Hokkaido: Beers, bears and BBQ

Escapist outdoor fantasies of the urban Japanese often end up with Hokkaido as a wilderness, or bizarrely, farming destination to settle in. Around 700 miles from  capital, it’s a real outpost and the second biggest of the Japanese islands. I’ve disregarded the isolation in my four visits, though, and have embraced fun in the snow and outdoors with beer and BBQ for sustenance.

Getting there: The brilliance of the JR pass

The main city in the region, Sapporo, has an international airport, but in reality most journeys there seem to involve going from or through Tokyo. For this route in particular, flying is a soulless way to make your way up so it’s a great use of the JR (Japan Railways) pass. Various types for various circumstances exist, the best value ones are available to tourists (only) in their home countries. On my four trips up I’ve used a range of passes, all of which give you unlimited train use between Tokyo and Sapporo.

My particular favourite route utilises bullet train to Aomori, starting with urban sprawl and ending in snow and wide open plains, changing to express trains for the Sekkan tunnel, the longest train tunnel in the world under sea, to Hakkodate, the third biggest town in the region. A second express train completes the journey, taking in lunar landscapes and huge volcanic activity to Sapporo. In one hit, it takes about nine hours in three, three hour chunks of rapidly changing scenery.


Entry point Hakkodate

When Japan opened up to the world in 1854, Hakodate was one of four officially designated ports of entry to Japan and this influence is still obvious now. If you’ve been in Japan a while, the European architecture, exemplified by Russian onion domed churches, are a fascinating and eclectic contrast. For a curiously mixed attitude to foreigners, you can also ponder the fort, Goryokaku, and some high lookouts over the docks, accessed by ropeway, that are great to take in the topography of the town.


The main activity here though, at least from my perspective, is seafood. The seafood market is best taken in early in the morning for breakfast delights such as barbecued scallops and crab. You can also catch your own squid from an indoor boat/tank and have it turned into sushi or sashimi on the spot. This isn’t for the squeamish though, it’s probably still technically alive when you eat it. A lunch of ramen noodles with half a crab on it is yours for lunch, for £5, while dinner at Akachouchin allows you to choose your fish or meat from a massive selection on ice to have it BBQ’d in front of you. My biggest tip here is to go twice and speak some really bad Japanese. On my second visit I was plied with free beer and food for my loyalty.


The varied Outdoors

A train between Hakodate and Sapporo uncovers a huge host of activities that take advantage of spectacular alpine landscape. The terrain here is hugely volcanic and generally geologically unstable, as demonstrated by the Showa Shinzan mountain which has appeared and grown 400 meters within the last seventy years. Skiing and hiking options around here are abundant with slopes and trail heads accessible via train. Both are quite thrillingly unstructured and my knee still gives me problems from a 2003 ski collision with a Japanese infant’s head. A typically Japanese situation of convenience and deregulation.

The greatest benefit of volcanic activity is bubbling hot spring water. I’ve written about this before in Tokyo, though the local variety is sulphurous and whole towns here reek of it. Noboribetsu Onsen has a lunar landscape to explore this with massive geysers and pools which are great to hike around. Outdoor pools to soak in are available in locations too numerous to mention to relax in after, many with snow-capped mountain views.


There is also a bear park here, though rumour is it’s kept in bad condition so I’ve avoided it. I have, however, been chased off a mountain by a smaller bear on an off-piste ramble. The threat of bear activity combined with the ferocious three-meter tall stuffed beast at the train station is stimulus enough.

Sapporo beer city

Volcanic landscapes apart, Hokkaido is actually a perfect area for farming as well – a bit of a rarity in the rest of rocky and mountainous Japan. This point wasn’t lost on early European settlers. Noting hops and malt in the area, several huge breweries have cropped up in Sapporo, the modern, compact and exciting main city of the island. Like the rest of the city, there are some very obvious Western influences. It’s the main source of beer in Japan which despite its recent history of brewing is now a nation of enthusiastic beer guzzlers.


Eschewing any sort of responsible alcohol sale, the Sapporo beer factory and the Kirin Beer Garden have huge halls where you can put down £15 for unlimited beer drinking, for £30 you can add as much lamb and crab BBQ as you can down in 90 mins as well. It’s hugely over the top, one of my favourite Japan memories was seeing several sixty or seventy year old blokes collapsing outside in the snow through consumption, cackling with laughter red faced, with long suffering wives looking on despairingly.




It’s the land of the free and the home of the brave, justification for a big meat fest. I go over six places I’ve gluttonously attacked a huge pile of animal in NYC.

Brunch: Carnegie Deli vs Katz

Carnegie Deli was somewhat inconveniently shut on this visit (1) so recalling a trip in 2004 here, Katz provides more recent memories from visits in 2012 and ’15

Rudeness of waiters

Carnegie wins by a whisker, just plain old fashioned rude. Counter service guys / assembly chefs at Katz were alright for providing guidance and samples, though you can incur the wrath of Katz’ table service by disputing the recommendations. Threat of a $75 fine for losing your ticket / bill card. Carnegie 4/5, Katz 3/5.


Carnegie wins hands down. It’s proportional to the price, but the pastrami sandwich is the size of a rugby ball, you won’t finish it. There’s a fee for sharing, which is a bit more realistic. Salmon bagel is lazily deconstructed, a slop of gravlax with four halves of bagel thrown on with cream cheese. Katz has much more realistic sizes, the Reuben I had and all the meat sandwiches are good for lunch with a plate of pickles to balance. Carnegie 5/5, Katz 4/5


There seems to be much more thought into Katz sandwiches and the matzo ball soup was brimmingly authentic. Fries hopeless, but probably intended to entice you onto charismatically-crispy potato latkes. I had a Reuben on both occasions, witnessing its creation at the counter is reassuring and chaotically fun. Sauerkraut, cheese and Russian dressing all balance out a great dish. Not much to note in Carnegie other than volume, but it’s not bad stuff. Katz 4.5/5 Carnegie 3/5.

Classically-dated NY decor

Katz is throughly knackered and no different from its’ feature in the 25 year-old film When Harry Met Sally. An exact vision of 1950s New York, though, it has style. The famed ‘Send a Salami to your boy in the army’ ads and counter look like it was there in 1945. With a view of Carnegie Music Hall and 1950s fittings Carnegie looks the part, but not as knackered as Katz. Authentic ageing (or simply not decorating) steals it. Katz 4/5 Carnegie 3/5.

The winner: Katz 15.5/20 Carnegie 15/20

BBQ: Virgils vs Fette Sau


Virgils has a bit of history and the BBQ hasn’t changed much over the decades. Classic ribs, chicken and the rest of it with coleslaw etc, all pretty huge and good chow. Fette Sau (‘fat pig’ in German for those in the know) is charged by the kilo and is altogether more hipster. Beef brisket, pulled pork and pork belly dominate, the sides are imaginative with sauerkraut and burnt end beans, sharpness is provided from a vinegary broccoli salad. I nailed two pounds (900g) of meat, easy. Virgils 4/5 FS 5/5.


Butcher’s knives as beer taps with a big range of IPAs served in jam jars characterise drink at Fette Sau. Quart and gallon-sized receptacles open the possibility of some serious rowdiness. Not much in the way of wine but some decent looking whiskey for those that like em. Good range of regular beers in Virgil’s, you won’t go far wrong, but point off for the inexplicably ubiquitous Bud Light. Virgil’s 3/5 FS 5/5.



Fette Sau rocks out of a former garage just the wrong side of the tracks from hipster chic Williamsburg in Brooklyn. More beards and checked shirts than Saturday afternoon in a Hoxton coffee festival. It’s friendly and lively with a thirty meter long queue the social fulcrum. Virgil’s is very TFI-like, petrol pumps, Route 66 signs and basketballs all rammed in. Wholesome and corn-fed. Virgil’s 4/5 FS 5/5.

Location and accessibility

I’ll not sugar coat it, Fette Sau is a total pain to get to. Metropolitan Avenue on the isolated G train is tricky enough and, testament to some corking BBQ, there’s a massive queue even at 1730 on a Sunday. Virgil’s has no such problems, Time Square you can’t fail to find and reservations don’t seem necessary in a huge restaurant. Virgil’s 5/5 FS 2/5.

The winner: Fette Sau 17/20 Virgil’s 16/20.

Steak dinner: Peter Lugers vs Les Halles

La vibe

Antony Bourdain’s contemporary take on the classic French bistro, it’s certainly contemporary. Music loud enough to take drugs to and dark enough to dance badly in (though not see your food or the menu) its not classic. Luger’s is all a bit more retro with deep red colour scheme and only just lively atmosphere. The words medium and happy spring to mind. Les Halles 2/5 Luger’s 2/5.

Les viandes

Bone-in rib at Les Halles was a bit wow, carved off a half-meter long bone. Too dark to see if it was actually rare or not. Crab starter and sides of frites, salad and vegetables all straight from a Paris bistro. Good, but not a contemporary take. American Dream sirloin, baked potato in foil, bacon bits were all as expected at Luger’s and they’ve have had years to hone the skill. As it says on the tin. The score is purely on meeting/exceeding expectations, Luger’s 4/5 Les Halles 3/5.

Le boissons

A bit difficult to arbitrate having had only coke in Luger’s. Am minded to call this one for Les Halles as the wine list was fairly decent, though, not quite as exciting as I would expect. Somehow booming music suits beer better. Luger’s 3/5 Les Halles 3.5/5

The result: Luger’s 9/15 Les Halles 8.5/15. Special mention, Les Halles has a lot of space to improve. It’s execution was just all wrong.


(1) This was actually close to a temper tantrum situation and the low point of New York inaccessibility. To get here for Sunday brunch we saw Carnegie apparently open via it’s website, the Subway to get there very definitely shut down, a ticket machine for alternative subway not taking my $10 bill and a taxi driver unable to locate alternative Katz or even the neighbourhood. From museum clerks’ flat refusal to accept valid concessions to airport customs/security getting progressively more arduous, it seems difficult to do things in NY now. Symptoms and causes of economic decline in their extreme forms and factors in ease, or difficulty, of doing business.

A lot of it is not restricted to New York. The A Grade New Yorker has its equivalents in London or Paris, and it isn’t going to lead to a negative effect any time soon either. The attractions and business accessibility of The USA mean it will be open for tourism and business long into the future and one of the world’s most renowned liberal democracies provides a solid bedrock. Despite this, these inefficiencies might be part a drip drip of economic draw away from the country.

After every perceived set back from this latest four-day stay I started to compare the incident to Hong Kong, leading business city of the world’s second biggest economy. They weren’t replicated there, nor in Tokyo, the previous silver medal holder. Tokyo isn’t a challenger anymore, and HKG or anywhere else in China probably won’t be either medium term. It leaves me the impression The USA can rest on its laurels and might be facing an absolute, rather than comparative, decline.

Socialist cafes and Sharks in Isla Holbox, Mexico

Wild animals and eccentric eating and drinking has formed a key part of Becky and I’s long hauls in the last few years, in, or more to the point just off, the Yucatan peninsula this means all things aquatic while the cafes/tavernas provided some social political history of Mexico to accompany some thoughts on present day conservation.

Holbox hanging in there on conservation

Whale Sharks are the wildlife highlight of Isla Holbox and swimming with them is a popular international holiday destination on its own. Their status as the world’s largest fish puts them squarely on the shark side of the ambiguity in their name, but eating solely plankton through their massive mouths, cute blue-with-white-spots colour scheme and sedentary nature means you can swim with them for the princely sum of $150.

We joined Willy’s Tours from the main pier in Holbox for a day, starting early. As with all wildlife spotting you’re not guaranteed to actually see anything so you just buzz around in a boat until you see anything and chat with you new boat mate pals. We actually got dissonance among our eight about the appropriate response to a turtle found with a plastic bag in mouth, first spot. I’m not sure this was ever likely to kill off said turtle so I’m inclined to think leaving alone, passive observation, was appropriate.

Passive observation was definitely not on the agenda when you actually find a Whale Shark, with twenty boat loads circling an isolated creature to dive in and swim with it. It’s clearly a better experience for decent snorkeller, I swam face first into the tail and got a whack in the face, which isn’t recommended. It does make you think responsible eco-tourism and on balance I think it is. There are, respected, Government rules on only three swimmers at a time and a respectful distance seemed to be kept by the boats.


Pelicans and Flamingos make up a lot of the bird life of the island and an inlet or fjord stop off gave the opportunity to walk around and creep up on some of them as well as get nibbled by curious catfish sniffing food. The area was another example of a conservation being respected with huge areas vetoed for boats. The cumulative approach seems to work. From all accounts wildlife numbers of all creatures I have mentioned is growing, though resisting temptation might be an issue soon. Tourist numbers are only going to grow here.


Wrestling and revolution: Cultural dining

Apres swimming, there two great restaurants to take in the Mexican sociological experience. It’s almost cliche, but wrestling, Lucha Libre, is huge social currency in a folklore sort of way. Los Peleones (to my mind The Wrestling Cafe) offers masks if you are inclined to grapple with your fellow diners, wrestler condiment pots and comic book menus but more gastronomically, excellent homemade pasta, crumpled into rusticly authentic shapes with fresh seafood. There’s meat here, but the ubiquitous flank steak is too leathery to be loved. Overall, cheerfully over-the-top and charismatic, like the sport.


A partial motivation for this trip was a London art exhibition on the Mexican Revolution, a theme taken on with gusto at Viva Zapista. The curly-moustachioed Communist was a key figure in redistribution of land and one of his battles adorns the wall in this mainly outdoors bar and restaurant. Those in the know here go for the BBQ platters of the day’s catch with guacamole and tortillas lovingly crafted in full show by a Mexican old dear. The sheer gluttony of the huge tray is a nice dichotomy in the first socialist revolutionary cafe I’ve ever eaten in.

Mexican Civilisations

Armed with a free flight and incentivised by the need to chill out after a hectic five months at work, Becky and I headed off to Mexico with an attempt to combine some time chillaxing on Caribbean beaches with something a bit different to European or Commonwealth culture.

Beach resorts: Sustainable or not?

Isla Holbox was the first of two beach areas Google had fired out near Cancun. Holbox has an interesting story, albeit one largely of getting ignored. As Cancun developed, this 50 km-long Island was deemed too remote and with a 100km drive and a ferry ride too isolated. The trend continued with a battering from Hurricane Wilma in 2005 that attracted more attention for the devastation it created elsewhere in the Caribbean.

The result is tourism co-exists with the local fishing industry, sand roads and golf carts enforce a slow pace and hotels are relatively isolated and discreet. I’m sure it isn’t representative of the ‘real Mexico’ – but it gives the impression you’ve somewhere authentically different.

About 100 kilometres to the other side of Cancun though, Tulum, a onetime bohemian American tourist resort town, is a very different proposition. Both Holbox and Tulum are blessed with white sand beaches, though Tulum’s is currently plagued with seaweed making water-based activity at best sludgy and slimy at worst a write-off. You can see piles of 100s of kilos of it stacked up around the back of beaches. In July, nature has also conspired to deliver a huge mosquito issue. As Tulum is concentrated around a strip of beach-side resorts, some massively luxurious, with sea on one side and jungle behind it is plagued with them, we picked up 50 – 100 bites each and got to a place when eating out in the evenings, or even leaving the hermetically-sealed room, wasn’t worth the effort of being eaten all evening.

Comparing the two towns I found myself thinking back to reading Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrinein particular the passages about mass development of tourism in developing countries (albeit in the book following natural or man-made disasters – which hasn’t happened here) harming the host country economically, socially and ecologically. Holbox seems in great shape on these counts and clearly has a healthy balance – though I fear for it long term. Tulum it’s difficult to tell you are in Mexico, more a vision of a tropical paradise, leaving the feeling you’re contributing to, and moaning about, the decline of indigenous territory. I don’t know if mosquito and seaweed proliferation were created by excessive tourism, but they are only problems because of it.

Mayan temples: Movie flashbacks

Separating these two areas we stopped off at the Mayan time temples in Chichen Itza. Of tremendous credit here is the Mayaland Hotel, which is now in my top three of most mental lodgings in my travels (FWIW, A Korean Love Hotel and a Japanese Shinto temple the other two). Arriving after dark we arrived in a deserted car park and were met by a very sincere, diminutive man in a golf cart to make the long journey to the lobby. The golf cart and the over the top politeness bought harrowing flashbacks from Odd Job’s entrance from Goldfinger.


The hotel is massive and, after dark, very quiet. The long empty corridors and 70’s decor had The Shining written all over it, it was only the wood panelled jungle carvings and the mobile band that offered assurance we were going to make it through the night. In the name of balance, thronged with tourists daytime it was a different place with classic Mexicana architecture and peacocks strutting around manicured gardens produced a refined air. A good all round experience and at £72 a night for a suite, a lot of stimuli for your money.


The time temples accessible direct from the hotel are fascinating and best viewed amid a smattering of tourists at 8am when they open and before the Mexicana vendors get going. A ball court, the time temples, living areas and sacrificial temple with skull carvings give you a good illustration of the sophistication of the Mayan life and with lots of it mingling with wildlife it seems quite undiscovered and unspoilt. Previously you were allowed to scramble around on the artefacts, now this has wisely stopped. It’s probably only this that prevents it looking totally Indiana Jones.

BA First Class Vs Business Class

With a lot of miles in the pot and an AmEx companion voucher to burn, we decided to splurge on a First Class redemption to Mexico City. My gut feel, based on BA’s own literature, was that First wasn’t really worth spending any more money on than the equivalent business experience. I therefore made some mental notes about all the points of difference.

Lounge and pre-boarding

This actually promised the most from the promotional material provided. There are free spa treatments at Heathrow T5 for business and first travellers, though they’re actually very hard to book if you aren’t First. In this case, even if you are, it seems tricky. Becky had rung a booking telephone number, which twice went unanswered so in effect, it’s not bookable.

On to the airport proper, check in was in a separate area with couches. It does look a nicer and calmer area, which might count for some passengers, though really it doesn’t offer anything that the business counters, which I’ve never had to queue for either, doesn’t already. For security you get access to the fast track line, though again, seeing as you have this for business and One World Silver cards and above, it provides no time or efficiency savings.

One very minor niggle of business security is access from there to the lounge. This involves a walk of about fifteen minutes down one escalator, around a load of duty free shops and up another. First means you can just walk from security straight into the Concorde Room Lounge, exclusively for this class,which is quite a convenient short cut.

The Concorde Room itself is a much calmer and more comfortable environment than the business lounges. The food is more in the style of a restaurant with a gratis three course lunch. I had a blue cheese and raspberry salad, a burger and an affogato with cappuccino biscuit. The burger was the weak point in the menu here, it wasn’t bad, just slightly normal while desert and salad had original and effervescent touches with efficient service. More on burgers later!

Flight: super seat, sleep and service

The seat, 1A and 1K in a 747, is significantly better than anything in business. It’s longer, maybe of use dependent on your height and, crucially, wider. The unique thing with row one is, in the nose, the windows almost point forward resulting in the best view I’ve ever had from a plane. In terms of sleeping, the mattress, duvet, extra space and pyjamas (sleeper suit!) mean sleeping is easier, I got a solid two hours mid flight. Row one also avoids any traffic from the aisle.


Wildly varying food and drink

As you’d expect, service is a bit more polished than business and the food and drink menu more extensive. I drank the Laurent Perrier Grand Siècle and Marion-Bosser Premier Cru. The former I found just a little too buttery with a floral aftertaste, the latter was a touch short of flavour. If I’d thought about it more, I’d have gone with the business class Taittinger, pretty much my favourite champagne, seems expense doesn’t always trump taste. I would have followed with the Otago Pinot Noir, though this was on the menu, it wasn’t available. A shame, as I’m sure this would’ve been excellent.

The first meal on the ten hour flight was actually superb. A starter of poached lobster with courgette flower blended perfectly and a main of duck breast, a duck fritter type thing and mushroom sauce packed a huge punch of Asian mixed with Russian flavours. A robust Uruguayan red paired well, though it would be an acquired taste on it’s own. Cheese with the renowned Hungarian Tokaiji dessert wine rounded things off well. Finding Star Trek II on the AV was a huge stroke of luck. It was a wide menu, and I could find things that suited my tastes.


After a read and a sleep, therefore, I had big expectations of the light meal to follow. Unfortunately, almost nothing of the menu was available so I was pretty much forced (1st world problems, I know) to go with another burger. The first one in the lounge was OK, this one was terrible. Plastic cheese, limp lettuce and sweaty chips. Aeroplane ovens can take some of the blame, but attempting it in the first place is optimistic. I am certain guniea fowl tajine, my first pick, would have worked in this environment.

The schizophrenic nature of the service persisted to the end with, from my perspectiveat least, an amusing episode of all three flight attendants scrapping around on the floor and seat crevices  looking for a dozy passenger’s passport. This deployment of resources I’m sure was a factor in an intense disembarking procedure with First, Business and Premium Economy passengers all piling off at the same time. All a bit messy and accentuates the observation that First is far from streets ahead of Business.

On this experience, First isn’t worth paying any extra money for. But it could be worth a miles redemption if you get a good run with what seems is pot luck on the food and drink menu. My guess is London to Mexico City isn’t a huge earner for BA and they concentrate resources elsewhere. I have trouble believing such a patchy offering is the norm on, for example, the London to NY, Hong Kong or Singapore routes.

Tokyo: Breaking your conventions

“What is your expat story?” This is a question I have recently found myself spending too much time answering on a work-based discussion forum. It’s a slightly reminiscent time as it has just turned ten years since I got back from three years living and mainly teaching English in Koshigaya, just north of Tokyo. The key message was largely along the lines of pushing outside the conventions you follow at home, so I’ve detailed the five areas where I feel I came close to achieving that on this busman’s holiday.


Learning how to relax in a hot bath I found difficult at first, however, a vast amount of stimulus meant, oddly, I settled into it. Jakotsuyen in Asukusa comes equipped with an electric bath that gives a mild electric shock to kick start your relaxation. Ken Mi No Yu at the end of my street in Koshigaya comes with a sulphur bath and an ice pool, a tea bath I found in Yokohama while for the professionals, the Asakusa Kannon onsen has a massive tiled mural of Mount Fuji with a cedar-pannelled locker room.

Outdoor baths are numerous in volcanic regions so the Hakone area near Mount Fuji is full of them. Climbing Fuji itself is an overnight pursuit, arriving at the summit at dawn then walking down the next morning. The ten hour hike isn’t a classic climb, but it is enjoyable and sociable and is perfectly paired with a soak in an outdoor cedar tub with mountain views afterwards.

If viewing the sacred mountain is more your thing, nearby Hakone has a variety of mountain traverses and railways, the summit of one mountain provides great views of Fuji with, a terrific sulphurous whiff and the opportunity to guzzle black-shelled eggs cooked and soaked in volcanic water.


Honour, bravery, discipline and lingering samurai spirit has found a home in modern Japan with enthusiastic adoption of rugby. I played as the only Westerner in a Japanese team and also, more internationally, for a diverse bunch of foreigners at Tokyo Gaijin RFC. Members came from regular rugby countries as well as outposts such as Georgia, PNG and Canada. The rugby was often good, often horrendous. The cultural exchange and park-based drinking and BBQ was never less than excellent.

Baseball, however, is the national sport and imports its culture in the main from the US. You can spot amateur players on weekend mornings in the flood plains and almost certainly join in if you can follow disciplined fielding routines. More suburban are batting cages with automated pitching in most suburbs. Ostensibly for High School kids to practice in, they are generally utilised by inebriated salary men, cigarettes in mouth and cool teens posing in front of girlfriends. And foreign English teachers swinging wildly after work.


Eating and drinking

Street food is very definitely a thing in the UK just now but has been ever-present in Japan. Festivals, which local councils organise regularly, are packed out with stalls offering snacks such as barbecued meat on a stick, Yakitori, savoury pancakes, Okonomiyaki, and fried squid meaning you can eat a fill for under 1000 yen.

My regulars, which are more Japanese fast food, were noodle joints under the train track arches or curry and rice, an absolute steal at 290 yen a plate (1) and fantastic for discussing politics over for dinner. A permanent Yakitori stand under Minami Koshigaya station was more for special occasions where you ate under a corrugated iron roof and sat on upturned beer crates. The portaloo toilet in this establishment, I am pleased to announce, is laden with flowers totally spotless.


More intimidating than the Yakitori shack were tiny (8 seats) local’s joints on my street, crowded with committed Sake drinkers. They were shy at first, but one of my favourite memories saw a proprietor carry a 10 litre bottle back to my friends flat after his success in an arm wrestling competition. A nice reminder of the rewards for breaking an often frosty reserve with the Japanese people. Just a shame the Sake leaves such crippling hangovers.


I stayed in dozens of Japanese inns throughout Japan, Nakamuraya in Sapporo was my favourite though you can find equivalents in Tokyo. The experience at Nakamuraya involves sitting cross-legged on bamboo mat floors, a block-printed yukata dressing gown for trips to the pristine communal bath and green tea waiting for your return. Time your trip out well for the evening and your futon is laid out on the floor for sleep. It can be a delightfully secluded experience.

Seclusion is also the key attribute in Japan’s other contribution to the world’s hotel scene: The Love Hotel. Around 10,000 yen a night gets you check-in via a vending machine, a hidden entrance, a massive jacuzzi bath and occasionally a massage table. Amusement is guaranteed, but your sleep can be interrupted, or at least freaked up a bit, by vast amounts of porn on show and a luminously-glowing cabinet of sex aids.


A quick hop along the Sumida river can fill a day, or probably more, of the Japanese cultural experience. Start at Asakusa for the huge temple, pluming with incense smoke, and the retail oppurtunities presented by 100 or so stalls selling Japanese tat.

Making your way south to Ryogoku and you can take in a professional Sumo tournament at the arena there. Though Baseball and Soccer are more popular in modern Japan, Sumo provides a level of occasion neither of these sports can match, complete with a huge dojo, elaborate posturing and wailing, with prime seats sitting crosslegged on the floor with purple cushions.

The Edo-Tokyo museum sits next to the Sumo arena, it’s a good one to do early in a stay in Tokyo for a great history to the city and a grand entrance on a 100% scale replica of Nihonbashi, a historical bridge. There are hints of this historical reconstruction in Yokohama’s quaint Ramen museum, essentially a mini food court of replica noodle huts that provide an agonising decision about what to eat.

Perhaps the high water mark of cultural immersion while I was in Tokyo was a trip to Japanese-style theatre, Kabuki, for a friend’s birthday. It works on two levels (to borrow a pretentious literary cliche) with elaborate traditional costumes and highly choreographed movement provides gravitas without any language. A translation earpiece, however, renders an awful lot more meaning to the story. Those trying to follow along without one? You know who you are!

(1) About 200 Yen to 1 GBP, 130 to USD at the time.

T20, ale and a curry in Manchester

A T20 match pitting Birmingham against Lancashire, taking in the journey to Manchester from London, a curry and some Northern ale is all possible after work on a Friday. I was ostensibly taking the trip up to Old Trafford to see my old pal Phil, now working from the Manchester office, Leigh branch, and continuing our regular Friday routine of ales and cricket moaning.


The match

From Birmingham’s point of view, seriously over-hyped for NZ mega star, entertainer and captain Brendon McCullum. His 18 from 14 balls was a slightly slower cameo of his performances in the recent ODI series against England with muscular biffs over the top interspersed with clothed drives, edges and smears for singles. Will Porterfield and skipper Varun Chopra were the only others to even occasionally time the ball on a great pitch for pace-off bowling. Emerging seamer Recordo Gordon hit the only six of the innings in the last over to help Birmingham stutter to 137. It felt 15 light.

Snarling Aussie James Faulkner provided the star billing overseas biff for Lancs with the bat, the only batsman to get used to the pitch second dig. His scything mow over cow and into the second tier was shot of the evening, resplendent with a rifle crack sound off the bat. When he chipped to long off, that was pretty much it for the reply though Liam Livingstone hitting 15 of the 17 needed to win in the last over meant the one run Birmingham win was a closer and better finish than the match as a whole. On a slow bowler’s pitch, Gordon’s 4 for 20 was MoM stuff – it was great discipline.

+1 for the Lancashire crowd. Very accommodating and inquisitive of a belligerently shouting away supporter.

The beer

A huge big tent, immediately right on the entrance, serving Wainwrights golden ale was very good for the cricket ground standard of four quid a pint. The regular bitter from the stands around the ground was awful and the lager looked as bad. I’d probably go Cider next time I do it.

The curry

Akbars somewhere near Deansgate is a very agreeable way to warm up after four hours outside. Spiced Chicken wings at £2.75 were an absolute steal and the half metre garlic-naan-on-a-spike provides an excellent table centre piece with a more practical solution to the table covering naans I used to witness in Birmingham in the nineties. A very well respected craft ale pub next door would have been utilised – but too emotionally overcome this time round.

The journey

Plane vs Train to Manchester from London. The logical comparison is first class Virgin train against standard class BA flight as both include food and (alcoholic) drink. With all the airport faff of security, queuing and getting there in the first place, air is 20 minutes longer than train and about thirty quid more expensive. Similar to my trip to Glasgow, though, a BA silver card means champagne in the lounge and queue cutting privileges – so it essentially comes down to how much you enjoy these things. In my case quite a lot, so just the correct decision.