All roads lead to Twickenham

A preview not a review: I go over a reputable bunch of pubs, boozing areas and eating joints leading up to an afternoon or evening at the rugby in Twickenham.

Train beers at Waterloo

The Understudy, National Theatre. That craft beer eh? Stronger stuff but a decent sharpener, excellent choice, err, what are you having? View of the river? In a Theatre? Very sophisticated, no reason not keep this up.

Look Mum No Hands, under Waterloo Bridge, a cycling themed cafe with ale served out of a caravan? Mmm fruity and citrusy. Could get used to this but a fiver a pint – bit steep. Better hit the train and look for some food.

Lining the stomach

All Bar One in Richmond: Greasy chorizo, sausage, sour dour toast and a pint of Amstel to get things back on an even keel. Good to get a seat. Might also want to check out, possibly later;

Steins, on the river at Richmond. Outdoors but with big umbrellas, sauerkraut, all German sausages known to man and a litre of Paulaner. Heavier on the booze, fewer tables and stodgy food. Potential to get a little bit fruity, top stuff.

Breaking the walk

Turks Head, St Margaret’s. Decent beers but not so much space for food other than ad-hoc BBQ. London Pride and ESB. Well kept but small range, space for Barbour jackets? Just. Excellent stuff.

Cabbage Patch, Twickeham High Street. Bit busy eh? Top stuff, Lager or a Guinness here, Ale not so hot. No space and standing in the road? Can’t be helped old boy.

The game

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Apres Rugby

The Sun Inn: Ooft bit busy. Is that Jason Leonard over there? Excellently kept ale, Fullers specials, cheeky cheese and onion roll to keep things ticking over. Lawrence Dallaglio holding court? Great fun. That carpet a bit whiffy eh? All in the spirit of things.

Pub formarly know as O’Neills: Corking fun – let’s go and throw some shapes there. Tequila shots washed down with champagne to wrap things up. A band? Fantastique. Should be hangover free now, will jog home.

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Bordeaux: City without wine

Bordeaux is a city with a reputation built almost entirely off wine, though an interesting and revolutionary history with a languid city centre mean a few nights are well spent in the town before heading off for some vine-based pursuits in the surrounding areas.

Transport fulcrum

I’ve had some wildly varied experiences getting to or from Bordeaux and am now tending towards a train from Paris or other French city as the best way to arrive. Fast trains are cheap, booking via Capitaine Train on this occasion was cheaper than the SNCF website, and arriving at St Jean station is perfect for the connection into the town centre, either by tram or the increasingly ubiquitous and relatively straightforward velib rent-a-bikes.

Despite the fact flights there always appear very cheap, I’ve stacked up too many poor experiences of the airport now to be enthusiastic about flying again. In terms of facilities it’s limited, the security I’ve found both inefficient and slow and the space always feels cramped. Of the two bus connections into the town, Navette Shuttle seems the most straightforward to the station, the other is time consuming and frustrating. Most outrageous of all, Taxi has been fifty euros plus on both occasions I’ve done it and seems to be subject to some very odd metering policies with the clock ticking over at 10 cents every few seconds on the motorway.

UNESCO listed urban renewal

Bordeaux has had a somewhat chequered history, occupied by various passing hordes or hegemons cumulating in turmoil and introspection during the French Revolution in the 1780s.  Wine-based exports, initiated by the British some centuries earlier, ushered in some relative prosperity and definite industrialisation in the 19th century. This spell of modernisation set up the glorious sandstone buildings of today, and saw them increasingly blackened, until a clean up by Alain Juppe, straight off a spell as French PM, was ordered in 1996.

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The result now is imposing architecture and a languid, pedestrianised city centre with UNESCO listed status. The Place d’Comedie acts as centre, with Place Gambetta,  Rue Sainte Catherine and the quays of the river linking up and encapsulating a huge horde or interesting shops and cafes, often breaking out into squares, for exploring. It’s perfect for a day interspersed with cafes, for testing the Bordeaux favourite cake the canelle and, naturally, a glass of wine. The Maison d’Vin offers a huge range of local wines, great quality, for as little as three euros a glass.

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Eco B&B

Chain hotels are plentiful and affordable, but having stayed in one on my first visit I was left with the distinct impression I was missing out. Online research uncovered a booming B&Bs scene, which I have patronised since. These have offered an insight into Bordeaulaise urban living with a huge amount more character. With huge stone-walled terrace buildings abundant, a five bedroom B&B is a good use of space, and, in the case of Ecolodges d’Chatrons ample opportunity for applying ecological principles, in this instance without any drop in quality.

The building is structured with huge amounts of natural light around an internal courtyard-type affair and the stone walls are both cooling and retain heat. Despite building efficiency though, my personal favourite is a breakfast low on food miles and high on fruit – the opposite of which I’ve found to be a problem in France before – though is carby enough to lay the foundations for a day of wine tourism.

More on that later…

Biarritz: A stag do and more (with boutiques)

I haven’t been on a stag do in Biarritz. But the rugged nature of Basque lifestyle studded with Rugby, surfing, a casino, bars and enough man food to fill up a bear, if bears liked food laced with garlic, means planning a man party here would be a sound plan.

Rugby

Oddly, the professional game is suffering a bit in Basque Country. Biarritz and Bayonne have both has recent successes, powered by Basque totems such as Immanol Harinordoquy and Dimitri Yachvilli (and Iain Balshaw). This season though, both have been relegated to second flight, with financial pressure necessitating talk of a humiliating merger. As this is Biarritz, I’ll ignore blue neighbours Bayonne and go with the team carrying the Basque colours.

Tickets for home games are easy to come by, the most expensive ticket via their website costs EUR 35 and comes with drum banging sound effects and the opportunity to wear a natty red kerchief without looking a total chief. My highlight was a game against Stade Francais a couple of years ago with a dozen internationals all showing up well (sartorially as well, Matthuie Basteraux with a dead ringer Mr T haircut). It’s definitely better value than in the UK, especially when inexplicably short beer queues for tent-based bars are factored in.

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One slight irritation is the ground is 30 mins from the town and beach area, buses and taxis will probably sort this out easier than a concrete path walk in flip flops.

Drinking

Pre and post rugby, the only place in town is Cafe Red with Bordeaux Vin, some funny green stuff and high fat and high smell food: steak frites, some stinky saucisson and everything in between are served with real distinction. It’s the only non-clubhouse bar I’ve seen with some singing going on, so high marks for a scene that seems anachronistic now in the UK. At least four or five other bars in the town show games, La Tireuse, has about 20 beers on tap and multiple bottles which must be the the best place in town for choice.

Macho day time activity

With some really quite aggressive waves, day time activity for a stag doesn’t get any better than some surfing, either through hiring a board and drowning away, or by getting a two hour lesson for EUR 40. Both Euskardi surf school and Plums surf school, bang on the main beach, offer the same deal which is perfect to knock out a hangover at 0900. It’s about the same time some only just elegantly-dressed types are thrown out of the beach-side casino.

Our instructor, or moniteur d’Surf, managed to fit the stereotypes of both a Frenchman, reeking of Galloiuses, and a surfer so you can’t argue your experience isn’t authentic. My favourite moments were successfully managing to stand up once and facing backwards, then a bolt of lightning and crack of thunder just as we were being explained the importance of watching the conditions.

Strip club

Club Playboy. Think Pigalle in Paris with only one strip bar. So pretty terrible on face value.

Food

After four visits to Biarritz, this was actually the first time I’s seen the neighbourhood of Les Halles, perched half way up the hill leading out of the town. This had several bars, including one with a name I didn’t register, replete with basque tapas, pintxos, and the young, fruity white wine, txakoli. This is noteworthy from being poured as high as possible into a flat bottomed beaker to generate some froth. There’s definitely a bit of a Spanish Basque vibe here, outdoor drinking at Bar Jean and Rotisserie Poulet is a feature of San Sebastián in just across the border, it’s ideal for large groups.

Definately French in origin is Port des Pechuers, or fisherman’s port, right on the water to the south of the beach. Four restaurants here serve only seafood, each hitting a slightly different market. Casa Pedro (I said French, right?), the cheapest, and Coursair, the next cheapest, hit the mark with barbequed prawns, sardines, sea bass and non-BBQ’ed moules. It’s tempting to say this is a touristy area as I could always hear English being spoken, similar to Les Halles. On reflection,  though it’s mainly for a French, though perhaps not Basque, crowd.

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Something for the little lady

To loop back, I’ve never been on a stag do here and instead have been with my wife Becky. As a result, I also know there is a very nice chocolatier and high-end bakery, Maison Adam, just on the beach, which I’ve discovered now serves chocolates in BA’s first class. There are also one or two jewellers and boutiquey style shops with a certain amount of style. Lesson learnt from this escapade? Biarritz is a better place than a stag do and definately more fun with my surfy, food photographer and pintxos-aficionado wife.

Oeno tourism in France, Spain and Argentina

Wine tourism is a definite thing now. The arbiter of societal trends, The Guardian, says so. Since I wrote about Hawkes Bay in New Zealand and Yarra Valley in Australia I’ve developed the thought there’s a distinct difference between the great wine producing regions in Europe, with hundreds of years honing the products as a destination in their own right, with new world regions where hosts of activities revolve around or lead to boozy fun.

Old world specialisation

If you are asked to combine a location with a grape, Bordeaux would crop up near the top of most people’s lists and it’s the archetypical depiction of an old world classic town. There are approximately half a dozen distinct wine producing regions of Merlot varietals and gritty whites in the area. The most accessible, about 30 mins from train from Bordeaux, is St Emillion, a village on a hill top that looks unaltered since the 18th century. Not that you could miss them, it’s surrounded by mid-size Chateaus dotted in and around the vineyards.

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Chateau Chatalet, about ten mins from the centre, encourages slightly mental tasting sessions booked by a two minute phone call from the Maison d’Vin in Bordeaux. A wildly over the top French aficionado holds sway over the tasting room, elaborating points with huge sweeping arm movements and punctuating points with jabs of his glasses. An extensive tasting session with 75 minutes of commentary does leave its problems. Most of my wine breakfast I had to regurgitate over the drive running for a train.

Rioja, just outside the aggressive landscape of the Basque region over the border in North East Spain, is a remoter experience. You need a car to get to Finca de Los Arrandinos in Entrena for some serious isolationism. This isn’t a problem, there’s a great little spa with rolling views, the rooms are stylish and well designed and the wine is free at the restaurant. It just needs the booming towns of Bilbao, San Sebastián and the terrifying bull run and hugely terrifying partying in nearby Pamplona to raise the pulse.

New world: Multi-activity wine tourism

Latin America as a whole doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with high octane running around or stressing out, a tendency that’s exemplified in Mendoza, nestled in the foothills of the Andes Mountains and the Chilean border. Most tourists arrive on bus which is easily located for the town centre, built around a pleasant square. The area sprawls though, which opens the possibilities of the out of town Fincas, surrounded by wine estates, to stay in.

We stayed in the Finca Adalgisa in 2013, complete with its own winery. This produces just enough Malbec to serve to guests, each evening with tapas included with the room rate, and to sell to take home. The emphasis here is definitely on not doing much in the ranch-like grounds with well equipped, large and comfortable rooms. Given its mountain-side location, lounging around the pool with a few glasses to recover from hiking or rafting is my plan for my second and as yet unplanned visit.

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For a breakout, some chaotic cycling gets you to Alta Vista, a French-owned company which has organised tours. Their tasting was one of the better ones I have been to, with suggested food as well, and has top-notch merchandise. The polo shirt is one of my favourites and with a picnic in the grounds offering panoramic mountain views. Fundamentally, it isn’t difficult to come away having spent serious cash. Located where it is, shipping to Europe costs an absolute fortune, a cost too far, so it’s probably best to get a bottle or two of their good stuff and take it home in checked luggage rather than shipping bottles that are available locally.

Most fun though is the district of Maipu for a self guided cycle wine tour with Mr Hugo bike hire. In typically relaxed fashion you’re fixed up on a bike, by the charismatic Mr Hugo and family, then shoved out into heavy traffic to take in up to a dozen wineries’ tasting sessions for £5 each. Any winery and one brewery you pick on this route is hugely unpretentious with a range of fruity, booming Malbecs, accompanied by tapas sized portions of salami, olives and bread over Andes views. It’s an all day activity, though we did notice one or two spectacular spilled-load lorry crashes on the main road though. Not wine-based though, of course?

Hiroshima: Beyond 6 August

A failed entry in the Sunday Telegraph’s travel competition means I have 200 words of non-utilised copy. I’ve put it to use breaking the rules of this blog, covering something more than 10 years old, with these thoughts from 2003 on a city and an area that deserve to be recognised beyond the events of 6 August 1945.

Hiroshima memorials

There’s a very still, calm and contemplative atmosphere over the peace park in Hiroshima. Approach it from the main high street to see the twisted carcus of the Genbaku dome, located under the blast. Previously the Product Exhibition Hall, I think it’s the only building in the town existing from before 6 August 1945, albeit in gutted form. The scale of the wreckage draws your breath.

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Walk further into the park for the arch, broadcast to the world recently with doves flying around it, and for the peace museum. Essential to understanding the impact of the bomb, the museum, for an entrance charge of about 50p, oscillates from political context to moving human stories. The most memorable here is actually outside with the paper cranes of Sadako Sasaki. convinced creating them would cure her of leukaemia developed after the event.

City…

The reverential atmosphere of the peace park dissipates into relaxation in the Okonomiyaki building, Okonomi-mura. The savoury pancakes are inherently unpretentious, in essence combining whatever you want (the name means fried what-you-want) fried up combined with fish stock and cabbage pancake mix, then eaten off up-turned beer crates with around twenty stalls over three floors in this building. Each stall has around a dozen seats around a hot plate making a beer essential to keep yourself cool. There’s also a top flight baseball team based opposite the peace park which could easily be taken in before or after an Okonomiyaki. The Hiroshima Carp dovetail into the ethos of the contemporary city. Chilled out.

… and islands

A tram and a boat gets you to the island of Miyajima, about an hour from the city centre. After a day or so in Hiroshima, it should come as no surprise to find deer ambling around the ferry terminal, seemingly at the ready to relieve tourists of their crisps. Amusing as they are, though, deer are a sideline when compared to the floating temple Itsukushima, a top three Japanese tourist attraction.

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The main Tori arch, above, is usually well out from shore and visible from the boat on the way in, though you can walk up to it at low tide. The main part of the temple opens out on the sea, and, despite the fact water always seems to feature in eastern temples, this is the only one I’ve seen which actually seems to be floating.

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Though I’ve never been able to afford to do it, hence have no authority to state this, some of the best Japanese Ryokan are within walking distance of the temple. Around £300 a night gets you manicured gardens and set piece dining / tea service. It wouldn’t be time wasted as a short mountain to climb and a beach to collapse on afterwards, complete with views of the inland sea, could occupy a couple of days. The mountain re-emphasises Miyajima’s ethos of wildlife let loose with monkeys running around on top of it. These ones came much closer to stealing my crisps.

Climbing Ben Nevis and the Caledonian Sleeper

A geeky childhood travel fantasy and a long-held niggle to complete climbs of the tallest mountains in England, Scotland and Wales mean this trip has been on the agenda for a while. The Caledonian Sleeper sets of for Euston to Aberdeen, Inverness and in my case Fort William, the Highland base of Ben Nevis, tallest mountain in the UK so it can easily be fit into a regular weekend away.

‘A big tourist train’

I suspect the Caledonian Sleeper (1) is well on the way to being a tourist experience or even an anarchronism. You have to sign in on the platform with some welcoming Scottish ladies, you’re checked into a quite tiny, but fully equipped, ‘berth’. Form dictates you then run down to a lounge car to get first refusal on a seat for dinner. The train leaves London Euston at 2115 in the evening but to get there in decent time for a drink and early order you need to check in, drop-off bags and be at a table for 2045 or so.

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For food heated solely by microwave, dinner actually exceeded all expectation. Naturally, I had Haggis, tatties and neeps with whisky sauce, a steal at £6.50. Pea and mint soup and the lamb also looked good, I hear smoked duck was an option as well. Scottish craft beers, a decent wine list, with the very useful presence of half bottles, and a huge selection of malt whiskys rounded off the drinks menu. The upshot of my pre-travel research was the lounge car was a social experience. This comprehensively true. It was just after midnight when I finished nattering to fellow travellers and went to bed.

Sleeping is just about possible in the compartments, which take either one or two travellers and are about two meters long with a bed about 60 cms wide. I’m 185 cms and about 98 kgs, just small enough. You get one or two bumps and bangs from stops and the train spits apart noisily at 0400 in Edinburgh. I got four solid hours sleep before that then three hours after. Breakfast is served in your compartment at around 0800 which, combined with some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen, sets you up well for the day. There are no showers on the train but with sinks, towels and ammenity kits on board, you can arrive ready.

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Preparation for Ben Nevis

Being ready, having good kit and fluking the weather are all required for a hike up Ben Nevis. A taxi is easy and £6 to get to either the Ben Nevis Visitor Centre or more agreeably, a pub, the Ben Nevis Inn. I had waterproofs, decent boots and map and compass which is a bit light on kit. I did have good weather though, which made a lot of baggage unnecessary and provided terrific views of the Highlands and Islands, looking backwards when climbing. As befits the highest mountain in the UK, it gets rapidly cold at the end and the peak was covered by clouds. Layers clearly are needed in all weather and a reminder to take photos when you can.

Coming down I found particularly difficult, which took only five minutes quicker than my ascent. If I was to do it again, I’d allow more time for breaks to take on water and properly rest on the way down, it made all the difference on the legs. I have a colleague who ran down with a pack in order to catch a bus which is probably not an experience to emulate. I finished up in the Ben Nevis Inn for water and a Stag Ale. It was quite a decent ale anyway, but tasted like nectar from the gods after the descent.

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Fort William’s booming B&Bs

I’d intended to get a B&B to get a good night’s sleep in, which was actually harder than it sounds, despite there being a fair number for a town of about 10,000 people. Many insist on a two night stay, which was cheerfully waived at The Grange. Apparently the 2013 Commonwealth Games and economic reality of staycations has seen visitor numbers rise and, two night stays notwithstanding, there’s a good range. On the evidence of The Grange it’s a good standard. I was provided with a sherry in the room, which in combination with a bath, a good bed and a full Scottish breakfast the next morning is a grand conclusion to six hours hiking.

(1) It’s an obvious comparison to benchmark the service against staying in a B&B one night and flying. For my trip, which involved 1st class train against a five star B&B with a BA flight back, I could compare like for like, which came out at two pounds cheaper in the air. Despite the huge novelty appeal and intangible charm of the train, you definitely get better bed, sleep, food and drink for your money flying so train comes out a lot more expensive.

Why’s this happening? It’s tempting to say it’s political. Railways in the UK have a complicated web of ownership with the state, which is ever changing and can’t help planning, while air equivalents are largely free to compete with one another in the free market. I have the feeling it’s more of a conceptual/infrastructure problem. The rails, station and signalling all require an upfront cost and maintenance which doesn’t appeal to the market. Maybe it’s time for a longer term political solution.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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