Monthly Archives: September 2019

Kanazawa West Coast here we come! 24.9.19

Another early start, this time from the magical Takayama, on the ever impressive and efficient Japan Railways (JR) and our next destination is Kanazawa on the central west coast of Japan on the central Honshu island. It’s the capital of the Ishikawa prefecture, and as we found out, is considered to be a quieter and less well know city than Yokohma or Tokyo. If I am honest, before we decided to visit Kanazawa, I had never heard of it.

The scenery leaving Takayama is pretty stunning

We arrived at Kanazawa station, which like every other railway station we have arrived at was incredibly impressive both from an architecturally aesthetic and a functional perspective. As I have said many times before, everything has been thought through and everything works. We needed to catch a bus to our hotel in town, and that again was easy and efficient. Nowhere else in the world that I have visited makes it so easy to travel on public transport and it is relatively cheap. Far cheaper than the U.K., far cleaner and far more comprehensive. We bought a JR 21 day rail pass which cost around £400 each. Given Kanazawa was the fifth place we had visited since we arrived in Tokyo, and the Shinkansen is a superb service, we had already got our money’s worth. Given all the travel to come, the pass will earn its money three or four times over.

We had met many rugby fans on our journey so far, more on that later, but there weren’t too many in Kanazawa which given it is not one of the host cities, wasn’t much of a surprise.

We got to our hotel easily on the bus. In Japan you pay for the journey as you leave and the amount you pay is calculated based on zones. Paying after receiving the service is totally in line with how Japan works and everyone follows the system without fail.

The buses are clean, efficient and cheap

And considerate too

The weather was pretty miserable, for a change, so we needed to borrow some umbrellas, something all Japanese hotels have to hand given that there is a lot of rain and the Japanese prefer to stay out of the direct sunlight. We did some research and decided that we would visit the famous Omicho market which specialises in fish, seafood and other local delicacies.

Elegance is ubiquitous

What a joy to behold! It was mid afternoon and the market was still busy and the noise and smells were fabulous. Kirsty wanted to visit the biggest fish market in the world, the Tsukiji market in Tokyo but we had run out of time and the next time we were due to be back in Tokyo to see England and Argentina play, our schedule was going to be tight it may not have been possible. We need not have worried, this place was awesome. I managed to get my favourite smoked dried squid, something I had fallen in love with when I was out here for the football World Cup in 2002. We dived into a small Sushi place and had the freshest most wonderful food direct from the market.

This market was off the scale brilliant

Every kind of fish and seafood for sale

My favourite dried smoked squid

Absolutely no idea what any of this was but it looked delicious

Next stop was the Kanazawa castle, built in the 1580’s and another amazing example of predominantly wooden and stone construction. We had a great walk around the grounds, all be it in the drizzle which wasn’t the best to enjoy the wonderful gardens, but the provenance of these places equals anything we have in the UK and it has inspired me to read up on Japanese history now as I am pretty much an ignoramus when it comes to this part of the world and it’s history.

The castle gates

An incredibly impressive castle

These are the buildings just outside the grounds

Before we headed back to our hotel we hit the Kanazawa 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art via a small version of the famous shrine at Kyoto. That was to prove very small as we were later to find out. The museum was the very definition of minimalist, that or it was undergoing a complete changeover or exhibition!

At the entrance to the min Kyoto experience

This was a mini version of the shrine in Kyoto

The external installations were more impressive than the internal ones

A saucerful of secrets

It felt like I was in the middle of a Pink Floyd album shoot

We walked back to our hotel to freshen up and get ready for an evening out. Phileas Fogg, aka Kirsty, researched where to go and where to eat as usual. It was about 6.30 local time when we heard via LBC and @Mrjamesob that the Supreme Court in the U.K had ruled that the U.K government had acted illegally to prorogue Parliament. This was big news and my interest in politics said to me, ‘this will have all sorts of implications’. Anyway, enough of Brexit, back to Kanazawa.

We found the most amazing Sushi restaurant which was run by another husband and wife team. It had room for no more than ten customers and everyone sat at the black marble counter. There were no sign of plates. The Sushi chef’s father had founded it and the son, now comfortably in his late 60’s or even 70’s was as fast and as sure preparing the Sushi as anyone I have ever seen. He cupped the Sushi in his hand, with his hand over the Sushi and delivered it straight to the cleaner than clean counter like a magician would place a cup down performing a three card trick. His wife served drinks, organised customers, cleaned the counter and tallied the bill. The husband however actually took the cash! Like many places in Japan, this restaurant did not take credit cards.

Amazing food served direct onto the counter

This place had room for 10 only

The owner’s bicycle and cool box for the fresh fish

As we left we saw the chef’s bicycle outside with his big expanded polystyrene box on the back which he used to cycle to the market to get his fresh fish daily.

We agreed to have a walk to the Nagamachi neighborhood which is where the Samuari used to live. We found it easily and the cobbled streets and extravagant wooden buildings evoked that age wonderfully. It was just brilliant to walk around these quiet, deserted old streets late at night. Before we headed home, we decided to have a late night cap at a little bar.

Downtown Nagamachi at night

Down these cobbled streets, Samurai trod

Samurai Museum

The owner was incredibly welcoming. He had an amazing collection of spirits, focused heavily on whisky, whiskey and sake. John Lee Hooker was playing on the sound system and we were the only people in there. The owner knew a little English, but through the power of Google translate we established that Japan was obsessed with baseball, interested in basketball and football and was getting to grips with rugby, all be it slowly. The owner loved wrestling and his hero was Giant Baba, hence his brilliant model on show. A model that yours truly would relish and cherish!

This bar had all sorts including a model of Giant Baba!

Whiskey galore

We had some sake at the owner’s recommendation and were questioned about who ‘the worst’ rugby supporters were. I think I helped him understand there were no ‘worst’ supporters as all rugby fans just enjoy the game and mingle very easily. I did point out that the toughest players were probably the All Blacks but Japan had a very decent side and could well qualify for the quarter finals. They would be a stern test for both Ireland and Scotland so he should have faith.

Before we left the owner asked me about Brexit. I was actually pretty surprised as Japanese don’t really do that sort of thing. Diplomatically I said we had a vote and decided on a course of action and we were taking our time to make sure we got it right. He laughed a lot and said he could not understand why we would do this. I smiled a lot and got back to rugby.

We loved this guy, what a bar!

Goodnight and thank you!

It was a fine way to end another great one day stop in a city we had never heard of, but would not forget in a hurry. Thank you Kanazawa!

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The actual road trip starts here 23.9.19

After three days in Shibuya, Tokyo, all be it with two trips to Yokohama for the rugby, our road trip or more accurately our train trip truly got underway. All room check outs in Japan are early and so we headed out very early doors to Tokyo main station to catch our Shinkansen via Akasaka Mitsuke on the Metro.

The Tokyo Metro is a really easy and cheap way to get around. It’s also scrupulously clean, so clean you could probably eat your dinner off the floor, if you were fast enough to eat up before the cleaners got to it first! There are also staff everywhere running offices, barriers, cleaning and generally being on hand to help. Given the Japanese propensity to adopt technology early, it is noticeable that plenty of people are employed to make the transport infrastructure work efficiently. And all of the people working on the railway seem to be highly motivated, extremely pleasant and crucially very proud of their jobs and what they do.

When the Shinkansen arrived at our platform all in good time to ensure we departed on time, all of us passengers were queuing in an orderly and pre defined fashion which is another great thing about Japan.

Before we were allowed to alight the Bullet Train, a team of smartly dressed uniformed cleaners got aboard and ensured that all the carriages were clean and ready for us. It was a sight to behold. Imagine this happening in the UK? Not only is the attitude of the workers different, but equally important, indeed maybe more important is the attitude of the customers. You get the distinct impression that Japanese are not looking down on fellow citizens for doing ‘ordinary manual jobs’, quite the reverse. Again, we could all learn some lessons here. People are important and they must have pride and purpose in their jobs, otherwise society falls to pieces.

The Shinkansen is brilliant, I may have mentioned this before, but coming from a country where we have an old, decrepit and underinvested railway system, it does not cease to amaze me how things could be. Anyway, we are where we are, and things can only get better….

We got off the Shinkansen at Toyama and changed onto a more conventional train which was slower and less sophisticated. The windows were huge which was fabulous given the scenery of the Gifu Prefecture, which is stunning. Think Austria and Switzerland. Breathtaking in every way.

Slightly different ball game from the Shinkansen

Travelling on the train is the definition of relaxing through commuting

We arrived at Takayama mid afternoon, walked to our apartment and dumped off our bags, bags which had so far not been unpacked since we left London. Takayama is a wonderful place. It’s the gateway to Japan’s walking and hiking area and is home to an old part of the city, the Sanmachi Suji district which dates back to the early 1600’s. The streets of old merchant houses are constructed of wood and all single storey, another distinct feature of older Japanese houses. Kirsty declared ‘this is the Japan I was hoping to see’ and I smiled. If you’ve ever read Shogun or watched any Akira Kurosawa films like ‘Seven Samurai’, ‘Rashomon’ or ‘Ran’ or indeed watched ‘Monkey’ or ‘The Water Margjn’ like I did when I was a kid, you can picture the scene. But boy were we in for a treat, even if we didn’t know it.

Takayama station feels like it’s built out of wood

And the displays in the station are nothing short of exquisite

The merchant’s houses are now mainly shops and eateries, although some are still private residencies. Kirsty bought her own set of engraved chopsticks, with her name on one in English and in Japanese on the other. She also bought some Japanese socks to wear with flip flops and got involved in a Sake tasting, for which she is now an expert. I simply sampled Matcha ice cream. Given my love of ice cream (I thank my Italian mother for that) I am very choosy about what is good and what is not good ice cream. I had nothing to fear, this Japanese ice cream was top notch.

Hida Beef – needless to say Kirsty loved this

Personalized chopsticks – so many to choose from

Suddenly Kirsty is Sake tasting

Some of the old merchant’s houses are still residential today

The main streets are all of wooden construction

As the sun began to go down In Takayama we decided to stay out and find somewhere to eat. Takayama is an incredibly beautiful place but also a quiet place. It was as if no one spoke and the sense of tranquility was palpable. This has a wonderful effect on oneself and given the busy time we had had thus far, it was really welcomed.

The sun goes down in Takayama

The locals heading home after working

Even the ancient tree is relaxed

What a wonderful window

I’ve never known a place so quiet

I said to Kirsty, ‘can you hear that drum?’ and of course Kirsty thought I was winding her up, and then the drum sound went again. We followed the sound and found a group of people of all ages dressed in traditional costume performing a ceremony with a huge drum on wheels accompanied by pipers. In the dusk, this was both intriguing and spectacular in equal measure. We think this was a rehearsal for the forthcoming Takayama Festival which celebrated spring and autumn each year with ornate floats, puppetry and more, but we weren’t quite sure!

Rehearsals for the Autumn festival are underway

All ages take part

It’s a drum ‘n’ pipe situation

When this finished, we walked on and heard some chanting and saw some fire. This ceremony was outside a huge temple. Shinto temples are everywhere in Japan, very much like our churches, and like some of our churches they are all ornate and incredibly well maintained.

There were some men who looked like Shinto monks who were throwing small, flat pieces of engraved wood onto a fire. These chanting monks were flanked by women dressed in ceremonial clothing and two men with long fire poles who ensured all the sticks were burnt. There were other men dressed in conventional suits who looked like they were prominent members of the community standing by, plus others and us. From what I can gather, these ceremonies are performed daily as a way to connect the ways of the past with the modern day. That spiritual approach is everywhere in Japan and is the thread that seems to hold this society together, whilst allowing progress. Progressive conservatism if you like.

We could hear chanting in the distance

Two men had long fire poles to keep the fire burning

The head monk doing some little stick throwing

The main door to the temple

And the entrance to the temple itself

We ended the evening with some wonderful Sushi in a little restaurant run by another husband and wife team. We were joined in the restaurant by a Dutch couple with their 6 month old daughter. A Japanese couple offered to take care and amuse the baby so that her parents could eat. The Japanese love children and this little child really seemed to enjoy herself . The meal, as usual, was excellent. So much love and care goes into food in Japan and it shows and tastes.

Japan is full of the most bizarre automatons

We walked back to our lovely apartment and enjoyed a great night’s sleep. Another early start awaited. Next stop Kanazawa.

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The boys in green, and no Hulks allowed. 22.9.19

After the very temporary disappointment of the night before, it was good to get up with a spring in our step to a beautiful, sunny day in Tokyo, safe in the knowledge that we would be able to get into the Ireland vs Scotland game, which promised to be a competitive game of rugby for sure.

Ahead of a long day, breakfast was essential so we decided to grab some Sushi at our soon to be favourite self service restaurant.

These self service restaurants are simply brilliant. The Yo Sushi restaurants in the U.K. come the closest to this, although they really are a pale imitation of the real thing, mainly because of the food quality and clientele. It’s another example of Japanese design efficiency cramming in so much choice and so many customers into such a tiny space without making you feel cramped at all. But given Japan has mastered the art of so many people living together in such a small space without noise, confusion, mess and zero compromise on your personal space, perhaps this is no surprise. Technology plays its part, allowing customers to order what they want, when they want, yet humans are still employed and play a key role too. Humans actually make the wonderful food and actually serve the drinks and crucially take the money, whilst ensuring the standards of cleanliness and welcoming are exemplary. I have no idea if there are health and safety rules in Japan, but the culture of consideration, honour and excellence ensure if there is legislation it really needs no enforcement. This is all topped off by the wonderful miniature Shinkansen (Bullet Train) delivering your fresh order, preceded by bells and other wonderful sound effects, which is another feature of Japanese life.

We headed off to meet our friends again at Shinagawa, the Celts pub from the previous day was closed, so we met in another restaurant. There was an important addition to our team from the previous day. Gary had randomly met Tom who was visiting his brother who is a teacher in South Korea and had decided to pop over to Japan at the weekend to see if he could get a ticket for the match. Gary had spotted his Galway shirt (Gaelic football) and like the totally inclusive and generous man he is, had offered Tom the spare ticket he had. Tom, who hailed from Derry, was literally over the moon. It was going to be his first game of rugby ever, and it was his beloved Ireland. The signs were that the day was already working out to be a good one.

Team short, early doors, Tom is the one with the Galway shirt on (and cap)

We headed off to Yokohama on the Shinkansen which was packed with men and women in green. Gary managed to buy so many tickets for the train via the automatic ticket machine he could have effected the share price of Japanese Railways! Despite having invested so much, the tickets did not get him and the rest of the team access to the train we travelled on, so we decided to meet in a pub at the other end.

In amongst the sea of green, there were a few kilts and sporrans. The atmosphere on the train and at the stations either end was cracking and fans of all colours were singing and laughing. This really was a brilliant example of how sport can bring people together, thousands of miles from home and across national borders and cultures.

The Irish were everywhere

We met in a pub called Hub. Well we met outside that pub to be exact. The whole street was flooded with fans and most couldn’t actually get into the pub anyway. Next door to the pub was a Lawson, which is a chain of general stores selling a huge variety of food and drink. It was clear to anyone experienced that the Lawson would sell out of all of its booze before the day was done and their toilets at the back would be over subscribed and it did and they were. No points for predicting that one.

The weather changed in the late afternoon from hot sun with a fair bit of humidity to all out rain, which made the game feel like it was being played at Murrayfield or Landsdowne Road.

We headed up to the stadium with plenty of time to spare, split up into our various groups and all got in safe and sound. We bumped into a bunch of Irish lads on the way and they wanted a picture. When I offered to take one and encouraged some photogenic movement to make the shot look better, substituting ‘cheese’ for ‘Brexit’, I was greeted with ‘its typical, we’re here in Japan and the one person we ask to take a photo is an Englishman!’. Everyone saw the funny side and agreed all future EU negotiations should be done in the pub, whether you are dressed in green or not, but the boys agreed there was no place for Hulk, incredible or otherwise.

Kirsty with the Hulks, no blondes there

The ground was full, we had great seats and the atmosphere was electric. We were routing for Ireland, which most of you will appreciate. We expected two well matched teams. Sadly, for Scotland, that was not the case today.

We got the BIG ticket

Can anyone spot Kirsty?

We met Steve and his wife who were Japanese, both supporting Ireland. A couple next to me worked in Dublin but were from Estonia and the US, and behind us were Eoin and Eugene, from Seattle all supporting Ireland. We bought beers easily enough from our seats and settled down to enjoy the game.

Eoin & Eugene

I asked Steve if the Japanese could give us tips on how to run sports stadia efficiently, in fact how to do everything efficiently. Steve replied, ‘Andy, you would need the teaching we have at school and the thousands of years of cultural and societal history, but everything is possible with time, patience, willing and effort’.

Kirsty with Wise Steve and Eoin

The game ended with a comprehensive 27-3 victory for Ireland. Gary had correctly predicted that if Ireland kept things up front they would win. He has a great rugby brain and so it proved.

We managed to meet up and had some more beers in the stadium. A lovely touch was when Ryan, Joe’s best mate, came over to the touchline, called over and Gary threw him his phone and Ryan took a selfie of us all. What a modest man he was.

A very nice touch from Joe’s best mate Ryan

The Japanese stewards formed a guard of honour for us all as we left the stadium. Milly took all three Nadia Comaneci prizes for artistic score, execution score and difficulty score, whilst I settled for ‘best old geezer dancing at a wedding’. Joe and Ian focused on winning the Chippendales’ Grand Prix Pour Le Decapage and Kirsty provided the human prop. Gary, Tom, David and Darren supplied plenty of general confusion.

Team Budgie Smugglers

Gary, Kirsty and our Japanese copper

This post match team shot looks like we felt

Eventually through the considerable downpours we found our way back to our favourite bar, drank more and reflected on a wonderful day all round. Tom, whilst having his arm around me, told me he had had the best day and his first rugby match ever. We were like brothers, laughing and joking in a Lawson as every single drink had been emptied from the shelves. England were playing Tonga, but that somehow slid into irrelevance as everything became ever more hazy, including the trip home. We’d started the day serviced by a Shinkansen and ended it on one.

Our favourite restaurant come bar

Kirsty and Milly at the end of an exhausting day

Good night and good luck

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Rugby anyone? 21.9.19

After a fine night out in Akasaka we woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed on Saturday morning the proud owners of tickets to see the All Blacks vs the Springboks. I forgot to mention we were supposed to meet our friends Gary, Joe, Milly and Ian in The Dubliners pub in Akasaka to watch the Japan vs Russia game, only to discover there were two Dubliners pubs in the area and we got the wrong one. Only we could collectively mix up two Irish pubs with the same name in Tokyo!

We had bought the tickets for the match off Viagogo the night before in a bar, so I now needed to print them off. That was a challenge to say the least given the hotel’s PC and keyboard was very unfamiliar and it was running an old Japanese version of Wndows. After much faffing and use of Google Translate, I managed to get our tickets printed, indeed I got two copies, more on that later.

How cool are these two?

The somewhat tricky screen to make our tickets real

The game was to be played in Yokohama, which is 25 mins outside of Tokyo on the Shinkansen aka Bullet Train, so we grabbed a coffee and headed to our rendezvous in Shinagawa which is one of the Shinkansen hubs. We had to stop by the JR office in Shibuya to get some more seat reservations sorted out and followed the signs only to pop out at the very same office we had visited the day before. The journey overground on foot had been repeated this time totally underground. That’s how big Shibuya station is!

Shinagawa station

The railways are so efficient it’s incredible, but then again this is Japan so we shouldn’t be surprised. We met Gary who’s Irish, with his son Joe and daughter Milly, both of whom live in Australia and Gary’s good friend Ian, from Brisbane and Joe’s best mate Ryan, who Gary also coached as a younger man at Farnham Rugby Club. More on Ryan later. We had a good few pints of Guinness and Japanese lager and headed off to Yokohama.

Team photo

We soon found a bar come restaurant close to the station and enjoyed some wonderful Japanese hospitality. We were joined by two South African brothers, Darren and David who were friends of Milly and also live in Australia, both of whom were joining us at the match.

Our brilliant base in Yokohama

After much laughter, beers and plenty of singing, we all headed to the match. The stadium is a short walk from the station and the atmosphere was electric with Japanese fans sporting both All Blacks and Springboks shirts and colours. The two best teams in the world were taking each other on and it promised to be a crackerjack of a game. We all split up and headed to our respective entrance gates. I was with Kirsty and we went through the incredibly pleasant security checks without issue. But as soon as we got to the ticket checking steward I knew something was up. The steward gently asked us to come with him and led us back out of the stadium. Instinctively I didn’t want to leave the stadium. Many, many times travelling the world watching sport, I’ve managed to get in to venues not always by conventional means, let’s just say, and once in you never leave.

The Nissan Stadium, Yokohama

We were taken to an office where there were other fans all looking anxious. An English speaking woman eventually told us our tickets were forgeries and we couldn’t go in. I will leave out exactly how I reacted to this news for the sake of younger readers, but suffice to say, I wasn’t happy. Viagogo seem to allow forged tickets to be sold on their platform a lot and never actually seem to be called out for it. Just look on Twitter to see how many people get ripped off in this way.

Tonight I am Sergey Konolavov

Anyway, in the melee and confusion, Kirsty and I got split up. I decided to take my chances and try one more time to get in. That extra print out of the ticket came in handy after all. I waltzed through the security checks easily enough and then huddled in with some other fans as we went through the ticket steward. I thought I had cracked it as I got to my seat, which was of course already occupied, but my hopes were dashed as I had been spotted by the steward. I was then surrounded by about five or six security people with me like a piece of cucumber in a Sushi roll and them like the sticky rice and very politely and quietly moved as they moved away and out of the stadium.

And that was it. No game and no way to see the game. I walked around Yokohama for a while and then got a call from Kirsty. She was back in the restaurant come bar we had been in before the game. Gary and Ian had suffered the same fate and we had all been victims of the Viagogo scam. Kirsty has already secured a full refund and compensation voucher as had Gary and Ian so all was well. We were all gutted that we had not been able to get in.

We enjoyed some more beers and were joined post match by the others who had all got into the game, all be it Darren and David had felt that the Springboks had disappointed somewhat. By this time we were all laughing and joking about the whole escapade.

We jumped back on the Shinkansen and arrived back in Tokyo, with Gary, Ian, Darren and David. We found a wonderful restaurant with a traditional Zashiki seating arrangement featuring a low table set on Tatami flooring and enjoyed the most delicious salted Japanese ice cream. We had the best time, all be it not exactly as we had expected.

Tokyo Station at night

Traditional approach. And usual chatter.

Our train back to Shibuya stopped short about halfway at Osaki and we had to get a cab. I reminded Kirsty that our friend Sarah was getting married and we needed to ‘tune in’ via our friend Dave’s phone which we did in the cab back to our hotel. We were sad not to make the celebration in Somerset but watched the whole thing from the back of a cab, then in the street and finally back in our hotel room.

On so many levels, it certainly wasn’t a day we will forget any time soon.

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Made in Japan 20.9.19

When I was a kid loads of toys were labelled ‘made in Hong Kong’. They were generally cheap and pretty rubbish. At some stage when I was growing up it seemed that toys started to be ‘made in Taiwan’. They were also pretty cheap and pretty rubbish too. The first time I really came across the label ‘Made in Japan’ was Deep Purple’s double live album, which alongside ‘It’s Alive’ by The Ramones, are my favourite live albums ever.

‘Made in Japan’ also went on to signal amazing technology, gadgetry, videogame consoles, videogames and Hi Fi gear all of the highest quality and all incredibly innovative, and it still does today. Japan is a country of innovation, miniaturisation, design, precision and lots, lots more, including manners, civility, respect and appreciation of nature.

So when it was announced that Japan would be the host country for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, I knew I just had to come. To add to the reasons why we had to make the trip, Kirsty had never been to Japan and had always wanted to visit. And, Japan had jointed hosted with South Korea, the World Cup football in 2002. Which was quite simply a game changer for football in every single good way possible. I had to return.

We took a night flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo on Thursday night and arrived a little bleary eyed on Friday morning. In Japan things tend to be incredibly precise and timings are highly respected. When the hotel says it’s a 3pm check in, it means it. Kirsty did well to stay the distance after we dropped our bags off and tried to keep awake in order to get some crucial admin done at Shibuya railway station.

The redeye from Hong Kong to Tokyo

For those who know, Shibuya is simply enormous. It’s a vast underground construction which literally goes on for miles. Shibuya is also famous for its pedestrian crossing known as Shibuya Scramble, reckoned to be the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. Fans of Fast & Furious, Resident Evil and Lost in Translation will be familiar with this place. Our friend Gary who we were meeting in Tokyo was unimpressed with the Scramble, but at 9.30am the number of people are simply not at peak. So no actual ‘scramble’, that comes later.

We had time to kill before the Japan Railway office at Shibuya was open, so we decided to have a walk down Cat Street which is a place full of hip shops in the warm autumn sun. I am pretty certain this street did not exist when I was last in the area in 2002.

Cat Street – wonderfully hip and extremely lovely

As the clock ticked achingly slow, I decided to show Kirsty the Pachinko arcades. These are crazy places where you bet using ball bearings in slot style machines. The arcades get around the gambling laws by offering to exchange accumulated ball bearings for prizes which winners then exchange for cash. Confused? You will be.

The crowds gathering at Pachinko arcades

It was 08.30 and already the queues outside competing Pachinko arcades were forming together with their caller teams who were hollering all sorts of cries to drum up business. The male callers were dressed in regulation white shirts and black trousers with hats and the female callers in the weirdest Cosplay style costumes. Apparently the odds of success are better the earlier you queue up and take your tickets. What was clear was that there was a mad dash to move between arcades snagging the early odds tickets.

Queuing around the block for the early doors odds

We grabbed an amazing coffee to perk ourselves up and then queued to get our train passes at the Japanese Railways (JR) offices. As always one is struck by the efficiency and grace of the staff. In Japan people not only do their job well, they take absolute pride in what they do and how they do it. This is a universal trait and it means things just work and their is a sense of continuity about how jobs are done. There are no zero hours contracts here. People do a job and they not only take it seriously, they also seem to do it for a long time.

Wonderful coffee with the smallest milk jug ever

The coolest coffee bar of the trip so far

We booked all of our seats for all of the railway journeys Kirsty had booked back in the UK. It was a pretty seamless task aided by the ridiculously helpful staff. Feeling somewhat jaded and jet lagged, we headed to our hotel and negotiated an earlier entry. Kirsty really is the master of organisation.

A few hours kip and we felt refreshed. As the hour approached for the kick off of the Rugby World Cup 2019 we found a bar, Irish of course, and watched Japan vs Russia there. All the Japanese are super friendly and eager to engage in discussions about all sorts. The Japanese are naturally humble and when it comes to rugby not that confident. I assured the group we sat with that Japan would beat Russia despite making two howling errors in the first five minutes that led to them conceding. My advice was ‘stay calm, stay focused and Japan will prevail’. For once, my rugby punditry was spot on. We had a ball.

The Japanese fans display patience and then euphoria

We then had to find our friends and the rendezvous was The Ninja Restaurant in Akasaka. Needless to say the restaurant is hard to find, as it’s Ninja, but eventually we found it behind some curtains, took our shoes off and went in. There were secret doors, traps and assault points, which we navigated with the help of our Ninja guide. We met Gary, Joe, Milly and Ian who were in our very own room and had a brilliant night with crazy food delivered by Ninjas, of course.

The Ninja delivers. And no it’s not a pint of Guinness!

We topped up afterwards in a late bar, where smoking is normal and seemingly compulsory!! We decided to buy tickets for the All Blacks vs the Springboks the next day which we did on Viagogo, and surprisingly we got them! And therein lies the next part of our Japanese odyssey.

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Made in Hong Kong

Our World Cup adventure is underway and we were very excited to break our journey up with a couple of days and one night in Hong Kong having left the UK on Tuesday.

We had a great evening out with an old school friend and his wife who are not only hilariously entertaining and warm, but enlightening about the local scene, given he has lived there since he left school.

Who would have thought this island just off the mainland of China would become a flashpoint for the world’s fastest growing economy? When we were in Hong Kong last year, everything was as usual. It was vibrant, chaotic and yet calm. Fast forward and it seemed pretty much the same, although it was clear tourist/visitor numbers were down as queues to get to The Peak were tiny compared with last year. Anyway, I digress. According to my friend, visitor numbers were down 850,000 in August alone, mainly from mainland China and Korea. It’s clearly having an effect on business, confidence and the overall mood. Given that Hong Kong has played a pivotal part in China’s recent history especially since about 1820 when China was the largest economy in the world, something I did not know, it may not end well. From what we could ascertain, the protests are getting more radical and escalating to a point whereby the authorities may also escalate their response. Add to that the anti demonstration demonstrators who are taking up the government’s cause, and it could be a potent cocktail which may not end well.

Despite all of this political upheaval, we had the best time again in Hong Kong and the most wonderful meal at Madame Fu’s. The Peak was clear and we walked around it.

As we left late on Thursday it was noticeable that the security at the airport was far higher. You basically get checked as you enter the airport, so that loophole may be closed. More demonstrations were expected at the weekend, starting with the climate change protests and school strikes on Friday and pro democracy ones at the weekend. Writing this sitting in Japan, I can’t see what has happened, but I hope for the people of Hong Kong’s sake, everything works out in a calm and measured way.

When we were at The Peak, which for Hong Kong could be a metaphor, we found a Madame Tussaud’s and an about to be opened Monopoly World, which in probably the most capitalist place on the planet, seemed somewhat appropriate.

Anyway, talking about all things calm and measured, the next stop is Japan and our World Cup adventure will truly kick off.

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