Friday, October 08, 2010

Japan - the Biru

The beer tourist is much like a scuba diver...

For most people, they only know the top of the ocean and are more than happy with playing on the surface. They get excited when a dolphin or other life breaks the surface, but that is as far as their interest goes. However, a scuba diver knows that there is a whole other wonder beneath the surface, a variety of life and experiences those on the surface will never know.

And such is the way of the beer tourist. My recent trip to Japan was no different.

The beer

Most will be familiar with the three main brands - Sapporo, Asahi & Kirin. I found Sapporo to be to my liking more than the other two, especially on draught in a hot yakitori bar. Kirin probably my least favourite, seemed to be more grainy than the others.

These main brands dominate the scene - similar to Lion & DB in NZ. The pale lager is pretty ubiquitous, though each also seem to throw in a black beer for colour, and with our timing, a seasonal amber autumn beer as well. But most unusual was the plethora of canned pale lager each brand seemed to promote. There was gold label, green label, tanrei (meaning "beauty", yeah right), and the bizarre promotion of beer with 70% malt (wow, lucky us!). And there was also the smallest can of beer I have ever seen, just 140ml!

But like scuba diver I am, it was the beers beneath the surface that I was more interested in...

Like the NZ craft beer industry at the moment, there was a lot of hops. The pick of these was the Baird Suruga Imperial IPA I had at the Nakameguro (Tokyo) Tasting Room. Lots of stewed fruit and caramel on the nose. A rich, slightly salty palate, with biscuitiness from the malt along with berries and melon. The type of complexity you would want from an IIPA. Another of note was the Swan Lake IPA.

But there were also a number of other interesting styles. Top of the list was the Ise Kadoya Kodai-mai (Ancient Rice) Ale at the famous Popeyes (Tokyo). A dark amber, I struggled for words to describe what was a very unique aroma and flavour - fruit, banana and spice, toffee and a salty palate. But most importantly, it was delicious.

It was interesting to note the number of Kolsch and Altbiers in the craft brewery ranges, obviously a popular style in Japan and ones we don't see so regularly in NZ. But there were also Espresso Stouts, Raunchbier, Black IPAs, a Pineapple Ale. A full list of the beers I tried is on ratebeer. The breweries that stood out were Bairds, Hidatakayama, Hitachino and Sankt Gallen.

The bars

Perhaps more impressive than the craft beer in Japan was the venues. And some of the venues were equally as hard to track down as the beer itself.

With the trip starting off with only one night in Osaka, I had already put down Beer Belly as place I wanted to visit. A tiny little bar down a small street in a quite inner city suburb, I wasn't sure we were in the right place onto we were pretty much on top of it. The bar just about took up half the space, with about 8 taps and 2 handpumps (including the local Minoh brewery). Some of the beer names were in english and some not, which was a problem for our two-and-a-half words of Japanese.

Of course, beer is the great interpreter, and it wasn't too long before the barman was translating the blackboard into english for me. A multi-talented barman he was too, when later we watched him cook and remove chips from a deep fryer with only a pair of chopsticks. With so much beer on offer, it was beer belly indeed!

It was also here that we witnessed the weird ritual that was repeated at nearly every other we visited. Before your pint is poured, the barman will run off a small amount from the tap into a bucket/tray first. I'm not sure what they think will be wrong with that first spurt, but they must go through a fair amount of the keg that way.

After a night away with Buddhist Monks (no beer there), we had 3 nights in Kyoto. My pre-trip research had shown a dearth of craft beer bars in Kyoto, so expectations were low. However, I had noted Tadg's Irish Bar as worthy of a visit. However, as someone else has also recently noted on ratebeer, the map posted there is wrong. So after not being able to locate it, I thought I would be clever and ask the concierge at our hotel to ring the bar and find out where it was for me. After she had called them up, she politely told me that the the name of the bar had in fact changed and gave me the right directions...and then sent me to the wrong place! I didn't know it at the time but I was much disappointed with The Gael, as it didn't have any of the exciting beers I had read on ratebeer. It became obvious when I cam home and worked it out, that somehow the friendly concierge had rung the wrong bar.

Nevertheless, what I did discover in Kyoto was that the large department stores stocked a great range of craft beers, and I managed to pick up many bottles from the micros to enjoy back in the room at the hotel. A similar theme played out over the next week, as we travelled through the Alps region without little prospect of any craft beer bars. However, I was able to pick up numerous bottles on our journey to enjoy along the way.
This break also allowed me to prepare for the tour-de-force that would Tokyo. I did have intentions to stop at the Baird Brewery on the way to Tokyo, but it worked out my eyes were bigger than my stomach and it was one thing I couldn't fit in. Armed with Dom's (from Hashigo Zake) must-do list of bars to visit, I had a busy couple of days ahead of me.

The first was potentially the best. A bit further out in Shimokitazawa - a cool suburb that was worth the visit on its own - we managed to track down the hard to find Ushitora bar(s). It was going to be an ongoing trend of being very difficult to find all these bars. Back to Ushitora, which was actually two bars. We were a bit early and had to wait until they opened at 5pm - nothing like a bit of enthusiasm. And the wait was worth it. In the bigger bar, there was a number of Japanese and US micros on tap. I decided to stick mostly to the local beers, the Yo-Ho Tokyo Black Porter on handpump being very memorable. We also struck up conversation with the barman who had just been at the recent Great Japan Beer Festival in Yokohama (unfortunately a couple of weeks before our trip) where one of his favourites was Tuatara APA.
The bar hop was very easy as we slipped next door to check out the second, even smaller, Ushitora bar. You could imagine my delight when I saw on the menu that they had all the Mikkeller Single Hop IPA series on tap. The Amarillo was my favourite, by then I am a bit of an Amarillo-fiend. We also had the barman try to teach us how to play with a Kendama, a Japanese folk toy, which consists of a wooden, hammer-like object with a ball connected to it by a string. We could hardly say a word to each other, but tried to take directions on how to complete tricks with it for a couple of hours.

The following night I had set aside to pay homage to the famous Popeyes. Popeyes must be one of the pre-eminent beer bars in the world, let alone Japan the beer bar in Japan. And after tracking it down in what seemed the middle of nowhere, it was obvious to see why. Proudly proclaiming 70 beers on tap (I wasn't able to verify them all, but I tried), many some the best that Japanese and American brewing has to offer. Table service from some of the happiest barman I think I have ever met. And the buzz of a full bar that just speaks people happy in their beer. For any beer nerd, there was just too much to choose from. But even that was made easier by the option of ordering a flight of ten 100ml tasters of any of the beers. And considering the strength of most of them, this wasn't a bad idea.

It was here that I was able to have the top rated beer in Japan - Hitachino Nest Espresso Stout - followed by Southern Tier's Farmer's Tan Imperial Pale Lager (one of my beers of the trip). There were also offerings from Stone, Rogue and Green Flash. This is a place you just want to come to every night.

Earlier that day I was able to find the Bairds Tasting Room in the suburb of Nakameguro (strangely located on the second floor of a Plaza building), to try and make up for not being able to visit the brewery. It was a bit early in the day, so lacked a bit of atmosphere, but I was able to sample a number of the Bairds beers - again I had too many choices, there must have been 20 on tap. All were really good, my favourite being the Suruga Bay IIPA and Bierre du Biwa, an ale made with the fruit of the loquat tree and fermented with a belgian yeast. And of course, I couldn't miss the chance to order the Tuatara Ardennes on tap - a bit of a treat.

Our last day, and I was able to stumble across the Bulldog as part of our wanderings. Disappointingly they weren't serving any of their tap beers during the day, but by a stroke of luck this forced me to order a Stone Dogfish Head Victory Saison Du Buff - another very memorable beer of the trip.

That night we had a pre-dinner drink at the Aldgate, another english-themed pub that was very popular with ex-pats. It's hard not to feel a little wrong sitting in an english pub when not in England, though the pint of Jever Pils and Baeron Rye helped lessen my doubt.

After dinner, I was very keen on tracking down Craftheads, renown for having rare American craft beer on tap. The beer isn't the only thing hard to find though, as we wandered around the streets of Shibuya trying to find the bar. After about 45 minutes I was about to give up, before checking down one last narrow street we finally stumbled across the stairs that led down to the bar. It was a very cool setting underground (nods to HZ), and the beer list was impressive as it was expensive. Stone, Three Floyds, Green Flash, Lost Abbey, Founders. At over $40 for some 300ml glasses, I kept to some of the more affordable options. Not that those disappointed. My last, the Southern Tier Pumking, was probably the beer of the trip and a great note to sign off on.

Footnote: For any one thinking of making a beer pilgrimage to Japan, I can highly recommend it. But start saving now, it was the must expensive place I have drunk in. With some of the 'cheaper' glasses of craft beer nearing $20 and tasters at $10, your wallet gets as much of a work out as your taste buds.
Japan - the observations

The fascinating part of visiting Japan where all the cultural observations to be had - from the impressive to the comical, and sometimes both at the same time. I thought I would just list them:
  • This place is impressively clean. In our two weeks I can not remember seeing a piece of litter anyway. No rubbish, no food scraps, no graffiti. Why? Well, for starters I think that 'respect' is an inherent part of their cultural, and that extends to the environment around them. Littering just isn’t the done thing. Plus, we did see some signs warning of pretty high fines for littering - approximately $500! But they also have a lot of old men everywhere cleaning up the streets.
  • Which brings me to another observation - Japan makes good use of its old people. With a horrifically aging population (apparently in the next 40 years or so, Japan's population will fall from 120m to just 60m!), rather than just pay the elderly a pension, it appears that they instead pay them to totter around the streets and parks raking, sweeping and cleaning. I don’t know if they like it, but I sure did like the cleanliness.
  • The reducing population was also not surprising in that we hardly saw a pregnant women the whole trip.
  • Clean and safe - taxis sit at the side of the road with their door wide open waiting for a customer.
  • But apart from being clean and safe there was a real buzz to the Japanese cities and they looked like a cool place to live.
  • The Japanese people themselves were surprisingly Western looking to me. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but walking around the cities, sometimes you could forget you were in Asia at all. Clothing and haircuts are very much in styles we are familiar with at home, and many times I would think I had spotted fellow tourists, only to see on closer inspection they were locals.
  • Obviously style is very important. There is a lot of care taken in appearance and plenty of preening in front of any reflective surface, male or female, and just about everyone seems to have their own small mirror on them. I think it is all about trying to be individual, but sometimes this style is way OTT.
  • Guys with school girl fetishes would be happy here - lots of short skirts and long white socks. It's not just a clichĂ©.
  • None of the clothes were going to fit us though. If I could manage to get just my foot through the leg, then the trouser would wrap around my thigh like a boa constrictor. The shoes were so narrow that there was hardly room for my big toe, let alone my whole foot. There isn't much to the Japanese, that's for sure.
  • The small feet thing posed problems for me at temples and our accommodation, as I always struggled to find a pair of slippers that fit me and my heels were always hanging out the back.
  • There is an obvious dislike for being short - which the majority of them are. Girls will wear the most ridiculous heels in the most ridiculous places (forest walk to heels anyone?).
  • It is also strange how we are always trying to get a tan, when the Japanese seem to do everything they can to avoid it. Shade is very precious, we even saw people biking along with an umbrella attached.
  • Generally a good looking people, but they nearly all have bad teeth. Anti-dentites obviously!
  • Very friendly people - especially to a couple of mute foreigners.
  • Scary experience walking into stores. One of the staff spots you are yells out some greeting, which then ripples through every other staff member who also yells the same greeting at you. They didn’t seem to expect any reply from you, so we just kept our heads down and charged through. Though was very disconcerting when you we in the shop, as every 2 seconds the same chanting starts up and you never know where to look.
  • Surprisingly, it is a cash society. It was very rare that we could pay by credit card. The smallest sized note was also 1,000 yen, which as you went on became dangerously frivolous with, as it was nearly the equivalent of $20.
  • There are powerlines everywhere. These people are obviously 'electricitiholics'.
  • They all had these weird massively long flip top phones. They look about as long as a TV remote. I guess it is because their writing is vertical? Hardly saw an iPhone the whole trip, which I thought strange for such a technology driven country. But strangely, I can hardly recall one person actually talking on their mobile, it must be all texting.
  • A Starbucks literally on every corner. And if it wasn't a Starbucks, it was a cafĂ© trying to make itself look like a Starbucks.
  • No one J-walks. Everybody waits for the green man, even on the smallest, unbusiest of streets.
  • People biking everywhere, particularly down pedestrian malls.
  • Everyone sleeps when travelling in on the train or bus. No matter what the time of day, we would look around and see everyone with their eyes closed, head slouched forwarded, and body swaying. And just when you started thinking that there must be a lot of missed stops, they would suddenly look up, nod to themselves, step up and walk off.
  • Flannels - what is the obsession with these. Every old women must have a plethora of flannels at her disposal, and each seems to have their own purpose. There is: the wipe the sweat off your forehead and neck flannel; the drape around your neck to catch the sweat flannel; the pat the rain off you flannel; the drape across your lap to protect your trousers from the bottom of your bag when you sit flannel; there is probably the flannel to wrap your flannels!
  • Old Japanese women will also, rather than just having one bag, will have a number of small bags drape all around their person.
  • The whole time we were there we never saw a large group of women out together. A few couples, but most women out a bar would be part of a large male-dominated group. But plenty of large groups of men out together, all in their uniform dark suits.
  • While very quiet most of the time, the Japanese excel at being excessive loud at other times. Particularly slurping, sniffing, or any other noises you can make with your throat or nose. Iris would hate it!
  • We are clearly much bigger drinkers than the Japanese. Our hotels would often make a point of telling us which restaurants served alcohol. And if you watched Japanese drinking at a bar, you noticed that you would finish two pints to their one, if that (though they would seem more drunk).
  • All the workmen wear jumpsuits just like out of the Bond movies.
  • New Zealand seems to equal either "All Blacks" or "Bungy", as that is what we got every time we mentioned where we were from.
  • Despite there not being much English spoke at all, there was much strange use of it. The baseball teams all had English names - like "Marlins". Many stores also had English names - like "Lawsons". And the one that topped it for me, watching the news which was completely in Japanese - spoken, subtitles, headings - until sports news came along with a great big "Sports" heading, and then continued completely in Japanese again.
  • Yes, there is lots of bowing. Even the train conductor bows as he enters the carriage, then stops, turns and bows again before he leaves.
Sashimi, Wagyu & Wasp Larvae

As always, our trips are as much about food as they are about the travel. And Japan was a veritable feast of great cuisine. In many of the cases below, the pictures do most of the talking.

One of favourite meals was in fact one of the strangest and cheapest. On our first night, wandering the alleys and lanes of Osaka, we stumbled upon a long line of locals going up some stairs and into what we assumed was a restaurant. This looked like as good as any hint of good food, so we joined the queue. During our 20 minutes or so in the queue, we had to inform an attendant that there would be two of us dining. Eventually we were ushered through the door only to be introduced to a vending machine! Some confused looks and pointing finally to us to the realisation that we were to order our meal from the vending machine. The restaurant specialised in ramen, and from the vending machine you selected your order and then made a number of selections about how you wanted your ramen: how strong the flavour; how rich the soup; how much garlic, how much spring onion; and how much "special sauce". Taking our tickets from the vending machine, we were then ushered around the corner to a bizarre line of individual booths. As we sat down in our booths, a hatch opened up in front of us and our tickets were taken from us from a mysterious individual behind the hatch. At this stage, this was one of the weirdest eating experiences we had ever had. However, the reward came 10 or so minutes later, when the most amazing ramen ever was presented to us back through the hatch. The broth was the most incredibly flavoursome I have ever had, the noodles tender, with a deliciously soft boiled egg that we had also ordered. It was a strange experience sitting within your booth, but we were so engrossed in our ramen you forgot where you were.

This ramen was firmly imprinted on our mind for the rest of the trip. So it was pretty exciting when we noticed a familiar sign at the end of the trip when we were in Tokyo. Apparently it is a chain renown for its special ramen broth, and it certainly didn't disappoint when we had to visit for the second time.

However, equally amazing as this simple ramen were our numerous Kaiseki experiences. Kaiseki is a multi-course banquet served at the traditional inns as part of your accommodation. There are many dishes using local ingredients, some intricate and visually stunning.

Our initial introduction to Kaiseki was at Koyasan at the monastery we stayed in. The monks are all completely vegan, and the idea is that you eat as they do, but they also seemed to have a liking for very bitter food, which literally become difficult to swallow towards the end.
However, we had the first of many amazing Kaiseki experiences at our accommodation in Takayama. This very unassumingly looking inn presented us with one of the more memorable dining experiences of our life. Arriving to the dining hall in the evening (which we had to ourselves), a massive feast was awaiting us. It was some of the most amazing meals of our life.

An equally impressive Kaiseki was served up to us at our awesome inn in Tsumago in the Kiso Valley. There were lots of local specialties - including wasp larvae, which was actually quite tasty. Dish after dish came out over the night, and by the time the green tea sponge came out, we were stuffed! (You have to excuse the robe they insisted we dine in).

You might be suspecting already that I might have forgone my pescetarianism during this trip. The opportunity to taste some of the finest beef in the world was something I didn't think I should miss - and the Wagyu certainly didn't disappoint.

Our first experience came completely by chance. We were dining out in Kyoto and had already finished off a very nice meal and were enjoying the last of our drinks when a sizzling plate was whisked past our table. Our interest peaked, we tried to ask the waitress what it was without much success. So we just communicated that we would like to order the same to find out. Soon after, our own sizzling plate came to the table, with only four thin slices of beef. But oh my, this was beef like no other. It was so tender that it basically just melted when you put it in your mouth. And the taste was so rich and juicy. It was a true marvel. Of course, it was only when we tried to work out our bill at the end of the night that we found out it must have been approximately $80 for just those four slices! As we left, we also managed to find out what we had from one of the chefs - top grade Nagano Wagyu beef.
We then had Wagyu served up in a number of Kaiseki meals, all amazing, if not quite amazing as that first one. It was pretty obvious where the rich flavour came from when seeing the beef in butcher shops. It is so marbled with fat that some pieces look nearly completely white. The other great Wagyu experience came in one of the more unlikely of places. Walking down one of the streets in Takayama we came across a hole-in-the-way joint selling little strips of Hida Wagyu, another of the top grades. Sure beats the pie cart!
Of course, not to be outdone was some of the incredible seafood we had. The two most special seafood meals we had were from restaurants in two of the fish markets. The first was in Kanazawa where we were able to track down a restaurant famed for its Kaisen-don (sashimi on a bowl of rice). It must have come with nearly 20 different pieces of seafood - including raw squid and raw prawn and the famed Kanazawa snow crab - and even topped with gold flakes!
The most memorable fish market though was the Tsukiji market in Tokyo, astounding and depressing at the same time for the shear quantity of fish. A little guiltily we did go to one of the sushi joints that surround the market. By now we had worked out the best way to choose your restaurant, select the one with the longest queue. It took about 30 minutes to work our way through the queue, ordering before we went in. The sashimi certainly didn't disappoint - you can't help but understand why the Japanese are fanatical about their fish.
One of the more unusual market snacks we had was the Takoyaki, a specialty in Osaka. They are spherical balls of boiled octopus cooked in a soft and chewy batter. They are a little unusual to eat, especially when you try to eat them when they haven't cooled enough and you have to loll it in your mouth to try and stop them burning it. There was definitely a bit of an art to making them - the cook having to roll them as they cook to give them the shape and ensure all the batter is cooked - but I can't see them making the Weight Watchers recommended snack list.

Back on the noodle front, the udon and the soba wasn't outdone by the ramen. Though we were slow converts to the popular dish of cold soba. We saw it a couple of times on the menu and couldn't piece together how it could be appetising, until we were offered by a friendly fellow diner to try some why eating at an Izakaya bar. Coming with a dipping sauce, we were surprised how tasty it was and made sure we ordered it when we saw it next.

One thing we learnt was that there is an art to eating your noodles, and in particular, the all important slurp. There seemed to be number of techniques: there is the quick fire short slurps; the long hard slurp finishing with a snap (a favourite of old men); and of course, the polite tentative slurp of the tourists. But the longer you stay, the more comfortable you get with the slurp and start giving it a bit more of a go. Though, I could never quite work out when some of the Japanese men slurped when they were eating something that didn't even have noodles or a sauce to slurp!

On the subject of noodles, this brings us to the obvious need for chopsticks, at which Anna was initially hopeless a using. For days it looked like she was trying to pick up her food with a couple of tooth picks. She just could not get it right, despite all the coaching by myself. It wasn't until about a week in to the trip when an old chef showed her what to do (exactly the same thing that I had been showing her!) that she picked it up. Though we were both still well short of the expertise shown from the locals around us. The first time we had to try and eat a grilled mackerel with chopsticks we made a bit of a mess of it, only to look across from us to see a guy deftly picking out the meat like it was picking up peas. But we did get better, and by the end of the trip using chopsticks was like second nature.

Of course, blogging about Japanese cuisine wouldn't be complete without referencing the ridiculous displays of plastic food outside most of the restaurants. I'm not too sure the objective of these, as they do look ridiculous and in no way appetising. The most unappetising we saw was the spaghetti bolognese below, though anything brown looked more like the thing that comes at the end of your digestion rather than something you want at the start of it. The lengths some of the models went to was quite amusing though, we liked the glass of milk shown pouring into the iced coffee below!

Like a lot of things in Japan, the cuisine could range from the sublime to the somewhat bizarre. I enjoyed both.
The Land of the Rising Sun

The funniest thing that happened before we left on our trip for 2 weeks to Japan was the number of times people would ask "why are you going there?" I wouldn't have thought it was
such a strange choice for a destination, and it certainly didn't prove to be. When we first decided on Japan, we didn't have a whole lot of ideas about what we were going to do, but as we planned, there was more and more we wanted to squeeze into our 2 weeks. We would have happily had more time, if our wallet could have handled it!

There has ended up being so much to write about, I've split my blog out into separate posts on:

And of course the photos here.

Our trip started off with one night in Osaka. As a tourist destination Osaka didn't have a lot of promise, but on reflection it would have been our favourite big city. And without many big attractions, we got to just enjoy our first day in a very foreign city, wandering in and taking in all the difference. The first thing that struck us was the cleanliness. Everything is just spotless. In our whole of 2 weeks, I cannot recall once seeing a piece of litter, food or even cigarette butt (and they're all smoking) on the street. No tagging either. It was quite refreshing, if maybe a little sterile. But you also had a feeling of safeness you'd never get in a Western city.

It didn't take me long to make my first big faux pas. We were only dropping our bags off at our hotel and we used the toilet on the ground floor. This was my first introduction to a Japanese toilet, which come complete with a control board something akin to Captain Kirk's command chair on the USS Enterprise. Faced with this I wasn't quite sure how to flush the bloody toilet. Somewhat unwisely, I took to just randomly hitting the buttons hoping for the right result. Well, I got a result alright. Suddenly, a rod started to extend itself from the back of the toilet. A second later I'm taking evasive action as a jet of water flies past my head and hits the opposite door a meter behind me and about 5 feet up! Worst off all, I couldn't work out how to turn it off. I ended up having to close the lid and then must have finally struck the right button to turn it off. There was water everywhere. (Obviously I had mistakenly hit the bidet button, also after I had increased the water pressure to maximum. But anybody who uses a jet of water that powerful to clean their backside must have serious problems!)

Slinking off we went about exploring Osaka. Some places were strangely empty and quiet. But then others would be a throng of people. We also discovered that Japanese cities have a whole underground - literally. In the centre, just about any street you are walking along will likely have another street beneath - complete with shops, restaurants, offices, etc. Topside, the Japanese city is an eclectic mix of box-like buildings of varying heights and ages, all lined up next to each other, squeezing into the block and battling for space (of which there is none).

We also found our way to the first of many markets - which every city seems to have. Here we had our first delicious sushi experience (sashimi to be more exact, served by who must have been Andre the Giant's Japanese twin brother) and the fried octopus balls that Osaka is famous for (yes, they are as weird as they sound).

Later that day we made out way to the tallest building Osaka and the viewing deck to watch the sunset, but when the real lights of the city come on. On the way though, we past some weird Michael Jackson tribute 'thing' going on in the plaza. It seemed that is was an open event to come along dressed in your best Wacko Jacko outfit and bring out your best King of Pop dance moves in front of the crowd. It was a shame we didn't get the invite...

Later that night we just wandered around the nightlife district, taking great amusement from the fashion on show and had the best Ramen ever (more in that in the Food post). It was a great first day, and I felt like if we were going home the next day already the experience was worth it.

However, the next day we weren't going home, but were instead taking a 2 hour train ride to Koyasan, a mountain plateau, home to a famous Buddhist cemetery and a number of Monasteries you can stay the night at, which is what we were doing. The cemetery was very cool - an eerie mix of tall cedars, long shadows, and overgrown stone statues and monuments - that you easily lost yourself in for a couple of hours.

You could also lose yourself in the Monastery we were staying in. Lots of twists ands turns, and numerous different slippers you were suppose to wear and not wear in certain places. It was hard to keep tract. The small number of young monks run the Monastery, being very polite and precise. Though I don't think the life of a monk is one for us. The vegan meals were extremely bitter, and I don't think Anna could have repeated the 6am wake up for prayers.

The next day we travelled back and made our way to Kyoto, where we had 3 nights. Kyoto is all about the temple experience.We must have visited about 15 in the time we were there. Japanese travel from all over the visit these temples, though we seemed quite lucky in that they did not seem overly busy. It seemed that we had timed our trip just prior to when the Fall colours really came out. Which meant that we probably didn't see the temples in all their splendour, but at least we got to see them! The temples were pretty impressive with their ornate buildings and manicured gardens. Very zen. Though, by the end of the 3 days we were ready to put the tick alongside "temples".

We also managed a day trip out to discover the Saga District in Northwest Kyoto, maybe our highlight and not even mentioned by the Lonely Planet. There was also the Gion District, which was a strange mix of Parnell and Fort Street. Looked wealthy and high end, but had an underlying dodgy feel to it. At night, there were lots of young guys standing around in suits, seemingly standing guard outside their 'establishment', and attractive young girls tarted up and strutting about amongst the predominately businessmen crowd.

From Kyoto we started our tiki tour through the Japanese Alps on our way through to Tokyo. Our first stop was Kanazawa, which lies on the coast of the Sea of Japan. Anna had booked us to stay in our very own traditional Japanese townhouse right in the middle of the historical district. It was amazing, little nooks and crannies, stairwells and rooms (though it should be noted that when Anna booked it she thought the price was for both of us and not per person!). Kanazawa itself was an awesome little city as well. It has one of the most famous gardens in all of Japan, which was quite spectacular. There was also a Castle Park, where a friendly old man talked us through its history and enthusiastically told us how Pohutukawas were his favourite tree after visiting New Zealand. We also stumbled across an art gallery with some fun exhibits.

We also had our first public bath experience. We trotted off that night to the neighbourhood bath, not quite sure what it was all about. The baths are split into male and female, though the desk of old woman who managed it looked into both changing rooms. We certainly stuck out, being about 100 years younger than everyone else in there, and our skin a 100 shades lighter. Tentatively watching others, you pick up that you are meant to wash ourselves first before jumping in the baths. It was a little unnerving though being obviously scrutinised to see if you were washing yourself enough. After I had removed the dirt, sweat and about 3 years worth of skin growth, I dared to jump into one of the baths. After jumping in the bath I wished I had hat skin back, as the water was scorching! It is then a little odd just sitting there with others in the bath, being stared at. I was fortunate in that it was very quiet on the men's side, Anna later told me that the women would keep on saying something and all start laughing. A bit of fun nevertheless.

After our bath we headed out to try and find dinner. We passed a place not far from our townhouse that from the sounds of things was pretty busy and would be suit us. Stumbling in we found ourselves in a small smoky Izakaya bar with about 40 men (no women) drinking and eating, who all stopped and turned to look at us. Before we had a chance to think twice, two spots at the bar we were for us and we were ushered in. Struck up a bit of 'conversation' with the guy next to me. When I say conversation, that pretty much means some acknowledgement of "rugby" and "bungy" once they learn we are from New Zealand (it seems that is what we are known for). He also tried to start buying rounds for us, but by the time I had finished each of my beers he seemed to have hardly started - but he seemed to be getting drunk nonetheless (the Japanese really can't handle their alcohol).

On the other side of us, the guy let us try his cold soba noodles. Something we might not have tried otherwise, but after that something we tried to track down. It ended up being a fun night. I think Anna being in there was a bit of a novelty. The draught Sapporo tasted good (especially after that bath) and grilled skewers tasted good - though we got home smelling like a grill ourselves.

The next day we were heading into the Alps proper and the World Heritage village of Shirakawa-go. The area experiences some of the heaviest snow in all of Japan and so the houses are constructed to withstand these elements, with steeply-sided thatched roofs. Despite the practical uses, for us tourists they are just pretty, and you have the opportunity to stay in one of these 'Gassho'. And the benefit of staying is that the tourist buses all head out at 5pm and you nearly have the place to yourself (well, at least until the next day's buses arrive at 7.30am).

Getting there was quite spectacular as well, the Japanese not taking mountains as any obstacle in taking the straightest line to their destination. Why they need this highway through what is a very sparsely populated area I am not sure, but it was hard not to be impressed, especially by one of the tunnels that was 11.4km long! The shame of State Highway 1...

After our night in our little Gassho, falling asleep to the sound of the river and sweating it out on the heated floor, we moved onto the city of Takayama. Takayama contained a very relaxed historical district that was just pleasant to wander amongst the dark wood paneled houses. We just enjoyed the vibe of this city and enjoyed wandering around.

Takayama was also a good spot for which to visit Kamakochi National Park, which we did the next day. The day before we thought we had cleverly organised at the Takayama Tourist Office to be able to drop our bags off at the tourist office of the small Onsen (spa) town we were staying at on the fringe of the National Park before our bus continued on. It was a tight thing, as we had to run the bags across to the office before the bus carried on. When I went to drop the bags off the old man in the office has absolutely no English whatsoever. After more time than we could afford to take and Anna holding the bus up across the road, I finally organised it all (or I hoped I had!) and we could continue on do our hike.

We had decided to take the Shin-hotaka Cable Car halfway up one side a range and then hike up over the 2385m pass before descending down into the main valley of the National Park on the other wise. Though when we tried to buy one way tickets at the Cable Car the guy looked at us like we were crazy because we didn't have enough kit with us for an ascent of Everest. This was even after we showed him our hiking boots and bag with jackets, food and water. It was only a 4 hour hike for gods sake! But us we saw later on, the Japanese don't do such things by halves. Even for a short stroll along a riverbed they seem to be prepared with enough tramping gear for the onset of Armageddon.

Though for most in the cable car, that seemed to be sum total of their adventure for the day. And did they enjoy it! Though the bi they seemed to enjoy the most was when they could wave at the people going back down in the reverse car.

Leaving the cable car, it was about a 1 hour steep hike up to the top of the ridge. Which doesn't sound much, but when you are setting off at an altitude above 2000m already, it's not your usually stroll up the hill. The 6km down the other side was easier on the lungs, but much harder on the legs. A real quad burner! Again it was very steep with some tricky scrambles. We had hardly seem anyone else, as just when we were thinking we were very intrepid, we meet a group of grandmas going the other way! There was some very difficult climbing ahead of them so it says a lot for the health of the elderly over there.

By the time we got to the bottom we were quite knackered. We had enough energy to walk around Kamikochi and along the river. It would have been nice to have more time (and drink more of the water - some of the finest I have ever tasted), but we were pretty keen on getting back to our accommodation and to the onsens! Some of the pools were ridiculously hot, but the setting was pretty awesome. Even if it was still hard to get used to wandering around the pools naked (they are gender split).

The next day we woke up to it absolutely pissing down. Which was great, as our day composed of traveling to our next destination. And we were especially it hadn't happened the day before as it would have ruined our plans for the hike. The first part was a bus trip to Matsumoto, through some ridiculous gorges when putting a road shouldn't have even been possible. We had a couple of hours in Matsumoto before our train left, which was perfect to go check out the Matsumoto Castle. We took up the complimentary guide, I think a group of elderly who use it to practice their English. Found out plenty more than we would have otherwise, especially that that he needed to clean his teeth more!

Our next nights were in the Kiso Valley before heading to Tokyo. The two towns we were staying in - Tsumago and Magome - were old posts on the Nakasendo, a old highway from from the 17th century, and the towns have been kept in much of the same condition they would have been then. In Tsumago we were staying in a beautiful Ryoken (Japanese Inn) with the nicest hosts with an interesting background. None of the properties in Tsumago can be leased, sold or demolished. So when the current owner's grandfather passed away, he had to give up his banking career in Italy to come back and run the Ryoken, otherwise it would have had to be handed over to the government. Along with us, he had Spanish and Italian quests that night, and could speak to them all.

The next day it was sunny again, which was perfect as we had planned to hike the 8km between Tsumago and Magome (we actually got the bus to Magome with our gear and walked back) - a mix of the old Nakasendo highway and woodland paths. You were also meant to take a bell with you to warm off bears, but disappointingly we never saw one. Halfway along the hike we were ushered into a rest stop by some elderly Japanese walkers. The rest stop came complete with old man who served green tea and snacks (boiled peanuts and some delicious unknown berries). The Japanese group seem to be having a hoot trying to converse with us. It seemed we were fated to be but of the jokes of 70 year olds on this trip.

Arriving back in Tsumago we thought we had plenty of time for some lunch before catching the bus back. Only to get to the bus stop after taking our time to find out that it left back for Magome at 2.27pm and not 2.47pm as Anna had thought. Ended up being an expensive $50 mistake to get the taxi as that was the last bus of the day.

Where Tsumago had been nestled into a valley (and shrouded in mist on the day we arrived), Magome was perched down a hillside with a steep cobblestone street running up it. This was to be our last night at an Inn-type accommodation, and while we looking forward to having some variety from the provided for dinners and breakfasts (as good as they were), they did make things easy. But we had a special treat on our last night - the hosts gave lessons in traditional Kiso dance. We were the only gringos and there were no instructions in English, so we were limited to "left" and "right" and a lot of pointing at feet. It was all very amusing as we tried to join in the dance around the fire. I am sure there was plenty of context given as part of the instructions, but it was all lost on us.

We were now nearing the end of the trip, with just out 3 nights in Tokyo left. To get there were getting the chance to take the bullet train (Shinkansen) from Nagano to Tokyo. You don't really get the feel on traveling - except that the train seems to sway up and down rather and side to side - but making the 350km in around 1hr40min, it obviously is. But at $170 each, it wasn't cheap. Got me thinking that if we had such a service from Auckland to Wellington, would cheap-arse Kiwis actually use it (despite the ease at which it makes traveling). Disappointingly, didn't get the chance to see Mt Fuji, but did get to see the clouds that surround Mt Fuji.

Tokyo is a very cosmopolitan city. A much larger mix of Westerners than we had seen in any other cities, with obviously many living and working in the city. I felt Tokyo could have been world city, lacing the character we had observed though the rest of Japan. In retrospect I would have been happy to spend that time elsewhere.

Though there were a few gems. We took a trip out to the suburb of Shimokitazawa, only because there was a pub I wanted to visit. But the area itself proved to be very cool, lots of little clothes shops and cafes, and surprisingly for a Japanese city, low rise buildings.

We tripped around the main Tokyo areas, a ridiculous number of department stores and shops. There would be a giant Zara (or replace with name of any other department store of your choice) and then four blocks down he road there would be another Zara. There was some pretty stunning architecture though, you can't ignore the modernity that Tokyo exudes.

One experience not to miss in Tokyo is a visit to the Tsukiji Fish Market. This place is huge - blocks and blocks and blocks of fish. There was a lot of fish! I guess when you are feeding a city with a population of 12m fish eaters, you need to. But wandering around this place you can't help but feel that the fish is fucked! Of course, we probably didn't help by going to one of the small sushi restaurants alongside the market. But when in Rome...

Our last day and we had a little rain again. We were very lucky as the time of year can see a lot of rain, but we had great weather for most of the trip. There was one funny episode before we left. Walking around the Harajuku district, I noticed a bunch of Japanese guys taking weird close up photos along the street. I started talking to one of them to find out they w
ere celebrating the 5 year release of this camera they were using. All a bit weird. But then they ask if they can take photos of me, and next thing I know there is a line up of then snapping away, making me look like some kind of celeb wandering the streets of Tokyo!

And that was pretty much that. An awesome couple of weeks that gave us the taste for wanting to come back. We'd have to start saving though, it would be one of the most expensive places we have visited. At one stage it seemed as if we were taking out 50,000 yen a day, the equivalent of $850! We also probably need to study up on our Japanese a bit more, though we did well with our 2 and a half words. Except Anna of course, who made a habit of walking up to people and saying "arigato" ("goodbye").


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Fjords, Mountains & Meatloaf

Even though Anna and I had made a big trip around the South Island 15 years ago (yip - it was pretty early days), it was literally "around" the outside. Neither of us had really been through the Mainland, and along with wanting to do one of the Great Walks (in this case the Routeburn), this provided the motivation for this trip.

Picking up a car in Christchurch, with a slightly groggy head from too much fun at Pomeroys the night before, we headed straight out into the Canterbury Plains, driving the long way to Lake Tekapo. Not that there is a lot of driving to be done, the steering wheel being necessary about once every 15 minutes. Just as well the scenery is there to keep you awake. You can't get away from the contrast between the gray Alps and the (unnaturally) green plains. Though amidst the somewhat depressingly irrigated farmland was a heartening huge free range pig farm with what looked like plenty of happy (and very big) pigs.

However, as we headed out further into the countryside, there was one discovering that stayed with me for the rest of the trip. Outside of the cities, there appears to be one radio station that dominates all possible frequencies - More FM. It didn't matter how many times we scanned the frequencies, all we seemed to get was More-bloody-FM! And it becomes something akin to psychological warfare, as you caught yourself driving along humming to Meatloaf or Elton John…

Just as well the scenery was so distracting. You couldn’t help but let your jaw hang when driving through the MacKenzie Basin. Surrounded by mountains, with fingers of mineral-blue lakes stretching out from the Alps towering to one side. The first night we stayed in Tekapo – not much to do here but enjoy the views and try to work out which restaurant is going to be the least unpleasant experience. Of course there was the stunning night sky. We drove out somewhere to get completely away from lights, turned off the car lights and were pitched into completed darkness. No wonder the stars looked so awesome.

The next day we made the short drive around to Mt Cook National Park, were we staying the night. Lucky for us, we had an awesome view of Mt Cook the whole day – apparently you can visit there and never get a glimpse. We took a couple of walks out to glacier terminus (lakes at the end of glaciers). Including to the Tasman Glacier where a dodgy tour company tried to tell us we shouldn’t drive out to the car park as the road was rough. Stop in at the National Park Office and they said go for it. The other was a tricky 3-hour return walk where we regularly surprised about the casual wear people had. Two Asian tourists took the cake though, he had a dinner jacket on and she had massive high heels. We assumed that they weren’t going to get far.

It’s a pretty awesome place Mt Cook Village – if you haven’t been there, you should made the effort to do so.

The next day we had to drive down to Queenstown to return the hire car and catch our transport to Te Anau. Driving through Central Otago it was strange to find yourself thinking that the scenery was boring, but it was compared to the MacKenzie Basin. And Queenstown, as it always is, is pretty unappealing.

Arriving in Te Anau, we headed into what we had feared all week – the approaching inclement weather. A great big front had been promising to come up from the south, and just as we arrived in Fjordland, so did it. Not what you want when you about to head off on a 3-day tramp…

However, before that we had a day out kayaking on Doubtful Sound. Ironically, this trip had been ‘doubtful’ ever since we booked it. The company said they needed at least 4 people to make it worth their while. So fortunately, when we called them up the night before, they had 6 booked. And just as well, as the day was awesome. It starts with a long cruise across Lake Manapouri – and all the way could see the brooding rain clouds over the mountains that we had to go over to get to the Fjord. The whole day we didn’t see anybody else or any other craft on the Fjord - it was like we had the place to ourselves. And the rain just made it even more stunning – with waterfalls strung out all along the cliffs. The guide told us just two days ago that they were all dry. You have to remember that rain is the natural environment in Fjordland, so we were in fact very lucky. We spent around 5 hours cruising around the Fjord, we saw a mini landslide just in front of us, and also caught sight of a couple of Little Blue Penguins. And the final reward at the end of the day was the cloud lifting so that we got to see the Fjord open up a bit. So at the end of the day we were soaked, but happy.

The next day was the beginning of the Routeburn, and that rain wasn’t shifting. But again, walked through the Beech rain forest (Beech just may be my favourite tree), it felt right. Though it was a bugger to fight the wind and rain up to Key Summit, which is suppose to have spectacular views, to be only just able to see past your hand. After 5 hours of climbing we finally reached our destination for the night – the DOC hut at Lake MacKenzie. We were pretty sodden by this stage, but had to work out a strategy for nabbing a bed and getting your clothes as close to the fire as possible to dry. This became a bit of spectator sport, as people hovered around waiting for someone to remove there dried clothing from a prime spot. Though it was all drama at one stage when the “burning sock” call went out, and people rushed to pull their socks away from being draped on the chimney. One poor sucker had to throw away is ‘well done’ sock.

What we didn’t expect to see when we arrived at the hut was an 8 month old baby! We ended up speaking quite a lot with the couple – from Aussie – and we even more surprised to hear that they had already been tramping for 3 days!! So they were going to be tramping with their little girl for all of 6 days, and had a little sling system by which they carried her. She was an amazing little kid – she was just about walking without any support, and was for obvious reasons pretty popular in the hut. There is not much to do in the hut apart from cook your meal, talk to a few people and play some cards. Though the night was broken up by the show put on by the hilarious DOC ranger – Clive he was and he looked just as you would expect, short shorts and knee high socks. And eccentric, as he told us all these stories about the hut and the track. It was pretty cold, but a benefit of the MacKenzie hut is that the sleeping area is above the living area, so you get some ‘warmth’ from the kitchen and fire. And were amazed that there was hardly any noise from the baby. Though the same couldn’t be said from the American who snored all night…

The next morning it first looked like the weather could be lifting. But by the time we were heading out, it was raining again. The second day is all alpine, as you climb above the tree line and walk across the top of the Holyford Face. We were one of the first to head out, and has it turned out, got the worst of the weather that day. Later that night it seemed that we were the only ones to get caught in hail. Walking along the face in the mist and the rain, I couldn’t help but liken us to Frodo and Sam (and for fellow Lord of the Ring nerds, in Emyn Muil). Of course, I’m sure Frodo and Sam wouldn’t have been humming “I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that”…

Our hard slog was rewarded though as the cloud did start to lift and it wasn’t long until we were walking in the sun. This also meant that we were able to look down onto the Holyford River and across the other side of the valley, where the mountains looked like they had received a fresh dusting of snow. We reached the Harris Summit (the top of the walk) just in time to get a dusting of snow ourselves. Which meant any attempt of going up for the view at Conical Hill would have been a waste of time. So we started down towards the Routeburn Valley through more awesome scenery, as the Routeburn River started threading its way down from Lake Harris. We actually timed it pretty much perfect, we reached the Routeburn Falls Hut just as it started to bucket down again.

The position of the Routeburn Falls Hut was pretty stunning – the Routeburn Falls (funnily enough) along one side, and then a view down the Routeburn Valley in front of you. But it was a lot bloody colder – the sleeping quarters separate from the living area and the fire being hard to get going. Especially when a big group of Israelis decide to camp out in front of it but without any interest in adding any more fuel to it. Israeli tourists – always the same.

The next morning we were very fortunate in that it was absolute stunning – not a cloud in the sky. So we took the opportunity to walk a little way back up the trail – well, I decided to run to make it back up to the Summit again. Of course, a dangerous thing it is to run after a frosty night, as I found out a couple of times slipping on ice. But when we you have views like we had, no slip was going to disturb you.

All that was left with us now was to complete final part of the track, down through Beech forest again and down through the Routeburn Valley. Again, we were reminded how much more spectacular the rain forest is in rain than in sunshine.

We spent out penultimate night in Glenorchy, which is at the end of Lake Wakatipu and just a short trip from the end of the walk. There isn’t much to Glenorchy, but it’s the type of place that, when you visit, you just can’t not start trying to think about how you might be able to live here. Though we did stick out a little bit when we headed down to the pub. I might have been the only guy not to be drinking a quart of Speights – when I asked for a pint of Black Mac, I think the guy at the bar had to remember where the tap was.

Eventually the next day we had to head back to Queenstown – but we relieved ourselves by finding the awesome Atlas Bar with both Emersons and Invercargill on tap. And Anna had booked us in for dinner at the Botswana Butchery Restaurant – which I think she did on purpose considering I’m vegetarian at the moment. But we reflected on what was an awesome trip – you can really see why they brave the winters down here. We are already planning on next walk…

Pics here.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Walking the Wild West

Another overcast Sunday, another opportunity to put on the hiking boots. This time we headed way out to Whatipu, the northern head of the Manukau Harbour and the southern tip of the Waitakeres. The walk was a 5-hour loop, first climbing up to around 300m before descending into a valley and then returning along the coast.

The drive out there was an adventure enough in itself - we didn't see too many other Mini's heading out along the dirt road! The climb up through a Manuka Forest took us just over an hour, no where near the signposted 2-hours. Supposedly you can sometimes have views all the way down to Mt Taranki - not this day. The descent was pretty steep, and we had to billy goat it a view times. Passing through an awesome grove of Nikau Palms (and a couple of Kauri too) we finally made it down in the valley. Here our lack of tramping cred was exposed, as we removed out boots to cross the stream. Of course, this is when we saw the first people as day, as two guys strode straight past us and straight across the stream.

With dry feet on the other side, we made our down the way and out to the coast and some pretty impressive sand dunes. This was real wild west stuff. The dunes must stretch out for nearly a kilometre to the sea, where the Tasman Sea was throwing down it's best on the coast. It took us nearly 2-hours to make our way back, not seeing a soul the whole way. It felt quite surreal walking through this black expanse all by ourselves. We tried to take the direct line a few times, though each time we were beaten back by grass and wetlands. In the end, it was easier to just take the wide way.

When we finally make it back to the heads at Whatipu, it was a shock to see how many people were there - we had seen the sum total of 4 people during the whole walk. We pulled our tired legs back into the car and headed back in to the city - where we were surprised to find that on the other side of the hills it was brilliantly sunny. But the gray and the clouds had suit the scenery. And now we could enjoy the stunning evening with a couple of well earned pints at Galbraiths, and satisfaction on a bloody good day.