Watching rugby in Georgia: Food and alcohol

A food scene promising to blend middle eastern with Russian with European influences and some almost alarming wine choices, including orange and a red product that ferments in clay pots were part of the reason I was so keen to do this trip to Georgia. I’m posting daily over this weekend to cover all the essential components of a rugby junket taking in finals day of the Under 20s Rugby Championship.

Food

Looking a lot like Shanghainese soup dumplings, Xialongbao, the Georgian Khinkali is promoted as the essential Caucasian snack and was available from pretty much every other cafe or restaurant. I’d not had them before, but my colleague and friend Gigi had, providing warnings that they weren’t available with booze and would probably presented in a lukewarm puddle of water.

A typical Tbilisi dwelling seems to be an America-style 1920s veranda/balcony wooden construction so it was off the top floor of a beer hall of this design we took in 20 dumplings, admittedly small size, in a puddle of lukewarm water. The stuffing is pot luck, but a cumin and coriander lamb was the highlight, washed down with an apparently essential Georgian beer and Russian staple sour cream. Lunchtime amusement came from a Georgian family eating a huge slab of pork and drinking a bottle of vodka, while cars got towed away and pensioners ducked across six lanes of motorway-speed traffic outside.

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Of course if you’re taking in some rugby a heavy meat diet is required for sustenance and it does seem to be a staple. Most restaurants with Georgian cuisine do Shashlik, the Georgian equivalent of the pork kebab I’d spent most of the week before in Greece eating, with servings including paprika, onions and pomegranate seeds. This was trumped all out by a Georgian meat special at Organrique, however, with grilled meat for two providing a course of four different meats on a board, and nothing else. It was impressively oppressive.

Booze and toxic alternatives

Within the last couple of years, Georgian orange wine has cropped up a number of establishments including Tom Kerridge’s pub, the Hand and Flowers and a wine bar I frequent in Acton, Vindinista. Made with white grapes the way of a red, it’s an initially startling taste that goes well with cheese and otherwise non-red meat. It’s the colour of a dessert wine, but the taste is opposite. I’m still searching for this, however, with the half the shops that don’t sell dumplings selling wine, it shouldn’t be too hard to find.

Georgian local beer, lager or black and red wine have sustained us so far. Beer is scandalously cheap and seeming sold with the intention of drinking on the street. The slightly preferable lager seems to come out at GBP 1.60 for a two litre bottle, perfect for train beers and sneaking into a stadium. Clogger gets stuck in, below. Dry red wine seems most palatable: Saparevi is the local grape which comes out somewhere like a less fruity Malbec. The Shashliks combine well. It can be had for a few GBPs a bottle and 90 Georgian Laris for a litre with your meat board.

Without doubt the most startling drink so far was not, I suspect, alcoholic but a heavily mineralated sparkling water, Borjomi. Opening this bottle instantly rendered our table heavily contaminated with a huge sulphurous whiff, identifying us as farters while it set away neutralising the wine and cake on the table. It had startling amounts of Hydro Carbon Trioxide (If my secondary school chemistry is correct) and had me rushing for the toilet several times that evening. Rugby tours need this, somehow.

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Watching rugby in Georgia: Getting there

Suggestions that the Six Nations could be expanded to include Georgia meant I have recently devoted serious attention to getting to Tbilisi for a game. The Under 20s Rugby Championship, hosted in Tbilisi and Kutaisi this year, provided perfect opportunity with several days hosting multiple games to plan around. I’m posting daily for this trip to cover the logistics of a junket taking in finals day, with England contesting the final itself.

Training it

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Assuming a start point in the UK, for those well endowed with funds and time the Orient Express and a Turkish sleeper train, changing in Istanbul, could get you here. Georgia lies just to the east of Turkey, geographically in Asia, though self-determination alone sees it regarded as the most eastern point in Europe. Either way, a continental journey probably isn’t a great way to kick off a weekend of emotional rugby-related trauma. The only really realistic route, therefore is:

Flying

I’m writing this on the final leg of the journey to best illustrate the horror of the journey from Western Europe. I could only find one direct flight from London (Luton to be precise) on WhizAir to Kutaisi, though this was never really practical. Most journeys are indirect with Lufthansa, Aegean, Turkish Airlines, LOT and Air Baltic going via Munich, Athens, Istanbul, Warsaw and Riga respectively. All arrive in the middle of the night, courtesy of three hours time difference and around six hours flying. It can be done for under £300. I just spent eight days of idyllic quality time in Greece with my wife Becky, meaning the Aegean option was one flight.

This idyll was brought crashing down by missing my slot at the Plato Museum, hysterical children, dithery old women losing their walking sticks and losing my cash card up to the 0030 flight arriving at 0400. Airports are depressing places empty and illuminated at night, creating weary annoyance that was only partially mitigated by slugging out of a bottle of Metaxa number seven, evening medicinal, from a bag on the flight. I’m hoping my long time rugby tour accomplice, and the only other person stupid enough to attempt this trip, Clogger, is waiting at the airport with Ginger Ale to mix and sufficient cash to make it to the hotel.

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Athens: Child versus adult

It’s been 25 years, more or less, to my last land-based trip to Greece and a whole new world of olive eating, alcohol drinking, Cyrillic reading opportunities have presented themselves. I outline five points of difference to this first two days in Athens of a beach holiday to what I remember from the early 1990s through adult and child eyes.

Drink

I can remember drinking a non-too-diverse range of bottled water, sprite and lemon tea as a child with memories of a choice of Dutch import Heineken and Amstel as the sole beer choice. A smell was enough to remind of the horror of pine-and-olive-enhanced Greek wine offering of Retsina. This has definitely moved on come 2017 with local beers Alfa and Mykonos a definite step up from the imports. Greek wine, I have since discovered, is a bit of a hidden gem. Syrah grapes are indigenous as well as Greek St George’s variety, which makes a dry, oaky red a favourite over the whites.

Food

I’ve come close to a 100% pork only diet in many countries with Souvalaki proving the pig staple in Greece for multiple childhood summer breaks. I’m happy to report no loss of standards here with Greco Project just off Syntagma Square providing any number of mini skewers with olive oil and oregano seasoning, padded out with Greek Salad and Pitta. Comfortable chairs too, 1990s Taverna were always kitted out with narrow rickety rope padded chairs that cut off the circulation to the backside (subsequent edit: still very much present outside of metropolitan Athens, cannot handle even a half of an adult rear end)

I can remember lumps of shark, huge prawns and sea bass being ubiquitous in the late 80s and early nineties though I’m coming to the conclusion the UK has a comparative advantage on seafood over The Mediterranean, hence haven’t got too involved in the seafood this time around. I’m eying up a lump of lamb next. Food-based entertainment in 2017 has paled into insignificance following my old man’s attempt to break up a dog fight by squeezing lemon juice in their eyes, a manoeuvre that led to an ape shit dog smashing up a table of confused-looking Germans.

Sightseeing

Having seen this second time around a little context is probably required to get the most out of sightseeing. A typical ten year old probably isn’t that aware of the historical significance of Ancient Greece and has to take sites at face value: usually a bunch of rocks. Having since learnt Cyrillic and undertaken a politics degree with significant Philosophical learnings, it’s all a bit more interesting and a Plato museum, the various sackings of the Acropolis and a museum of the Acropolis site all make sense as an adult.

I actually had a direct comparison of Acropolis viewing from a height. In 1990 I can remember sitting on one of the adjacent hills to take in commentary and a light show of the monument, most memorably of it being set on fire by the Persians. In 2017 we took in Dinner in the Sky to be hoisted some fifty meters in the air on a dinning table for 20 people. Toilet worries aside, this provides a great view of the city, both historic and, with a few gas holders and a converted industrial estate, contemporary. Given the circumstances of serving, it was an excellent dinner for two hours with perhaps the best wine deal I’ve seem for a while to offset a selfie orgy. Good spot by Becky for something I was initially sceptical of.

 

Temperature

Being the sole blond haired and fair skinned person on my family I can remember getting a bit of a rough deal with the then unheard of highs of a non-humid early thirties climate. Altitude training in the swampy high thirties in Asia means I’d say this is now comfortable for an adult and in retrospect not too excessive for children either. What was odd this weekend was a biblical shower after a humid morning that swept tree branches down the street and saw centimetre-wide pieces of hail clatter onto tin roofs. Man-made climate change in a polluted big city or freak event? I’m not too sure but it does seem to be the case these flash weird weather events are city based affairs.

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Services

The old lament ran that the Greeks invented the first flushing toilet around the birth of Christ, but with little development since. An output of this was I can always recall childhood toilets that couldn’t deal with paper, therefore having a stinking bucket of refuse present for solitary times. Not great for a hot day or a dicky stomach. I have no idea how my Dad managed to deal with an epic whisky hangover in one of these set ups. Luckily, that does seem to have been solved now, with some decent toilet technology in evidence in most locations.

Not being able to fully converse in the local language while getting a hair cut left me with a David Beckham fluffy curtains effort in 2002 Japan, so it was with some trepidation I tracked down Sir Barbers, just off Symtagma square. I’m happy to report EUR 15 here gets some reading material (and inspiration for the Plato museum), a cool retro decoration and an espresso with dessert. It also gets sincere English spoken to get a Brad Pitt haircut. Thanks for the reassurance here, Sir Barbers! No too long hair for patchy sun tan for me.

Cycling in the Wachau Valley, Austria

DISCLAIMER: I have cycled less than 100 meters of the Wachau Valley: The UNESCO-listed, Danube-banked wine producing region extraordinaire, just west of Vienna. However, I now know how, were it not for two thunderstorms, a knackered wrist and some squiffy direction taking. I’ll be taking this on as soon as possible.

I wrote briefly last year about W. Einker’s most convivial little wine cave in central Vienna which does wine tasting with almost entirely Austrian products. This inspired rooting around for the vine locations in more depth for this year’s visit. The towns of Melk, Krems and Spitz serve as a hub for this part of the Danube and they’re connected by cycling, train and boat on a remarkably flat route.

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Preparing

We woke up to a quite spectacular storm on the morning of this expedition and nearly abandoned the trip altogether, at odds with an early start. However, it seems that rain in this part of Central Europe is often sharp downpours after sustained build up of humidity in summer months. So a shower shouldn’t necessarily derail the trip. An optimal day-long trip can be had by taking a 0930 or 1030 train from Vienna to Melk, with the very easy Austrian state railway for about EUR 30 return.

I had, in the main part, consulted a newspaper article which highlighted the virtues of NextBike, however, this was plagued with difficulties. The service is an iteration of the bike hire schemes in London, New York and Paris and has docking stations in all three towns on the route – but it does seem to be harder than all three of the metropolises to use. Registering is easy enough, but QR codes and data access is needed to unlock them, and the system seems to struggle with non-Austrian cards.

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A much simpler non-digital alternative was Wachau Touristic Bernhardt. Renting a cycle here was simple, with ID required, and includes drop offs at Spitz (20kms) and Melk (35kms) for EUR 10 for a bike for half a day. It was at this point our day unravelled with a few wrong turns onto a semi-island and then a bang on the wrist forcing a curtailment 15 minutes in. We’d wanted to go to the, admittedly splendous, Melk Abbey ahead of a winery lunch and splashing around in the river anyhow.

Putting it right

As we’d set off so late, we were probably always going to be up against it for time anyhow, so I’d say 0930 or 1030 are the correct times to leave Vienna, arriving at the bike hut for 1030 or an hour later. I was advised that 20kms to Spitz, where a few wineries, vines growing in the centre of town and several Heuriges, wine taverns, are available for lunch, would take an hour. I think two would be more agreeable, though the pathways seemed to be very easy going and are slightly downhill.

A bit more research and investigating some quite expensive guided tours revealed swimming in the river is a done thing as well, to consolidate an appetite and a thirst. This was dug out through organised tour research, though this was slightly off putting through prices and availability. Swimming locations aren’t the easiest to dig out, though it seems Dürnstein is an area where this can be done.

Returning to base from either Spitz or Krems can be done by a combination of bus, train or most appealingly, boat, for an upstream tour. We witnessed a quite amusing stand off in the tourist office with two large-of-backside tourists opining that the EUR 20 fee was too expensive and car hire would be cheaper. This misses the point, however, that the scenery from deck is the main draw of this part of the world. I can only see the appeal of car, bus or rail if budget or timings conspire against you.

This would leave a provisional schedule of:

1030 train from Vienna to Melk
1130 bike hire from Melk
1430 libation activities and lunch at Spitz
1730 Boat from Spitz
1901 Train from Melk to Vienna

I’ve got a stash of paper literature from the tourist office, below. It seems this was actually most useful and I can email any parts of it if you leave a comment below.

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A word for our hosts: 25hours hotel Vienna

For different reasons, Langham and 25hours are consistently my favourite hotel chains across the world, and the latter came up trumps here. The Germanic based mini chain have exciting, artistic and vibrant set ups and the circus theme in Vienna is no exception. They have lively bars, this one coming with an aerial view of the Musuems Quartier, and good food, this branch focussing on pizzas with relatively local Italian ingredients and an inventive and amusing burger van in the garden.

It was a great piece of customer service that won us over on this occasion, however. A jammed plug in the sink, admittedly, wasn’t fixed when reported. It was above and beyond, then, to be migrated and upgraded to a top floor suite, replete with coffee machine and cooking facilities. I could see how busy reception was when this was reported, so welcome to see an above-proportion response to the omission, making this a fun stay and an efficient one.

(River image credit: Wikipedia Creative Commons)

Climbing the Great Wall of China

“Justin, It’s midday, we’re probably OK for the wall if you’re out of bed soon”

“Eeuurgh, OK, I’ll put my pants on”

There are at least three locations to take in the Great Wall of China on a day trip from Beijing – none of them work with a night out until three AM and sleeping into the afternoon. I attempted this with my Beijing expat friend Justin in September 2016, with a train ride to Badaling, then actually succeeded with a semi-organised tour to Mutianyu in March of this year.

Training it with the crowds

Greater flexibility is a decent reason for getting a train from the relatively small Beijing North train station, which doesn’t usually need reservations. As a result of a birthday party in the station area, combined with probably two hours in a taxi, then a 45 minute subway ride back to the station, we were hanging. When presented with a sold out train and a load of taxi drivers circling aggressively for a RMB 120 ride as an alternative to the RMB 6 rail option. We slunk into Starbucks and complained how tired we were.

Having failed on this occasion, I’ve since ascertained that Badaling, about an hour north west of Beijing, is super busy and über commercialised with a run of shacks leading to either a cable car or a walk up to the turreted monument. I have also learnt Panda hats, chess sets and calligraphy scrolls are available, though present difficulties for a slide dismount. Overall, it seems flexibility is a benefit of this route, but as often is the case, it’s flexibility on a it-depends basis.

As I knew I’d be coming back in 2017, I wasn’t massively disappointed by this and I’ve since reflected that the night out was a cultural experience of its own. This took in a pass of the Birds Nest stadium on two cab journeys, one 180 degrees in the wrong direction, accusations of being money counterfeiters and eventually a bail out from two bored bar keeps who dispatched us to a Hutong. This one was turned into a bar but seemed entirely, authentically, modelled a beige American teen rumpus room. Commodore 64s, reel to reel tape deck, 1970s TVs and pool tables plied for attention. A pair of old dears using a notebook to construct a Gin and Tonic slightly less so.

Tours to Mutinayu

Given the faff of 2016, my wife Becky had a more sensible idea of booking a tour. I normally prefer the independence of getting to locations myself, but a tour picks up from hotels in Beijing downtown and makes the logistics simpler by imposing an 0800 pick up. Mutianyu (1) includes contemporary rebuilt wall and the ancient original on a 10 km walk and return, deposited on the top by cable car. For the most part, the walk is a stroll though some parts are vertiginous staircases with over 500 steps in a row. I had long since wondered how historically pregnable the wall is and in itself I think not very. On top of and up and down high hills and mountains, though, it becomes a good old hike just to reach it.

The benefit of this height, however, is on the way down with the cheerful disregard of any health and safety concerns leading to the installation of a several hundred meter slide. Unfortunately, we were banned from using this because of tour insurance, though tales of its perilous reputation I’m sure were exaggerated. It was a good laugh listening to our guide make up the physical peril of using it. Given the 0800 start, crowds were pretty thin throughout with no queues at any stage, though we did get the positive benefit of other people over lunch. Of course, any decent Chinese meal requires a good crowd and chatting over the hike with other tourists was a good way to finish.

Apres Wall: Beijing art

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Not feeling too burned out from this hike, it’s a three-quarter day activity, we had a wander around chic Sanlitun when we were kicked off the bus afterwards. I’d regarded Sanlitun, home of embassies and party officials, as not much more than a bar strip, though there was definitely more to it this time around. Great Leap Forward brewing had a good range of ale, some eye-wateringly strong, and staff kitted out in high school style gym kits to set off an artistic and creative feel using a period of Chinese history as a theme.

A nightcap at Pop Up Beijing was more elegant, with a more refined wine list. This is effectively a warehouse for furniture, mainly eye-wateringly expensive, which you can sit on with a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc in the evening. A very neat solution for bar furniture and an opportunistic way to sell stuff to people in their weakened state.

Originality aside, it also showed a growing artistic feel in China, evident in Shanghai as well, Suggesting that China is starting to set a contemporary artistic path using its own history as inspiration.

(1) A very similar set of tours is available to Jinshanling as well. It seems closer in crowds, expense, time and experience to what we did here in Mutianyu than Badaling.

London Transport Museum Acton open weekend: Economic and social history

*** UPDATED 16 SEPTEMBER. A cheeky A4 printed poster at my local station informs me the next open weekend is 23/24 September, with open times and details on the TFL site. ***

It is essentially a massive warehouse of retired London Transport equipment including esoteric tube trains from the 1930s, ticket booths, trams, posters and furniture. It’s market is young families, trainspotters and curious thirties urbanites. London Transport Museums open depot weekends are a fleeting and enigmatic presence, with last weekend’s open weekend the last opening until September.

The Depot, as it says on the tin, is essentially a massive storage facility for the permanent London Transport Museum in Covent Garden. I’ve only ever visited this twice: as a kid it was great for a trainspotting addendum and good opportunity to scramble over trams. As an adult, and post a renovation, I found it just as fascinating, though more as an urban history museum charting changing society in London through the mechanics of mass transport.

Social history

This was indeed what I was expecting when rolling up at the convenient-for-me, less-convenient-for-most-people suburb of Acton. The main exhibition is around a dozen tube trains of varying vintages being restored for the main museum, the real draw is the ones you’re allowed to wander around inside.

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The adverts, from 1938 to 1988, drew me in including this cracker from British Rail circa early eighties, by my guess. 19p for an, admittedly, really odd looking sausage roll and 20p for a piece of fruit? Taking Greggs as a standard, that’s a pound for an apple now. Even Pret aren’t that expensive in 2017. There is more PPP fun to be had comparing prices like this, I’m still working out if 1978’s 40p Zone 1 single is a price saving to the present day.

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A mezzanine area has a huge stockpile of signs, maps and London Transport furniture, which continues the theme of an evolving people. A big stack of Arsenal station signs contained another sociological gem, with the experience of a casual fan who went to either a Chelsea, West Ham or Arsenal game every weekend, via the tube. Doing this is probably the preserve of the mega rich these days.

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An 80s/90s Waterloo and City line train, which I can just about remember in active use, was another hint of the changing state of the UK Economy. ‘The Drain‘ was seemingly under pre-privatised railway control until 1993, with this car nearly derelict on retirement. The contemporary line is renowned as being crazy busy under the tube’s control. But not systematically neglected. The tube has its knockers now, but privatised surface railways seem to be a worse service and poorer infrastructure.

Social now

The different types of people wandering into the shed were remarkable, even from the bus before I arrived. As expected, trainspotters were probably the main target audience of the exhibition with liberal amounts of rail journals and train set memorabilia on offer. It wasn’t immediately backed up by huge amounts of stereotypical candidates though.

Perhaps the biggest demographic group in attendance were young families, a reflection of the suburban setting. Indeed, a ride-on railway outside and a mezzanine-based art, craft and model railway-building area catered for that audience. This reminded me a lot of my youthful visit to Covent Garden, with the opportunity to clamber over a turbine or something, though it’s perhaps hinting as much at the existence of the middle classes.

Several stands offering Art Deco, first-print posters for circa £300 further hinted at this suburbanite tone. The back yard put it beyond any doubt. Hipster coffee, Indian streetfood vans, craft ale and a stall selling off the mocquette seat covers, stray furniture and old signs, clocks and luggage racks were all mobbed. Is vintage LT the accepted thirties face of suburbanites? Is writing about it in a ironic way a tactic of the wannabe member of the set? Acton in September is the way to find out.

 

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Visiting Kyoto for Japanese culture

Traditional Japanese activities are abundant in Kyoto, Japan’s one time capital and cultural fulcrum. Through iconically beautiful temples, inns that take you back 100s of years, Geishas and performances, however, I’ve taken a somewhat scattergun approach to visiting and it’s only after this 2017 visit I think I’ve got to know my way around a city I first visited in 2002.

Accommodation

‘Western style’ hotels in Kyoto are a waste of an experience so look to an Japanese style inn, a Ryokan, to turn the exercise of staying a night into an attraction. I have stayed at a budget B&B, a basic Ryokan and last month a more traditional Ryokan: Shiraume. This residence is approximately 100 years old and, in style at least, doesn’t seem to have changed much from the Geisha house it evolved from in the 1850s. Access is via a bridge, over a shallow river with greedy herons, with an early-blooming cherry blossom tree as part of a small Japanese garden create a sedate, spiritual feel that makes it hard to leave.

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The routine, largely, of these places is to check in and abandon baggage while you are served with tea while given a refined orientation to the room and the lodge. In more remote locations, you are encouraged to don a yukata and take a wander around outside, though only the brave would attempt this in busy city centre Kyoto. On return, it’s very much bath time with one or two tubs servicing the whole inn with water refreshed once daily. Form, therefore, is a thorough scrubbing sat down on tiny stools before the wooden tub eases off the strains of a journey and a walk.

This was only the second time I’d had a full meal service in a Ryokan and the food here defies any attempt at meaningful description. Suffice to say all senses are required for an eight course ‘kaiseki’ experience involving meat and fish, a course based on ‘girls day’ with five separate components and a sizzling pea and bamboo concoction with its own heat supply. It was served with anecdotes about the amount of bamboo surrounding Kyoto, the size of tatami mats related to tax wheezes and why ducks have often been regarded as fish in Japan. An option for staying at Gion in Kyoto is to eat, then head to the Geisha street (1) around 9PM to see the iconic performers between tasks. A hot bath, heated floor, alcohol and eight courses, though, means rolling across to a futon and sleeping is as energetic as we could manage.

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Temples – and getting templed out

The Temples of Kyoto dominate most itineraries of the city and the great thing about the city is there are enough of them that are unique enough to kick the experience out for three days without getting repetitive – but you do need to think about how to get between them a bit beforehand.

After a multi-course breakfast, we set out to tackle three. The first, Kiyomizu Dera is quite walkable from the city centre, though can take a while to see picturesque views of the city from a platform currently undergoing a little remedial work. In hunting the view here you can miss some of the design and colour of the buildings itself, though, which I had been guilty of on my 2005 pilgrimage. An orange-red base with ornate detail stands out vibrantly from a blue sky and green forest. What it isn’t is peaceful. The walk up and the temple itself is mobbed and the strip of gift shops leading up to it, while not overtly tacky, seemed busier and more commercialised than previous visits.

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Fushimi Inari is similarly iconomic, mainly through imagery of two kimono-attired women walking along a path of tightly-packed orange tori gates. What this image doesn’t convey is just how long these tunnels are, with 4km of passageways leading to a shrine on top of a 200m high peak. It’s a slightly wearying path with the reward for getting to the top largely dependent on how tolerant you are of people trying to get a shot of an unpopulated stretch of gates. In our case, not very. Though commercialisation is evident here as well, it was more favourable for us with festival food for sale from stalls. The custard fish got our repeat visit.

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The plan here was to head from here to Kinkakuji, flamboyantly clad in gold on the north side of the city. And this is when fatigue set in with the walking and crowds starting to get on top of us (2). I had visited chateau Goldfinger in 2005 and recall a subway-and-bus journey for the reward of a path slowly revealing the gleam of the temple set in bamboo hills, silence punctuated with the odd swoosh of bamboo in the wind. If you go gold, you should go silver as well of course and Ginkakuji, with a 45 minute walk out of the centre of town for a non-silver silver temple. This is a very cerebral experience, with a raked pebble garden requiring every ounce of concentration to decipher a zen-like message.

Over the fourteen year range I’ve made visits to Kyoto, the appeal of the temples has never diminished. It does seem far busier now, and more wearying getting between the disparate sites. It’s quite lazy to say they’re more commercialised in 2017, though the reality is it probably hasn’t changed much and entrance fees for the main attractions are never more than a few hundred JPY.

It does bring into focus, however, that Kyoto trips can be expensive and tiring. The Ryokan is approx GBP 450 and the bullet train journey from Tokyo a GBP 200 return. From my point of view it is, paradoxically, value for money. The Japanese experience is unparalleled and the societal history richer than other Asian equivalents I’ve seen. It seems to illustrate that outright tourist rip-offs are rare in Japan. If you plan well.

Performance

(1) Some pestering from Becky on the journey down meant I looked up what the costs and possibilities are of a Geisha performance, including shamisen playing and poetry recitals. As I suspected it’s astronomical at GBP 700 per performance, not including food, not including the faff of an intermediary to book it. There are occasional spring and autumn public performances and music sessions to take in, for a token fee, which seems an accessible way to achieve the same result.

(2) A different type of centuries-old Japanese entertainment did present itself when we were there, however. The Osaka prefectural gymnasium had a two-week long Sumo tournament in progress with around 10000 JPY enough to sit in the regal purple cushioned seats, cross legged. I’d written about this in the past, though the chiropractically-painful purple seats offer the more refined opportunity to have a 200 kilo wrestler thrown on you.