Hydrangeas at Odawara Castle

I really love hydrangeas, or あじさい (ajisai) in Japanese. June is the start of tsuyu, rainy season, where the beautiful weather of May turns to a rainy humid mess. It is probably the only month where Tokyo is wetter than London, as my British friends’ instagram posts are constantly reminding me. Ajisai are a wonderful consolation prize for the bad weather, and they’re certainly a symbol of June in Japan.

So I’m spending my weekends these days dragging my boyfriend on ajisai viewing trips because I’m that cool. There’s lots of spots you can see them in Tokyo itself but we fancied getting out of Tokyo last weekend so we looked up good hydrangea spots farther afield and decided to kill two birds with one stone and get some culture in by visiting Odawara castle.

Odawara Castle
Don’t be fooled this is not a cute pose, I’m just trying to stop my dress from blowing up and my hat from blowing away…

Odawara castle was originally built in the 1400s by the Omori clan, but like every old thing in Japan it’s been destroyed and rebuilt more than once so what we actually visited on Saturday was a reproduction built in 1960. Still cool though, as they’ve incorporated many stylistic features from the Edo period. ¥500 gets you into the castle itself but for a couple 100 extra you can go into the surrounding exhibitions too.

In the castle building there are exhibitions on the castle’s history over 3 floors, before you reach the tower with a view of Sagami Bay and Odawara town. The day we went was really windy so I had to be careful not to lose my hat at the top!

After exploring the castle we went to one of the side exhibitions which is about samurai and has lots of cool swords and armour. For a price you can be dressed up as a samurai but it was a bit hot for that on Saturday so we gave that a miss. There are some monkeys kept in a cage outside this exhibition and they are really cute but I have to say I thought their cage was a bit small and lacking in stimulation for them.

Then onto the flower gardens. As well as ajisai there were some beautiful wisteria. As this was a sunny Saturday in June (a rarity) a lot of people were out and we had to wait a bit to take flower pictures sometimes. Perhaps this isn’t exactly the recipe for serenity but it’s nice to see everyone out and about enjoying the flowers.

hydrangea ajisai odawara castle

 

wisteria flower odawara castle park

 

 

Taking my Harpsicle Harp on a Plane to Tokyo

“Don’t, whatever you do, put your harp in the hold.”
The advice of pretty much every musician ever.

As both an expat and a harpist, my life choices have not exactly made things easy in terms of moving my stuff around. Once last year I did a gig as solely a vocalist and it was incredible. No faffing about with taxis, no desperate attempts to take my harp on public transport. I actually went to the pub afterwards and didn’t have to ask in Japanese if they have a back room where I can put my lever harp while I drank with the band. My old car made things a lot easier but I sold him to come to Japan. I also have a beautiful pedal harp being rented out 6000 miles from here that I pine for occasionally but getting her out here is next to impossible.

Taking my harpsicle on a plane though, would not be impossible. For those who don’t know, harpsicles are small harps that you can carry around with you, are often painted in fun colours and you can plug them in easily. I have one, it’s purple and I love it. I could think of so many uses for it in my Tokyo life – on stage with my metal band so I could perform standing, in my work as a Kindermusik teacher and any casual rehearsal where I could get away without the faff of moving my large lever harp.

On their website, Harpsicle® Harps describe how professionals have started using their harpsicles as their “travel harp,” “the one they can toss into the airline overhead while their big harp is trapped in a massive harp travel trunk.” So I was hopeful that I could take my harp on the plane with me on my flight from London Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda. I looked on some flight and music forums and found that people had had very mixed experiences taking their harpsicles on planes and I started to be more concerned. I really didn’t want to be in a situation where I had presumed that it would be allowed on with me and then be turned away at security – with the choice of either leaving my harp behind or chucking it into the hold with only a soft case (which is NOT an option at all).

So I called British Airways, gave them my harpsicle’s dimensions and asked if it could come with me in the cabin. The short answer was no and the long answer was no. I didn’t have a hard case as Harpsicle® Harps don’t make them and I didn’t wanted to spend the money required for a custom made case as it would probably cost more than the harp.

So my Dad and I set about making a cardboard construction to keep my baby harp safe in the hold.

First we wrapped the harp and its softcase in  4 layers of bubble wrap…
harpsicle harp bubble wrap plane

Then we constructed cardboard around the harp. Making it so it fit tightly around the irregular shape was harder than it looks. Again we used several layers for protection.

harpsicle harp cardboard plane tokyo

Finally we used a tonne of tape and then added fragile tape and a contents label in English and Japanese.

harpsicle harp tokyo fragile
The packing process took a little more than an hour. It did occur to me that if customs told me to unwrap this I would be royally screwed. Luckily, I got through with only a few odd looks and some questions. My real concern, however, was whether my harp would be damaged. Every musician I had chatted with had looked at me in horror when I had told them my intention of putting my harp in the hold. It took me 20 minutes and 3 papercuts to free my baby harp from it’s cardboard case but when I got it out it was undamaged and even mostly in tune. Victory.

It’s been really satisfying bringing my purple harpsicle to work and rehearsals this week and I recorded my first youtube video with it in years last weekend. It’s Galway Girl by Ed Sheeran and I’m not as ashamed of this as I should be.

 

China: Asia on Hard Mode

I was back home in April and it was all Tokyo and no harp but that was needed to happen.

In theory, one of the great things about living in Japan is that you are so much closer to other great Asian countries that would be too expensive and too much of a time commitment to go from the UK. As well as Japan, I’m interested in Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong but in reality I was always too busy travelling in Japan or just enjoying Tokyo to make it out of the country.

So, what better to end this chapter than going home via China? A good friend lives there and kindly offered to let me stay with her.

China is Asia on hard mode. Yes, Japanese culture is difficult to adapt to, and living in a country whose writing system has 80,000 characters instead of 26 can be extremely challenging but, fundamentally, Japan is a 住みやすい (liveable) place. It’s clean, it’s (mostly) safe, people are polite, it’s rich, it’s free and the infrastructure works. In China you have none of that. Beijing reminds me a little of the post apocalyptic society in Akira or something. The city has risen from the ashes but the infrastructure isn’t quite there and you can see the scars of it’s troubled past if you look closely. Beijing is huge, sprawling and feels lawless. You have massive, futuristic screens on the side of buildings and hugely rich people throwing disgusting amounts of money around but the toilets don’t work properly and there are beggars on the street. The pollution is awful, the waiters are rude and people spit in the street.

But to be honest I found a lot of this liberating. I am scruffy, loud and politeness does not come easily to me so sometimes I feel like a perpetual smudge on Japan. After stressing out for 18 months over excessive politeness it’s kind of refreshing when service people just throw your ticket to the temple at you. Where Japan has its famous train etiquette, in China you see people talking loudly on their phones and laughing with their friends. I felt looked at in China – yes strangers do ask to take pictures of you – but I never felt judged for not living up to a high standard of behaviour. Which I do in Japan sometimes, to be honest.

My friend is studying abroad and she was the perfect host. She has ace local knowledge but China is still exciting enough for her to be able to put up with doing the tourist stuff with me. There’s a phrase in Japanese, 雨女, which means woman who brings the rain, which is literally my life. It’s the Welsh blood in me, don’t invite me to your picnic if you want to stay dry. Beijing is supposed to be sunny this time of year but I managed to bring the rain EVEN THERE and the weather was awful for the first few days. That didn’t stop us hitting the beautiful Summer Palace (the irony isn’t lost on me), before hiding from the rain by catching some Beijing Opera. We watched a play about Liang Hongyu, a woman soldier who fights side by side with her husband, obviously right up my street. It was a bit of a marathon – 3 hours long with no interval. I still enjoyed it though, despite being very stylised it managed to be incredibly human. The costumes and the fight scenes were stunning too.

opera cropped

The highlight of the trip was definitely the Great Wall which was a big one on the bucket list for me. We got together with a group of my friend’s course mates and rented a driver for the 2 hour drive, which is something students can afford to do in China because labour is cheap. Luckily my 雨女 powers had worn off by then and the weather was lovely – we even had some blossom!

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2017-03-27 17.43.15Other things I enjoyed were the Forbidden City, which I spent hours wandering around by myself. The Lama Temple as well was a beautiful and calming experience. We took a day to do something completely different and go the 798 Art District. The area is the site of state owned factories, including the eponymous Factory 798, that began to be taken over by artists in the early 2000s. The result these days is an area filled with galleries, street art, trendy cafes and boutiques; essentially stamping ground for Beijing’s hipsters. There’s also THE BEST GELATO IN THE WORLD, which is what I’m eating, ever so elegantly, here.
For the first few days my friend took me around the Beijing subway but by day 3 she thought she had skipped enough class and I was on my own. I actually really like the experience of navigating around a strange country by yourself, deciphering things when you don’t really know what’s going on feels like an adventure and figuring it out can give you a real sense of satisfaction. I enjoyed Chinese food although, yeah, maybe be careful about what you get from the street vendors. Gelato aside, Peking duck was my favourite!

Beijing is fascinating, exciting and I had a fab six days. At points I was enjoying it so much I began to regret choosing Japanese instead of Chinese. But knowing myself, I like fresh air and things functioning so Japan is probably a better Asian country for me to live. China seems a fantastic place to travel though and I hope to experience more of it soon.

Adventures Skyewalking

Today’s post is a throwback. Living abroad and writing about it allows you to look at everything with curiosity and excitement. When I went home after over a year in Japan, I thought, ‘Why not look at the UK with this lens? Wouldn’t life be more fun if we recognised what’s interesting about our own countries, not just when abroad?’

To this end, I thought I would harken back to an adventure I had in Summer 2015 before I touched down in Japan, on the Scottish island of Skye.

Skye is like the surface of the moon. If the surface of the moon was very, very rainy.

We drove to Skye from near Loch Lomond, having spent a lovely couple of days ambling around the countryside and rowing in the loch with my godparents who live in the area and were kind enough to have myself and three of my friends to stay. My godparents, as true rural Scots should, savoured the opportunity to mock us for our weak Essex ways before we left (“What do you mean you’re going to Skye without waterproof trousers?!”) and give us sage advice on how to survive up north (Avon So Soft is the boss for midges. What also works is encouraging your friend who is trying to stop smoking to wait until after you get back, but if you find that morally questionable, the So Soft stuff really is excellent).

The hardcore Guide to the Scottish Islands shown to us by my Godparents has shunted Skye to the appendix because, since 1995, Skye is not technically an island thanks to erection of the Skye bridge. Island or nay, Skye is around 5 hours drive from Glasgow, across some spectacularly beautiful countryside. Fortwilliam makes a good stopping point as the last frontier of Starbucks levels of ‘civilization,’ and from there you can either go to the Skye bridge or get the ferry from the small town of Mallaig. Having done both on either end of the journey, there’s not much in it time wise so make your decision based on where your final destination is on the island and how tired your long suffering driver (in our case, me) is. Be warned though – most sat navs will take you to the ferry leaving you three hours from the bridge, and you will get laughed at by the locals at the Mallaig docks for blindly following your sat nav and confusingly asking where the bridge is. Not that this happened to us, you understand, it’s just what I heard…

From the ferry, where else could we be heading but the Skyewalker hostel? My inability to resist bad puns aside, this really is a great place to stay. Clean, cheap, friendly staff and better yet it’s a STAR WARS themed hostel and there’s a giant dome you can hang out and drink in while looking up at the stars. We stayed for 3 nights.

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I was too chicken to swim in the Fairy Pools but I did dip my toe in, it was freezing. The Fairy Pools were the first thing we drove to in Skye and remained one of my favourite parts of the trip.

We braved walking across to get to the stunning black sand on Talisker Bay… and promptly graffitied it because we’re from Essex and awful like that.

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Not gonna lie, after our escapades we were damp and hungry, so we treated ourselves to scones and hot chocolate at The Wee Tea Room. The proprietor displays some gorgeous photography he has taken over Skye and recommended us our next destination, which was a little off the beaten track.

We walked across a beach in the howling wind to reach this very creepy and awesome ruined church. I don’t know it’s name but it was a seriously spooky experience as the weather had turned terrible. We were writing a horror story about our inevitable demise to demon sheep.

talisker-distillery

And of course it’s pretty much compulsory to visit Talisker distillery to find out how some of the best whiskey in the world is made, and drink some yourself.

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On the way back from Skye we stopped in the charming town of Plockton, one of the best places to see seals in the UK. We went on a boat ride and spotted these babies lolloping around – so cute!

Kyoto in the Spring

I took my parents to Kyoto because they came to Japan in the spring and where else would you rather be?

The first thing I will admit about the gateway to old Japan is that, yes, it is crowded during cherry blossom season. But if you are willing to step off the beaten track you can still find those hushed moments of zen like calm that the ancient capital promises.

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Dinner served to our room in the ryokan

I wanted my parents to stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan (hostel) and booking was a  nightmare even though I started the process early. Many ryokans aren’t on the internet yet so I searched for a place and booked through Japanese Guest Houses. To be honest their system isn’t super convenient but it may well be your best bet, especially if you don’t speak Japanese. We ended up staying in the Ischicho Shogikuen which wasn’t my first choice but was still lovely. I really recommend going for the full ryokan experience if you can – futons, tatami mats, sliding doors and Japanese cuisine served to your room. My parents had a couple of reservations about the food and my Dad sleeping on a futon with a bad back but they loved every minute.

I recommend walking between your destinations as much as you can because Kyoto is the kind of place where interesting things happen in between. There’s a small art gallery or a charming independent coffee shop on every corner.

The Famous Rock Garden at Ryoanji Temple.

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Ginkakuji (which I prefer to its more famous brother, Kinkakuji)
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Definitely walk along the Philosopher’s Path to get from Ginkakuji to Nazenji

 

It’s lovely walking around town as it starts to get dark. Oh and we did see a geisha- she was actually locked out of the building she was trying to get into, desperately ringing the bell and trying to remain graceful as the tourists crowded around her. I didn’t take a photo as it was actually quite alarming to watch the cameras swarm like flies and I felt sorry for her, so you’ll have to take my word for it that she was really, incredibly beautiful. Unfortunately I think hoardes of tourists goes with the Kyoto territory at this point but Kyoto was still able to capture my imagination.

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Hokkaido Part 2

In part 1 of my Hokkaido blog post I wrote about traveling to Sapporo and sung the praises of flowers and mountains. Here’s a post about our adventures in canal towns, onsens and Sapporo itself.

houheikyo-onsen
Photo credit http://www.houheikyo.co.jp. I could not take my own photos for nakedness reasons

Houheikyo Onsen
It was my friend’s first time in Japan so she wanted to have the onsen experience. We originally planned to go to the more well known Jozankei Onsen town but on the recommendation of our guest house owner we decided to opt for Houkeikyo Onsen instead. From Sapporo station, the Kappa bus will take you directly to Jozankei, which takes about an hour. After that, Houkeikyo is the last stop on the bus, just outside the town. We were really glad we chose to go to the more rural onsen! The outdoor bath in Houheikyo is in a charming traditional Japanese garden with a beautiful view of the mountains. After bathing we enjoyed Indian curry at the onsen’s restaurant. Although Indian might seem a strange choice for an otherwise very traditional, old school onsen, actually it was what we were just in the mood for after our soak.

2016-07-09-11-42-41Otaru
I’ll be honest, Otaru was the only part of our trip that was in danger of mediocrity. It’s a canal town about 40 minutes from Sapporo by train (the line goes along the coast for much of the way with some nice views) with glowing reviews in the guide books. Maybe it’s because the day we went was grey but I didn’t think it was all that, although our morning there was perfectly pleasant. I think part of the problem was the town’s main attraction is its canal. It’s a nice canal. Maybe to the Japanese or people from other parts of the world it would be more impressive but my friend and I are European. We’re used to going on holiday in France and Italy and, to be honest, the canals there are nicer and often less crowded with tourists. That being said, Italy doesn’t have the excellent sushi we enjoyed for our lunch in Otaru. The town also has a great reputation for glassware and my friend bought some lovely ornaments in a cute little glass shop.

Sapporo Town
Our flight back to Tokyo was at 7pm to fit in as much as possible, but obviously we didn’t want to stray too far so we decided to spend our final day exploring Sapporo town. There’s a lot to see.
2016-07-11-11-20-52The Clock tower is a symbol of Sapporo so you basically have to visit. It’s an attractive structure and inside there’s an interesting museum about the history of the building which gives an insight into Sapporo’s history as an international city.

2016-07-11-14-26-44Odori park is where Sapporo’s famous snow festival takes place but it’s also beautiful in the summer with lovely flowers, fountains and a great view of the Sapporo TV tower (which we didn’t have time to go up).

If someone hasn’t already written a post-apocalyptic novel of survivors retreating to the subways of Sapporo and building a new life underground they should. The subways are expansive; we realised we could have walked 90% of the 25 minute walk to our hostel entirely underground. I admit it took us a while to find it, but there is a lot of really cool quirky art hidden underground that you can see for free.

15403153_10155572164693327_277762373_nWe had passed the Former Hokkaido Government Building on our walks and enjoyed the gardens so we decided to check out the inside too. It’s free entry and as well as looking at the pretty old architecture, you can check out various exhibits about the history of Hokkaido. Most interestingly there was an exhibition on the Kuril Islands/Northern territories dispute, which I had been completely ignorant about beforehand. This was all the more interesting because it was extremely politically charged, going as far as to have a petition at the end of the exhibition demanding that the ‘northern territories should be returned to Japan.’

Hokkaido shrine has a serene atmosphere not always found at the famous Tokyo shrines. This could be because it’s situated a bit apart from the city, clothed by Maruyama park. The forested approach to the shrine with the sunlight shining through the trees was really atmospheric for us. The shrine was the final place we visited before getting on the plane, a peaceful ending to a trip we’ll remember for a long time.
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Even though it was only 5 days long my trip to Hokkaido was one of the best holidays in my life. A literal breath of fresh air from the stress and humidity of Tokyo, one of those trips that gives you a new appetite for life. Snow festival this time next year?

Visiting a rural JET friend in Noto

I quit my English teaching job to teach music but when I was an English teacher it struck me how different the ‘English teaching in Japan’ gig can be depending on the situation. I’m glad I live in Tokyo because it would be difficult to do my new job elsewhere and I like being in a place where there are lot’s of opportunities and lots going on, but to be honest sometimes it feels very similar to my lifestyle when I lived in London. Huge capital cities are kind of the same in a way.

I sometimes envy my friends who are living in remote areas of Japan, for having a more unique experience than mine. The way they can become truly immersed and how participate in their area’s local culture is really quite special. A friend on the JET Programme lives in a tiny village on the Noto peninsula in Ishikawa prefecture. No I didn’t know where that is either, but when he invited me to visit him I thought it was best to find out.

cat-kotatsu
A kotatsu is a heater you curl up under in the winter and it’s great. Unfortunately my friend didn’t provide the cats. Photocredit: buzz net news

It turns out the Noto peninsula is vaguely near Kanazawa. Well, Kanazawa was where we took the night bus to, then it was another two hours to my friend’s house. There are several differences between the life of a country JET and mine. Firstly, while my boyfriend and I share in a perfectly nice but boring and small apartment my friend has a gorgeous traditional Japanese house to himself. I particularly enjoyed experiencing his built in kotatsu for the first time. Honestly, if I had had one of those I probably wouldn’t move so maybe it’s for the best. What also really struck me was the warmth and friendliness of the local community. Everywhere we went people knew who my friend was and greeted him warmly. Their generosity extended to us to – we were even given a bottle of Noto sake for free! Some people have the stereotype that Japanese people are insular and unfriendly but honestly I think this speaks more for Tokyo than anywhere else.

It rained the whole weekend we were there, proof that traveling can not always go your way, but we still had a great time. I spent a lot of my childhood holidays climbing wet hills in Wales so I’m pretty much steeled against rain by now. The countryside in Noto was  beautiful and the sushi was absolutely fantastic. My favourite part of the weekend was attending a late night festival on the waterfront. I’ve no idea what the symbolism of it was but there were these huge floats and they were not only paraded but also crashed into each other, while the bearers where chanting at the top of their voices (the video should give you some idea). I love finding these pockets of Japanese culture.

 

Sometimes you just to unplug yourself from the city a bit. I enjoyed experiencing Noto and fully intend to go back there for its famous Fire and Violence festival in 2017!