog snob, such were the delights it sampled on this trip!

Do not despair dear reader, I won’t be going into minute detail during this blog post, and you’ll certainly find no carefully composed images to accompany my words; instead I’d like to provide you with a brief overview of the privy facilities we encountered on our journey around this amazing country.

Kate opened the topic as early as the first stop of our first morning in Tokyo, returning from a visit to the little room of a train station cafe exclaiming ‘The toilet seats are heated!’, and from that point on we set out on our odyssey to find the ultimate throne! During our quest we encountered a wide range of facilities, and I feel duty bound to report our findings.

So, a gently warmed seat was a given in pretty much every public toilet we visited, so much so that I started to simply refuse to perform, unless my buttocks were cupped in a warm embrace beforehand.

But, in my excitement, I have jumped ahead to sitting on the throne and missed out some vital precursors! I don’t know about you, but one of my least favourite aspects of going to the loo during the night is having to turn on the bathroom light to get ones bearings. Not so in Japan! The toilet bowl in our bathroom at Beniya Mukayu lit up when it sensed us approaching. No turning on the bathroom lights and recoiling Gollum-like from the cruel glare of bright bulbs – ‘It burns us, nasty lights!’.

Instead, a gently illuminated bowl guides you to a perfect landing, even when you’ve previously quaffed ten glasses of sake, followed by a generous glass of whisky! And don’t even think about actually having to touch the lid to get to the landing pad! As soon as your hand gets close, the lid flips up, inviting you to touch down! A perfect landing every time, well done captain!

So, you’re nicely settled on your warmed seat, but your wind instrument is out of tune and your staccato melody might cause offence to those in your vicinity! Fear not, they’ve thought about this nightmare scenario too. Simply press the music button by the toilet and your performance is accompanied by either a nice little ditty or the gentle sounds of a running stream to mask your discordant trumpeting! Some of us found this feature to be particularly useful……

Your concerto played, you could, of course, be cleansed by a couple of strategically angled jets of warm water. I resorted to the barbaric use of paper, but various high pitched giggles from Kate testified that she developed quite a liking to this more fluid approach.

Of course, you wouldn’t be expected to have to push a lever to flush away your masterpiece. Once again, our friendly proximity sensor knows that your performance is complete and cleans up after you, a veritable whirpool leaving the theatre sparkling for the next visiting musician. Bravo! Bravo!

Last on the list was cleaning your hands and the best implementation we found of this was using the Dyson Airblade Tap. Hold your hand under the tap and a ball of foaming soap was deposited on it. Clean away, then hold them under the tap again to rinse the soap away with warm water. Move your hands to either side of the tap and downward blasts of warm air thoroughly and effectively dried your hands and you’re on your way! No touching the soap dispenser, tap or drying media, no bin of used towels, no soap gunk by the side of the sink. Effortless and efficient.

Lastly, to wrap up this entry, I’ll draw a comparison that struck me on the very last day we were in Japan. We were in the depths of Tokyo train station, about to get the train to the airport, when I needed to visit the gents. Tokyo station is huge and there was a queue of about thirty men in front of me, waiting to use the facilities. While waiting for my turn I thought back on the last time I’d been in such a long queue for the toilets and half time relief at Upton Park during a West Ham football game came to mind. A cloud of doubt passed over me, as I remembered the stench and the golden pools on the floor from the overflowing urinals. I considered delaying my visit until I was on the train but I persevered. I needn’t have worried, despite no doubt being busy throughout the day it was spotless!

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Shaken, not stirred.

‘Can you pass me the Yuzu facial foam please darling, I’ve got yoga before breakfast!’

Never before have those words been uttered by me, and I doubt they ever will again. This really is a holiday of firsts! In this case it is a first, after coming full circle from a beginning.

Thirty four years ago I started my culinary career in a Michelin star hotel and restaurant called Gravetye Manor; part of an exclusive chain of independent establishments, grouped under the flag of the Relais et Chateaux organisation. I had gotten the job quite by chance. They had advertised for an apprentice manager and my school careers advisor had misunderstood and organised an interview for me, thinking the position available was for an apprentice chef. I took along my school cookery theory projects and they were so impressed they gave me a position in the kitchen anyway.

I started the day after I finished my school exams, and I can still distinctly remember Mum driving me to work on my first day, telling me to make a good impression and to not swear. I was a bundle of nerves as I was greeted by Bernard, the German sous chef, who took me down to the chefs’ changing room. As he opened the door he exclaimed in a heavy German accent ‘Fucking hell, asshole chefs! This place is always such a fucking shit hole!’ I relaxed and instantly knew that the next three years were going to be a blast! Bloody hard work, grafting all hours under the sun (and moon), but I still look back on those three years with such fond memories.

To celebrate Kate’s and my twentieth anniversary, we decided that a small splurge would be in order. I thought that a return to Relais et Chateaux would be a suitable choice, and I was sure that a Japanese establishment would be really special. We had also wanted to stay at a Ryoken, a traditional Japanese ‘inn’, complete with rice paper walls, tatami mats etc, so we thought we’d kill two birds with one stone and combine them.

Beniya Mukaya is all that and more. When we arrived we were welcomed with a hot towel and a glass of freshly squeezed apple juice each. We were then shown round the hotel and to our room, I thought we’d stepped into the lair of a James Bond villain! Kate drew comparisons to Nathan Bateman’s estate in the film Ex Machina. Nestled in the skirts of the Japanese mountains, it is a haven of peace with a zen-like atmosphere. The hotel’s architecture elegantly emphasizes contrasts between light, shade and neutral colours and is a quite magical mix of raw concrete, wood, bamboo and rice paper. In the restaurant they serve a Kaga Kaiseki multi-course dinner and choice of authentic Japanese breakfast, or European option. Well that’s what the hotel literature says, and it’s spot on, but I’ll add our impressions too.

Once we had unpacked our belongings we explored our room in more detail. I wasted no time in synchronising the room’s bluetooth speaker to my iPhone and let the gentle tones of Buckethead’s Electric Tears accompany our exploration. We made ourselves a cup of Japanese brown tea, that was the most delicious and savoury we have ever had. We checked out the bathroom and marvelled at the range of soaps, lotion, balms and moisturisers available – Kate was going to have a field day! Towels squeezed and stroked, we went onto our balcony and drank in the views of the Japanese moss garden, the Japanese maple trees swaying gently in the breeze, bathing us in the most delightful dappled greens. It was impossible to not feel calm and relaxed while looking out onto the garden, such was its tranquility.

DSCF6722This was all quite tiring, so we headed to our own private open-air hot spring bath, still with a wonderful view of the Japanese moss garden, and had a long, hot soak, to sooth away the deeply rooted aches and pains of modern living. After a while the 40’C heat was too much for us and we had a refreshing cool shower, with yet more views of the garden, before heading off to join the hotel owner, and tea master, to a welcome tea ceremeony.

DSCF6690DSCF6693Watching him prepare the matcha green tea, while engaing us in effortless conversation, was truly a sight to behold. Such calm precision, such ceremony, as he took hot water from a gently bubbling cauldron, whisked up the lightest green tea imaginable, then passed first Kate, then I, a cup to drink from. It was, of course, delicious – so light and refreshing, yet full of umami flavours, but never a hint of bitterness. He wore a dark brown and grey kimono, perfect in every detail, not a hair out of place, and before we knew it the ceremony was over and, excusing himself,  he left us to discover the library and reading room by ourselves.

After a while we headed back to our room, to relax before dinner, and were met on the way by a hotel receptionist. ‘Would we like a down pillow, or memory foam, or a buckwheat pillow?’ Every cell in my body wanted to try the buckwheat pillow, but I hesitated, worried that I’d get a crap nights sleep. ‘You can have all three if you wish’ he said, no doubt sensing my hesitation. Great! ‘I’ll have a buckwheat pillow and down pillow please’ I answered, always good to have a plan B. I needn’t have worried, the buckwheat pillow was absolutely amazing and I had two of the best nights sleep I can remember!

Dinner, on both nights, was amazing. They were ten course extravaganzas, accompanied by matching sake the first night, and matching sake and wine the second. Kate retired from the excessive drinking after the first night, but I just couldn’t resist the second nights pairings! Our sommelier was so stoked, she said most people go for a bottle of wine only, and she hardly ever got to show her skill at matching the drinks to the food. We were more than happy to let her choose, as we know little enough about wine, and even less about sake!

DSCF6655The first night we had:

Sake aperitif,
Clam, shrimp and lotus root mochi in broth,
Tuna and mackeral sushi,
Hairy crab,
Seasonal assortment #1,
Flounder, shrimp and sea urchin sashimi,
Char-grilled black throat,
Duck meat balls served in hot pot rice soup,
Pistachio ice cream,
Seasonal fruit.

Kate rounded off her dinner with a large glass of Yuzu liquor, while I had a generous glass of Japanese single malt whisky.

DSCF6657-2The second night we had:

Plum wine aperitif,
Seasonal assortment #2,
Sea salt crusted abalone,
Seasonal vegetables in broth,
Tuna, grouper and shrimp sashimi,
Tuna boiled in soy sauce,
Grilled trout,
Noto beef steak,
Ginger rice,
Salt gelato with wafer.

I went for a glass of Japanese blended whisky on the second night, just as big and just as good as the first night’s digestif!

DSCF6742Breakfast was just as extensive. The first morning I went for a Japanese breakfast, while Kate went for the European variety. The second breakfast, a little worse for wear, I joined her for the safer option! Both included your choice from three freshly squeezed fruit juice blends, or all three if you’re indecisive, along with a glass of fresh milk from a nearby farm. The Japanese breakfast included such highlights as fish roe, raw or grilled, dried whitebait with tiny, but mighty, Japanese green peppercorns, warmed seaweed, assorted pickled vegetables, steamed vegetables, rice, miso soup, dried flounder, Japanese omelette and Japanese stem tea . The European variery included toast, jam, eggs and bacon, vegetable salad, fresh fruit, homemade yoghurt and local honey and freshly brewed coffee

For both dinner and breakfast, both days, we had a wonderful Indian waitress who was on three months internship, as she studied hotel management in New Delhi. I was struck how, just like the Japanese, Indians have an effortless warmth and charm about them. She was so kind, gentle and soothing, gliding about the dining room, bringing us food as it was ready and taking away what we had finished. By the end of our stay we had struck up quite a freindship and relaxed in each others company. Both Kate and I felt a return to India was long overdue. There are many parallels between the two countries that make them extremely appealing to us – wonderful people, amazing food, rich in culture and extremely photogenic. Plans have been laid…….

DSCF6686We had intended to go into Kanazawa on our second day, to see the sights and have lunch in a Michelin restaurant, but decided to chill out around our hotel, and have lunch in the local village restaurant, recommended by the hotel receptionist, instead. I’m glad we did, we had an awesome time relaxing around the hotel, then strolling around the village, before having a ‘simple’ lunch at the local.

DSCF8325A totally unassuming place, with a couple of elderly ladies working in it, provided yet another culinary suprise. The hot soba noodles with herring was awesome – the herring having an intense, yet not overpowering, sweet umami flavour, the broth clean, clear and savoury, the noodles slightly firm, earthy and mellow. Delicious!

DSCF6736As we were finishing up, our Indian waitress and another of the waitresses at our hotel came in for lunch. We exchanged pleasantries like long term friends, then left them to enjoy their break in peace. Oh the joys of split shifts, I remember them well!

That afternoon Kate enjoyed a first of her own, her first spa session. A two hour plus treatment of total relaxation, which she said was absolute bliss. She struggled to stay awake, so soothing were her massages. Her skin was glowing and she looked totally refreshed when she emerged from her appointment, just in time to have a relaxing cup of tea back in our room, before the second nights dinner.

DSCF8337I could waffle on for pages and pages about how awesome our two days here were and I could add a dozen more images to try to illustrate the various wonderful aspects, but I’ll leave you with the video I watched while researching staying at Beniya Mukayu. As soon as I finished watching it the first time I knew we had to stay there. You have been given fair warning!

Thanks Beniya Mukayu and team. We had the most wonderful experience ever!

A childhood dream fulfilled.

Over forty years ago my brother and I were playing Top Trumps ‘Trains of the World’; a card game where you tried to beat your opponent’s hand via various train related statistics displayed on said cards. The criteria might be longest train, fastest train, most powerful engine etc. The card we both lusted over was the Bullet Train card, with its winning stats in a number of categories, but more importantly to us, photo of this futuristic super train! I remember thinking that one day I would have to travel on a bullet train, and here I am. I feel like that wonder filled little boy all over again!

We’re heading out of Tokyo bound for Kanazawa, then on to Kaga Onsen, to temporarily escape the heaving metropolis that is Tokyo, and soak up some Japanese spirituality and relaxation. Being forced to do nothing and relax for two hours or so means that I have finally found time to update our blog; it has just been non stop over the last week. I’ll add more entries over the next couple of days, reflecting on our time in Tokyo, but this post will be about the wonders of Japanese transport.

We’ve spent the week mostly walking around the streets of Tokyo, occasionally getting the metro to cover longer distances, or when we’ve just been too tired to walk any further. We’ve chalked up 144,375 steps since arriving in Japan, and we’ve enjoyed every single one of them, even when our feet and joints have begun protesting! Tokyo is crisscrossed by a maze of metro lines and using them has been efficient and effortless. Once we activated our rail passes, we discovered that it was serviced by a web of rail lines too, and we could travel across the city for free!

We got caught up in the rush hour twice, but we still got around easily, even when Kate got on a train but I got left behind on the platform; the doors closing before me and the train departing with a giggling Kate looking out the window at me.

No worries, the next packed train arrived two minutes later and I squeezed on! Once on the train I was amazed how peaceful and tranquil it was, despite being crammed in tighter than the proverbial sardines in a can. What conversations were being held were in the quietest of whisperers, barely audible over the equally quiet train. It felt like being in a church, or the very quietest of libraries! No mobile phones rang and no one was using them to talk on. Those using headphones were considerate enough to set their volumes so no sound escaped. When a station was reached a tide of commuters got off in silence, and the squeeze abated momentarily, as people shuffled apart to get some space, then the next wave of humanity boarded the train and everyone squeezed together again. I watched a young school girl sandwiched between five city gents. As the train swayed she kept a precise distance of about a centimetre from her neighbours, never touching, never invading another’s space, never causing an inconvenience. Eventually I got off the train and reunited with Kate on the destination platform, before being swept away in a river of commuters, up through the station and out onto the streets!

Waiting on the platform this morning for our Shinkansen train to Kanazawa, we watched as the train was prepared for the journey. All the seats rotated automatically, to face the direction of travel, then a team of cleaners boarded the carriage and made sure that it was spotless. They whisked around, flicking a cleaning cloth here, the smallest of brooms there, straightening the headrests and making sure everything was perfect before passengers could get on. Job done, the cleaners got off the train, lined up along the platform and bowed to the waiting queue. Looking further up the platform, the same scene was taking place in front of all seventeen carriages of the train. We’d been waiting in the ‘first departure’ queue for our carriage, while passengers for the next service waited in an adjacent queue labelled ‘second departure’. We boarded the train, those in the second departure queue shuffled forward into our vacant queue and a new set of passengers formed up in the ‘second departure’ queue! No stress, no confusion, just a well oiled machine!

Now on the Shinkansen, we are occasionally reminded by an announcer, who sounds remarkably like The Queen of England, what station we are approaching; that our mobile phone should be set to silent and that, should we wish to make a call, we should go to the little room at the end of the carriage. A food trolley goes through the carriage every thirty minutes, the attendant calmly chanting her menu melodically as she drifts by, the silence broken momentarily in the most relaxing of manners. A sign on the back of the seat in front of me reminds me to ‘ Please be considerate of other passengers while using my electronic device (keyboard noise, etc.)’. It is like the quietest, most spacious, most relaxing, most civilised airplane ever as it rockets across the country, covering a distance of 490km in 154 minutes, exactly. No matter that the full breadth of the Japanese Alps have to crossed en route, nor that our Japan Rail Pass doesn’t entitle us to use the fastest bullet trains! To think that this service runs every thirty minutes during the day, and that it is just one such service connecting cities across Japan. And now we approach Kanazawa in what seems like an effortless journey of only a matter of minutes. What treasures await us?

The barbarian.

It’s 4.45 in the morning and I have been awake since 2.30. We have just had our first full day in Japan and I have spent the last two hours reflecting on all that we have experienced since leaving NZ. I was awoken by an emergency services siren piercing the still of night, but otherwise all has been perfectly silent since then, despite being in the centre of a city of some 37 million people! (Greater metropolitan Tokyo area) That’s 25% of the total population of Japan, half the population of England, or almost eight times the population of New Zealand spread out in the urban sprawl around our small, but perfectly formed, apartment. I’ll apologise in advance for the number of times I use the word perfect in this blog about Japan, because I feel I’ll be using it a great deal.

Since setting foot on Japanese soil, I have felt very much like John Blackthorne, pilot of the Erasmus, in James Clavell’s Shogun. Our flight from NZ was, in many ways, a precursor to our experiences in Japan thus far. I like to think we surf the technological wave quite well, but I felt quite primitive as I sat in my Air New Zealand economy seat. Gone are the days of the cheap plastic shutters on the windows, to block out the glare, I now had full control of the tint, from bright sunlight to an almost eery dim moonlight, all at the touch of a button. Did I want to watch a movie? I could select from hundreds on my touch screen display, or TV shows, or songs, or podcasts, or games…… Did I want a drink? I could select a Bloody Mary; did I want ice with that, or lemon, or Tabasco, or Worcestershire sauce? Tick, tick, tick, then press a button and one minute later it arrived! I wondered what things were like in First Class. Maybe you only had to think about what you wanted? All this screen touching could really wear you out!

Another thing that mimicked our experience since arriving were the meal choices on the flight. For breakfast Kate and I chose Miso glazed salmon with steamed rice and pickled vegetables. Our Japanese companion, in our seating trio, chose Scrambled eggs, sausage and grilled tomato. These choices were even more apparent in the numerous fashion choices we’ve seen in Tokyo, but more on that in my next entry.

As we neared our destination we were served dinner. I was in the middle of watching The Death of Stalin (a wickedly dark comedy about his last days and the ensuing political power dance that followed), so paused the movie so I could eat my meal in peace. Mid way through my single serve main course I looked up to see Uncle Joe eying my repast! What should I do? Give up my meagre provisions, or risk going on his next list?

It’s a new dawn.

sunGreetings once again! After a hiatus of a couple of years, it is time once more to fire up the dusty blogging platform and stretch the old arthritic fingers. What has prompted such activity you may ask? Well, we’ve finally got our A’s into G and organised ourselves an overseas holiday. Yup, guidebooks have been browsed, the interwebs have been mined, and we have a plan of action in place! We are off to Japan for eighteen days!

We will spend the first week based in an Air BnB in Tokyo (our first ever Air BnB). Most of the week will be spent wandering the streets of Tokyo, checking out the city and the cultural and culinary delights it has to offer. We also plan to do day trips to Nikko, Hakone and Kamakura, to change things up a bit and balance the big smoke with the more tranquil side of Japan.

We will then head north-west to Kanazawa, where I have arranged a surprise three day splurge interlude, so we can really chill out and celebrate Kate and my twentieth anniversary. We don’t have much planned for this location, except to kick back, relax, eat lots of good food and soak our bloated stomachs and sore legs in some pools of steaming volcanic water.

After Kanazawa we head south-west to Kyoto, where we will spend eight days based in another Air BnB, spending a handful of days exploring the city, its shrines, winding alleys and surrounding hills, with further day trips to Osaka, Nara, Kobe and Himeji for variety.

We’ll then hurtle back to Tokyo on a bullet train on the last day and then onto the airport, to fly back to NZ and reality! Stay tuned for more details….