Dr John Hawkins
Welcome to my bit of the Maison de Stuff,
home to a huge load of pictures,
and my daily blog.
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- Recent Entries:
- Bashi-san and Mana-chan
A Random Trip to Shikoku
Tokyo to Hiroshima
Visiting the Tokyo Office
More Old Friends
First Day in Japan... and My Birthday!
On the Peril of Free Washing Machines
Only a couple of days left...
Another Busy Day
In and Out
Tidying the Flat
Quiet Night In
Last Japanese Haircut?
Not as Hungover as I Felt I Should Have Been
Actually Cooking for a Change
- Bashi-san and Mana-chan
- [Saturday 22nd March]
Today was another day largely devoted to meeting up with Japanese friends. Our first appointment of the day was a late lunch with Bashi-san, a guy who Chie had met at the Hiroshimakenjinkai in London. Having grown up in the US he was a fluent English speaker, but still I liked the way during the course of the afternoon the three of us switched backwards and forwards between English and Japanese. It's interesting to watch somebody who can speak both languages fluently - they quite often seem to take on a different personality each time they switch languages.
So we had a late lunch - some Indian food - followed by a bout of karaoke. It was mine and Chie's first karaoke visit of this trip, and we were really throwing ourselves in at the deep end here - Bashi-san was a seriously talented singer. Apparently he used to be in a band at one point (although he hastened to add he wasn't actually the lead singer) and had also been in a singing competition on Japanese TV. So mine and Chie's tuneless squawkings were even more of an embarrassment than usual, but still, the injured pride aside, it was actually great to do karaoke with someone who can actually genuinely sing for a change!
We said our goodbyes after karaoke, as Chie had another appointment in the evening - to meet her friend Mana-chan. We had a little bit of time inbetween the two, so Chie went off to do a bit of shopping, whilst I planted myself in a nearby bar. It actually turned out to be a sort of yakitori (barbecued chicken) place, a little shack were everyone stands up to eat. I felt a compulsion to order something, so after a few minutes trying to make head-or-tail of the handwritten Japanese menu, I eventually managed to identify a few vegetable items. I don't think I've ever really eaten at this kind of place before, and have to admit I quite enjoyed it. I had some gobo (burdock?), Japanese green peppers, and aubergine. They were all just lightly seasoned and then barbecued, but surprisingly tasty. I guess that was partly just down to the sense of adventure at managing all by myself.
So we then went to meet up with Mana-chan, who'd booked us a table at a Spanish themed restaurant. I didn't realise Hiroshima had anywhere that did Spanish food - I remember Chie's Mum coming to London a few years back and us trying to find some sort of cuisine she wouldn't have had before - tapas seemed to do the trick that time, but apparently it is no longer that unfamiliar to the residents of Hiroshima. I'm not sure I was particularly bowled over in this instance though - it was the sort of place where everything seemingly innocuous I ordered came with bacon, the portions were very small, and most irritatingly of all the girls ordered Paella which took so long to come that they didn't actually have time to eat it before being shooed off the table (we only had it booked until 8). Chie asked if they could give them something to take it away with and they said they couldn't for hygiene reasons. So in short they'd made us pay for food which they weren't going to let us eat - that seemed pretty poor form. Still, Chie seemed (quite unusually for her) to be prepared to just let it drop, so I didn't kick up a fuss either.
After that, given that it was still only 8ish, we decided we should find somewhere else to go, and Mana-chan suggested a bar which did lots of foreign beers. Superbly they had Dom Kolsch (albeit bottled of course). It hadn't really occurred to me you'd be able to get this outside of Germany, so I made a mental note to try and hunt this down in London.
- A Random Trip to Shikoku
- [Friday 21st March]
There are four main islands, plus hundreds of smaller ones, that make up the Japanese archipelago. These are Honshu (the biggest, and where most of the population resides) followed by Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku. Up until now I had only ever been on the first two of those.
Today we had nothing in particular planned, and as we had our Japan Rail passes it seemed like a good idea to make use of them and go for a daytrip somewhere. Both Kyushu and Shikoku are manageable as daytrips from Hiroshima, but it seemed that Kyushu was a slightly larger undertaking, and given that typically we didn't get around to going out until the early afternoon, we opted for Shikoku.
En route to the station we also dropped by Chie's grandparents to say a quick hello.
We got an a Shinkansen bound for Okayama some time after 2, and from Okayama then changed onto a smaller local train bound for Shikoku. One of the main reasons we'd wanted to go to Shikoku was to go over the Seto-ohashi - the bridge that links Honshu and Shikoku, probably one of the longest bridges in the world. Going over it by train was really quite exciting - I think both Chie and I are closet nerds for this sort of thing - although on the downside the classic problem with rail bridges is that you can't really see the bridge itself particularly well when you're actually on it.
We got off at the first station over the other side of the bridge - a place whose name escapes me (Sakanaide or something?) and were then at a bit of a loose end for what to do next. We mulled over several ideas - including trying to go back by ferry - until eventually we settled upon going to visit Takamatsu - one of the major cities on Shikoku.
I had definitely got the impression previously that Shikoku was something of a backwater - I didn't imagine it would have any sizable cities. So I was quite surprised when we got to Takamatsu - it's a thriving, modern and fairly large (by British standards) city. There was a tall building next to the station from the top floor of which we were able to get some nice views over the city and out to sea (see the pictures).
Apparently the regional speciality of Takamatsu (or perhaps Shikoku in general?) is udon - those thick Japanese noodles, often served in soup. So Chie was keen to try some while she was here. She popped into the tourist information centre to see if they could recommend anywhere, and they furnished her with a fold-out map with a guide to what appeared to be almost every udon place of note in town. You can't fault the Japanese for their provision for tourists. So we took a bit of a wander, and ended up selecting one off the map fairly at random.
I initially thought I wouldn't be able to eat udon in a restaurant because they were always cooked in dashi (fish stock). However it turns out they actually serve the udon in a bowl of hot water, with the dashi in a separate little bowl for dipping. So with only a relatively small amount of persuasion that it was a sane thing to do, we managed to get them to produce some udon for me, with just soy sauce in the little bowl instead of the usual dashi. It's probably the first time I've had udon in a restaurant like this, and it was rather nice.
We decided we should probably head back to Hiroshima after that, so went back to the station, got a regular train from Takamatsu to Okayama, and then the Shinkansen from there to Hiroshima.
When we got back to Chie's family's place, around 9ish, we were treated to a second dinner (we'd only had a small-ish bowl of udon in Takamatsu) - this time the old Hiroshima favourite okonomiyaki.
- [Thursday 20th March]
Just about every trip to Hiroshima I've ever made had included at some point a daytrip to Miyajima, and this one was no exception. I was particularly keen to go this time as it would be our first return visit since we got married there.
On this occasion I decided it might be better to leave Chie to have some good quality time with her relatives on Miyajima (this time apparently just her grandmother - her uncles were all otherwise engaged) whilst I went off and passed the time with a bit of sightseeing. After the usual visit to pay my respects to the umi-no-tori - the famous red gate standing in the sea - I then headed towards the Momijidani park, and from there decided I might take a trip on the ropeway (which we'd probably call a cable car in the UK). It occurred to me on all my visits to Miyajima I'd never actually been on the ropeway.
It was surprisingly quite hair-raising - the ropeway is in two sections, the first of which is suspended very high above the ground, and has very small cable cars which rock about with even the slightest movement from the passengers. Still, there were great views to be had. The second section of the ropeway is in a larger and newer cable car, and goes more like horizontally between two peaks rather than diagonally up to the top of one peak. Again, great views to be had.
Once at the top, in addition to yet more great views I was also treated to a side order of monkeys - I guess they're semi-wild rather than entirely wild, but they do range freely over the top of the mountain, and it's the closest I've ever been to monkeys in what I assume to be their natural environment.
From the ropeway station, I walked to the peak of Mt. Misen, and enjoyed yet more great views, plus also the slight amusement of being reminded there was a little cafe at the top with a vending machine and everything. Very Japanese!
I then headed back to the ropeway station, got back on the ropeway, and went back into the main "town" on Miyajima where I met up with Chie and her parents again. After a quick stop-off to buy the all important momiji-manju (little cakes with red bean paste inside) we then got back on the ferry to the mainland.
We went back to the city by way of Chie's cousin's apartment, who lives somewhere in the suburbs of Hiroshima, and stopped off there for an hour or two to meet some of her family. We then got the tram from there into the city centre.
In the evening the plan was to go and eat out at our favourite sushi restaurant - Sushi Tei - something of a tradition each time we visit Hiroshima. It was a bit busy when we first got there so we decided to go away and come back later. In the interim we popped along to my favourite "famiresu" (Japanese English - an abbreviation of family restaurant) - a place called Grazie Gardens. It's hardly haute cuisine but it is dirt cheap - a bowl of spaghetti with tomato sauce is about £2, and a glass of wine a mere 90p.
So we then went back to Sushi Tei. We still had to queue a bit but did eventually get seated, and then enjoyed the usual local delicacies. In my case this meant the normal ha-wasabi temaki, umi-budo gunkan and so on - whilst Chie enjoyed all sorts of sashimi I couldn't even begin to try and recognise.
We rounded off the day with a quick drink at Molly Malone's - the Irish bar which we'd hired out for the nijikai (second reception) of our wedding.
- In Hiroshima
- [Wednesday 19th March]
Didn't have any specific plans for today, so after a lazy morning and some yaki-soba for lunch we headed into the centre of Hiroshima in the afternoon for a spot of shopping. Admittedly this is possibly my least favourite aspect of our trips to Hiroshima - Chie's usual aimless and meandering shopping habits seem to be particularly exacerbated when in her hometown. It felt like we'd spent forever wandering endless department stores and shopping arcades until finally the afternoon turned into early evening and our thoughts turned to dinner etc.
So in the evening we stayed in the centre of Hiroshima, and met up with Kurihara-kun. He'd been staying in England around this time last year (or possibly a bit earlier), and as the son of a friend of Chie's Mum he'd been put in touch with us to show him around London a bit. So tonight in a sense he was returning the favour.
The first venue of the evening was a place called The Shack - a very American style bar/grill which Chie and I had been to a few times before, mainly because it was one of only a few places in Hiroshima that had an explicitly vegetarian item on the menu - they did a sort of tofu burger which was actually rather nice.
Next up we left it to Kurihara-kun to decide, which, on the evening before a national holiday, was seemingly no mean feat - we must have tried getting on for ten places before we finally found one that had a table. It was a sort of izakaya I suppose, with a strong emphasis on shellfish, and DIY on-your-table grilling things. I'm not sure all of the assorted crustacea that Chie and Kurihara-kun ordered were actually quite dead yet at the point of being served, which was a bit upsetting to my delicate vegetarian sensibilities, but I guess that sort of thing is quite normal in Japan.
Owing to a misunderstanding in our order, we were given about three times as much sake as we were expecting, but bravely we all pitched in and worked our way through it.
- Tokyo to Hiroshima
- [Tuesday 18th March]
After spending the first three nights in Tokyo, the next bit of our holiday in Japan would be five nights staying with Chie's family in Hiroshima. So today we checked out of our hotel in Ikebukuro - which had served us very well (£50 a night!) and headed for the station.
On some of my earlier trips to Japan I'd used a Japan Rail Pass which gives you pretty much unlimited rail travel for a 7 day period at a very reasonable price. It's a great deal for foreign tourists, but usually not available to Japanese people. Having read the small print though, Chie had discovered that Japanese people with certain type of foreign visa were eligible, and effectively now that we were married she could get one. Being both frugally minded and a bit of a closet train geek she was very pleased about this!
So the first port of call today, after a spot of breakfast, was to go to Ikebukuro station and exchange our JR pass orders (you have to get these outside of Japan) for the actual passes. We then headed down to Shinagawa to get on the shinkansen, by way of Shinjuku where we stopped off to buy lunch at our old favourite bento place, a sort of health food shop called Bonraspail.
We then got on the Shinkansen just after 12. It was great tobe back on the Shinksansen - I love these trains, they're so smooth and comfortable, and even after seven years of using them the novelty hasn't really worn off.
There were certain Shinkansens we couldn't use with the JR pass, which meant we had to change trains at Shin-Osaka, but that was no great bother. By 5 o clock we were in Hiroshima, and Chie's Dad met us at the station.
Had a fairly quiet evening in following that, enjoyed Chie's Mums' excellent home cooking for dinner, and relaxed in the now very familiar surroundings of Chie's family home.
- Visiting the Tokyo Office
- [Monday 17th March]
Today both Chie and I had arranged to visit our companies' Tokyo offices, the one exception to the rule I had made myself to try and completely leave work behind for two weeks if possible. I had arranged to give a presentation to the people at my companies' Tokyo office about the project I work on, as it is quite a major thing for the company, but not really well known outside of the three or four offices which have people working on it.
The last time I had been to the Tokyo office was when I was interviewing for the job, and as a result I found I was actually a bit nervous on the way there. When I got there, pleasingly I found that the same receptionist who had been there when I'd been interviewing was still there, which was great as I'd always wanted to thank her for her help etc when I was going through the interview process but had never actually caught her name (a bad habit of mine that I don't ask people's names enough).
When I'd been there for interviews I'd only seen the reception area and a couple of meeting rooms, and so I suppose I'd only seen the best bits of the office. Today though I got to see the actual bits where people work and so not unsurprisingly it wasn't quite as flashy any more... and in some places it was very reminiscent of my previous employer's Tokyo office (I guess these are just standard characteristics of Japanese offices).
Anyway, I spent most of the day preparing my slides for the presentation which was at 4. Collectively the people who work on my project have given so many presentations about it that there is no real need to generate any new content - creating a new presentation is usually just a case of picking slides from the finger buffet of previous presentations, with possibly a few connecting slides to tailor it appropriately to the audience. Still though, somehow this ended up occupying most of the day.
The actual presentation went pretty well - I'd not given them much advance notice that I was coming so it was a fairly small audience - around 10 people - but it did seem to generate a fair bit of interest. In terms of the quality of the presentation itself it was definitely a massive improvement on the apalling performance I'd given at my own office back in August of last year - I still don't really understand why that had fallen apart so badly.
After "work" Chie had arranged to meet a former colleague of hers who I didn't know, so I thought I'd just do my own thing. So I headed back to Ikebukuro, and went for dinner at Rohlan - possibly my favourite restaurant in the world. I'm not sure if I'd actually told the people there that I was leaving Japan back in December 2006, so it was actually a bit of an odd atmosphere - I wasn't even sure if they recognised me to start with. Anyway, I'm pleased to report the menu has hardly changed and the food was every bit as excellent as it always used to be - particularly my old favourite the vegetarian tonkatsu. Sheer heaven. On leaving I had a brief chat with the lady who I've always assumed to be the owner, and explained that I'd gone back to England and so on, so hopefully they're not left thinking that I'd desserted them on purpose!
After Rohlan I decided to pop into Quercus for a drink or two - in all the hub-bub of Saturday night I hadn't had much of a chance to just sit quietly and appreciate the usual array of excellent malts they have on offer. So tonight was a lot more like a typical night at the bar from back when I used to live in Japan. Unfortunately Monday is Watanabe-san's night off, but I did have a good long chat with Ohno-san - his second-in-command, and a couple of the old regulars like Ito-san and Horiguchi-san. I also had a chat with a guy who worked for Pernod-Ricard Japan (they own Glenlivet and possibly some other distilleries I'm not aware of).
All in all a fairly accurate recreation of a typical day from back when I used to work in Japan!
- More Old Friends
- [Sunday 16th March]
We had intentionally not planned too much for the daytime today, knowing from past experience that often the second day after a long haul flight can be a complete dead loss. Actually though, for once I may have actually largely avoided jetlag - I'd managed to get a pretty decent night's sleep, none of the usual waking up at 4AM and then not being able to get back to sleep. I think I may have finally hit upon a winning formula with that short sleep in the afternoon of the first day followed by a busy evening plan to ensure I don't end up going to bed at 8PM and then falling into the usual 4AM trap.
Chie popped out in the morning to sort out a mobile phone for our stay, whilst I stayed at the hotel for a bit of a longer lie-in. When she got back we were both hungry and so went for an early lunch at Capriociosa - another chain restaurant we had quite liked while we were living in Japan.
After that we went out for a bit of shopping, and I bought myself a USB 1-seg tuner. 1-seg is a mobile digitial TV standard in Japan, aimed particularly at the mobile phone market, but also to a lesser extent for laptops etc. I was suprised to find that there was at least one tuner which worked on the Mac. I know I'm only going to be able to use it while I'm in Japan, but I'm keen to know if I can get at the data for a couple of pet projects I've had on the back burner since I was living in Japan. The great thing about 1-seg compared with regular digital TV in Japan is that the data is unencrypted - which makes it much easier for people like me to mess about with it. What I always wanted to do while I was living in Japan was come up with a piece of software that would help make it easier to read Japanese subtitles / closed captions
Later on in the afternoon we headed down to Shibuya to meet Chie's friend Kayo-chan. She'd been a fellow Gyosei student, although was in a different year to Chie, so we'd mostly known her after Chie had graduated, when we were living in Pangbourne. We had a delightful girly chat in a burger place (chosen fairly at random purely on the basis of having a spare table).
Later on still we had another meet-up arranged - this time with several other of Chie's friends from Gyosei (and one from Reading Uni) - Yumippe, Asuka-san and Yuki-san. It's interesting to me that among Chie's friends there seem to be these different groups - these three are Chie's more sophisticated / grown-up type friends. We met at a restaurant in the Kokusai forum - a large building presumably used for conferences etc, not too far from Tokyo station. The restaurant did Kyoto style cuisine, and seemingly catered to a fairly health concious, refined, and above all female clientele. Anyway, it made for another very pleasant evening out.
- First Day in Japan... and My Birthday!
- [Saturday 15th March]
Our flight landed at Narita at 10AM Japanese time. During the descent we'd been treated to a great view of a snow covered Fuji. I suppose seeing Fuji like this on arrival in Japan is something akin to an English person seeing the white cliffs of Dover. The last time I'd arrived in Japan would have been on return from my final business trip to Seattle and I was treated to an even more spectacular silhouette of Fuji against a sunset - it was genuinely tear jerking. The only downside is that during the descent you're not allowed to use your camera - so you'll just have to take my word for it! (or go and Google for images of Fuji taken from the air taken by other people, presumably not on commercial airliners)
At Narita we hopped on the Narita Express train, which conveniently took us all the way to Ikebukuro, the district of Tokyo where we'd be staying for our first three nights in Japan. We decided to go straight to the hotel and see if they could let us check in a bit early so we could rid ourselves of our baggage.
There was then the business of lunch at hand - the food on the plane had been a bit insubstantial this time, so we were both fairly hungry by now. Luckily we had Internet access in our hotel room (completely standard at no charge in Japan, even in cheap £50 a night hotels like ours - shame on British hotels!). So after a quick bit of research Chie was able to find out there was a branch of Kazuki in Ikebukuro. It'd the ramen shop which also had a branch in Sasazuka - where we used to live in Tokyo - and stood out because it did a vegetarian ramen dish. So that was an obvious choice - cheap, quick, and reassuringly Japanese.
Following that, in the afternoon I decided to have a nap. We'd planned to meet up with friends in the evening and as always having not slept on the plane I didn't think I'd last out otherwise. When I was woken by my alarm at 6:30 I felt absolutely awful, but a quick shower made all the difference.
So in the evening we met up with three of my friends from my previous company, all of whom also came to our wedding - Tanaka-san, Aoki-san and David. The original plan had been to go for dinner at Rohlan, but that seemed to be closed, so instead we went for tempura at a place on the top floor of the Parco department store in Ikebukuro station, where Chie and I had been before a couple of times. It was absolutely fantastic to see these fine chaps again after a year-and-a-bit.
After dinner we then went on to the main venue of the evening - my old favourite Quercus. Therein there were also more happy reunions to be made, with the owner Watanabe-san, plus some of the regulars I used to drink with there, like Ito-san and Sugioka-san (Watanabe-san had told a lot of them I was coming and they made a special visit on my behalf, which was really nice). We also met Sawako-san there, who we'd met on Islay, and had recommended Quercus to. Furthermore we were met there by Haruka-kun, a former Gyosei-ite who had lived near to us in Tokyo and his girlfriend Sayaka-san, and finally Chie's sister came along for the evening too.
Ito-san described it as "John matsuri" - which I guess translates as "John festival" - it was fantastic to see so many familiar faces in one place at the same time.
Of course, as usual I had some great malts there, focusing particularly on some really interesting bottlings of Ichiro's Malt - all the more exciting for the fact that Watanabe-san and me were planning to visit the new Hanyu distillery in Chichibu during this trip to Japan.
It was a lovely evening, and I wish I'd had the stamina to stay up until the early hours, but alas having only slept for a few hours in the afternoon I was ready to go to bed by midnight, and everyone else had to run to catch their last trains.
- [Friday 14th March]
Today me and Chie flew to Japan for our 2-and-a-bit week holiday.
One of the handy things about living where we do is that, thanks in part to the overpriced but very convenient Heathrow Express, we can get from the door of our flat to the check-in desk at the airport in under an hour. So as our flight was at 1PM, and we gave it the bare minimum 2 hour check-in, it meant we could get up at a respectable hour, and even leave time for packing and tidying the flat a bit.
By my standards it was a great flight - as any regular readers of my blog will know I absolutely hate flying, but for some reason I was really very relaxed and actually quite comfortable for pretty much the whole 11 hours. I suppose partly this was down to being in Premium Economy - the extra little bit of space really seem to make the difference for me (although Chie seemed less convinced) - but I think there was also an element of the relief about finally being on holiday and the end of a rather frantic week or two. That and it is always much nicer to fly with Chie than by myself. The food was a bit of a disappointment though - a bit bland and insubstantial. Plus the movie selection wasn't that appealing - I watched Beowulf which I didn't really enjoy, and started to watch The Dark is Rising, but decided it was too crap to bear after about 20 minutes and stopped watching. I did quite enjoy Ratatouille though - a charmingly offbeat Pixar film about a rat who loved cooking.
Technically (somehow or other) my birthday started while we were in the air, so I opened my cards on the plane which was another nice distraction. Chie told the flight attendants it was my birthday, and whilst there wasn't a cake on board, they did manage to find some rather nice chocolates, and also (slightly oddly) gave me a great big bag full of little packets of shortbread. Which was nice.
- On the Peril of Free Washing Machines
- [Thursday 13th March]
Today was my last day at work before going off to Japan, and unsurprisingly it was pretty awful. There had been a bit of a bombshell dropped the previous evening about a thing which I'd been almost entirely single-handedly responsible for, and it looks like it had gone badly wrong. The frustrating thing was it was something I had setup for another team as a favour to help them out of a tight spot - it was definitely a lesson learned for me that sometimes it really is in your best interests to just be stubborn, unhelpful and a general jobsworth about these sorts of things. Oh well. My manager very kindly played the whole thing down, and said it didn't really matter in the grand scheme of things, and I shouldn't let it spoil my holiday.
(I'm writing this a few days hence, from Japan, and am glad to report that it seems I have been able to put it to one side and get on with enjoying my holiday - I guess I'll just have to pick up the pieces when I get back)
It brought to mind the time when we were moving out of our flat in Pangbourne before we headed off to Japan back in 2005. We had a perfectly good washing machine that we'd bought and probably only used for about a year. It was, however, seemingly impossible to sell or even give away a second hand washing machine. So I offered it to the landlady for free, telling her that the next tenant could have it (the flat itself didn't come with a washing machine, so that made sense), but she refused, saying that once if the next tenant had a washing machine they'd expect it to be maintained etc. I thought she was being rather stubborn and closed-minded at the time, but in hindsight I now understand her prudence.
It's the sort of thing that really deserves a proverb, although I can't think of one for it - I suppose it might be a cousin of "don't look a gift horse in the mouth" - perhaps "don't give away a horse without a well defined SLA". Somehow it is not quite as pithy. So I suppose a new Meaning of Liff entry is required:
Goldsithney n. When something originally done as a favour turns into an ongoing obligation and/or goes horribly wrong.
- Only a couple of days left...
- [Wednesday 12th March]
Wasn't quite as bad at work today compared to the previous two days. This was probably partly just because this was my last-but-one day in the office before flying off to Tokyo, so the reality dawned that I wouldn't get all the things done that I was supposed to, and maybe it didn't really matter that much after all.
Left work just before 8, and had a quiet evening in catching up on my blog etc.
- Another Busy Day
- [Tuesday 11th March]
Another frustrating day at work of being constantly interrupted, and struggling against all the odds to shift the huge pile of stuff I'm supposed to have done before I leave for Japan. Today seemed particularly bad - possibly just because it was the second day in a row like this - and towards the end of the day I really thought I was in danger of losing my temper.
People always individually ask "have you got a minute?" - whilst in the individual case the answer is probably yes, in aggregate it is just unmanageable, especially when the stuff I'm trying to get finished is all quite intricate and fiddly and would be really bad news if I made a mistake.
I couldn't really take much more by about 7, so just went home. I intended to try and continue working from home, but was tired and fed up so instead just slobbed in front of the TV all night.
- Long Day
- [Monday 10th March]
So I was now into my last week before our two-and-a-bit week holiday in Japan, and with utter predictability work turned rather chaotic as everyone heaped piles and piles of things upon me that needed to get done before I left. I sometimes wonder if it is really worth going on holiday at all, as it often ends up meaning you just have to cram all the stuff you would have done while you're away into the week or two before you leave.
Left the office some time after 7, then went home, had dinner, and did about another four hours work at home - it was after midnight by the time I threw in the towel. Our team has recently moved to a different part of the office, and my new desk is right in the middle of a big open plan area, so I seem to get "randomised" even more than I used to previously - people don't really need to go out of their way to come and ask a question now. I think it's the first time I've ever really worked in a truly open plan space like the one I'm in now, and the fact that there's a constant level of noise to deal with is taking some real getting used to.
- [Sunday 9th March]
In under a week we'd be in Japan, which could mean only one thing today - omiyage. It's the Japanese word for souvenirs, and is an utter obligation when going to visit people you haven't seen for a while, especially if you're coming back from abroad.
(as an aside, I have noticed recently when telling people about my upcoming trip to the Far East I've been telling them I'm going back to Japan)
Anywho, today was our last full shopping day to try and sort out things for our friends and family in Japan, and so we ventured into the centre of London. Our first port of call was Gendai Travel in Holborn, to pick up our Japan rail passes (Chie is pleased as punch that she actually qualifies for one of these now), and after that we had a quick lunch at one of those Chinese vegan buffet places that seem to be all over central London. The omiyage buying frenzy then commenced in earnest - Royal Mile Whiskies provided a very good start, especially as I realised I had sat next to the two guys who worked there at tasting session I had been to at Whisky Live last week. From there we also managed succesful purchases at reliable old haunts like Liberty and Fortnum & Mason. So that all went rather well.
Back at the flat we had sausages and mash for dinner, and I then spent the remainder of the evening watching telly - including an episode of Jeeves and Wooster, plus another episode of Mad Men, as well as the documentary about the advertising industry that the BBC showed beforehand. Again was filled with a slight sense of unease about the fact I effectively work in advertising. Ho, hum.
- In and Out
- [Saturday 8th March]
Chie and Ai-san went off to Bicester village in the daytime today, leaving me alone to have one of my usual Saturdays slobbing around the flat. I did actually manage to make slightly more productive use of my time than usual - did some work on my "20% project" which, as before, I'd love to talk about here but can't.
In the evening I met up with Chie and Ai-san around Covent Garden. The plan was to meet up with some of Chie's other friends who were out for the evening around there, but in the first instance we wanted to have some dinner. Chie fancied having a pie - and as Ai-san was only in the UK for a few days (as always - she's an air hostess) it seemed appropriate to try and find something English for her too. We tried a couple of places and then eventually settled on the downstairs bit of the Coal Hole on the Strand. It wasn't exactly haute cuisine but it was fairly reasonably priced, filling and arrived promptly.
After that we went to meet Chie's friends just round the corner at The Portherhouse. I had been once before and wasn't all that impressed - my only real recollection of it was being horribly overcrowded. Tonight though I rather took to it - whilst it was still very busy, we explored some of the upper floors where there was actually space to sit, and I also discovered the rather excellent range of bottled beers they had.
- Tidying the Flat
- [Friday 7th March]
Chie's friend Ai-san was coming to stay this evening. Somehow the deal seemed to be that Chie would spend the evening out with her friend, and I would stay in and tidy the flat. Ho, hum.
Still, given my very efficient maximal impact tidying strategy (plus the fact it isn't a very big flat) I was all done in about an hour and could then spend the remainder of the evening being generally slobbish - watching TV and eating pizza.
- Quiet Night In
- [Thursday 6th March]
Did actually have another work night out planned for tonight, but having not seen Chie for most of this week I thought I ought to pass it up and spend some time at home instead.
For dinner I really fancied pepper sauce and so designed the rest of the meal based on things that might go with it - this included some Quorn fillet things, some stuffed mushrooms, some of that purple sprouting broccoli, along with some potatoes and those battered onion rings.
- Masala Zone
- [Wednesday 5th March]
My former manager was over visiting from the US this week, and this was the designated night for us to take him out for dinner. Actually it was more like the other way round - he both suggested the venue (a favourite Indian restaurant of his) and paid for it.
After dinner the ex boss headed back to his hotel, and a few of us from the London office decided to go and have another pint or two at a nearby pub - giving me a much appreciated opportunity for after work chewing of the cud.
- [Tuesday 4th March]
My friend Michelle was in London today, so we arranged to meet up in the evening after I finished work. I don't think we've seen each other for nearly three years - the last time was just before we moved to Japan. Michelle was quite cross about this.
So we spent the evening catching up over a few beers and a pie each. Michelle told me all about her recent trip to New Zealand, and whenever I could get a word in edgeways I'd occasionally talk about my time in Japan, or my job. I have noticed I am particularly keen to brag about the latter to old friends I haven't seen in a while, although Michelle seemed reassuringly disinterested. It's a little hard to explain why exactly, but I guess this was reassuring because it suggested that with long term friends there's a sort of baseline of common understanding, to which your current situation is largely irrelevant. Hmmm, that sounds a lot like bollocks reading a back.
Anyway, had a very nice time - must catch up with old friends like Michelle more often.
- [Monday 3rd March]
Not much to report really. Watched lots of telly in the evening, including A Good Woman, a film which apparently adapted from an Oscar Wilde play. Found it all rather glamorous. I think since discovering Jeeves and Wooster I'm developing something of an interest in the 1920s/30s, in a similar way to how Sherlock Holmes left me with fascination for all things Victorian.
- Last Japanese Haircut?
- [Sunday 2nd March]
Went to the supermarket after lunch, not particularly exciting.
Towards the end of the afternoon I went out to get my hair cut, as always long overdue. I seem to have fallen into a habit of about once every two months (the last time was in mid-January, before that November, before that September and so on).
To my slight shock I discovered Tomoko-san - the woman who usually does my hair - had left the salon. This was a worry as she'd done my hair quite a few times, and so I didn't have to say anything about what I wanted done each time now... and it always seemed to come out rather well. I'd initially thought that one of the other people there had probably seen me a few times and would know how I usually had it cut, so it would be pretty straightforward, but of course logically the person they suggested to cut my hair was Tomoko-san's replacement, who had only just started there. Then the folly of going to get my hair cut at a place where hardly any English is spoken struck me. Somehow I'd been able to explain what I wanted quite well to Tomoko-san, but to the new girl I found myself floundering a bit. So the end result was, frankly, a bit odd, especially in it's original heavily styled form as I left the salon. The top of my head looked decidedly more conical than it had done previously. Normally after a haircut I tend to strut around the centre of London a bit, secretly feeling quite proud of myself, but in this instance I was keen to hurry home as soon as possible.
Over the next few days, with a few washes etc, it did return to some semblance of normality, and nobody commented on it - so I guess it wasn't a complete disaster... but I think it may finally be time to give up on the entertaining novelty of having my hair done by Japanese hairdressers.
On the way back I popped into Rice Wine to buy some things for dinner, and spent the remainder of the evening at home with my bizarre and slightly unnerving hairstyle, consoling myself with a few glasses of Sapporo and some nice home cooked Japanese food.
I also watched a bit of telly, including the usual Antiques Roadshow (I really don't understand why I like it so much, but it seems to have become and integral part of my Sunday afternoons), plus the first episode of Mad Men - that drama about people working in advertising in New York. It reminded that the image of the advertising industry is generally a fairly unscrupulous one. Food for thought I suppose, giving that this is basically the industry I'm in now.
- Not as Hungover as I Felt I Should Have Been
- [Saturday 1st March]
Two years ago, the day after Whisky Live Tokyo, I'd suffered a rather major hangover - one of only a handful I've ever had from drinking whisky. I certainly experienced a degree of queasiness when it came to bedtime yesterday, and did that classic trick of falling asleep on the sofa for a few hours, but when it came to this morning I woke up feeling surprisingly non-bilious.
I had already "booked off" the daytime today from any kind of social engagements with Chie, fearing the aftermath of Whisky Live, so Chie went out by herself in the afternoon to see her friend Mika-san. Chie also had a leaving party to go to in the evening, which was a very Japanese sort of thing, so we'd decided beforehand regardless of my probable hangover that it might be better if she just went by herself.
So I ended up having a very lazy day, which seems to have become the norm for weekends of late - I wiled away the time tinkering about on the computer a bit, tidying up the flat, and watching telly.
- Whisky Live
- [Friday 29th February]
I booked the afternoon off work today so I could attend Whisky Live, which, conveniently, was being held in walking distance of where I live / work.
I got there just before it started - just before 3 - and began to wonder what I had let myself in for. The other people in the queue seemed to be almost unanimously grumpy old men, complaining about having to queue, complaining about how it wasn't going to be as good as last year (before they'd even got in), complaining about having to fill in their names and addresses which would no doubt be used for sending them all sorts of junk mail... and so on. The marketing material for Whisky Live is somewhat misleading - they put on a load of pictures of young ladies etc to try, in vain, to dispel the myth that whisky is an old man's drink. Well, I suppose this did change slightly as the day wore on - in the evening it probably was a younger crowd - perhaps it was only really the hardended veterans who were prepared to actually take the afternoon off for the event.
Once actually inside the main exhibition hall I have to admit to a slight sense of disappointment initially - there weren't really that many stalls. I had expected it to be bigger than the one I had been to in Tokyo, but on reflection that didn't necessarily make sense - as several conversations throughout the day seemed to confirm, whisky just isn't as popular in England as it is in Japan.
I had booked to attend one of the "masterclasses" which started shortly after I arrived, and things did definitely begin to improve at this point. It was basically a tasting session focusing on heavily peated/smokey malts, with three guys also doing a bit of a talk on how the smokey / peaty notes are introduced. The three of them were all people who actually make the stuff, rather than connoisseurs, so they weren't particularly verbose in describing any of the six drams we tasted, but given that they were all favourites of mine I didn't really need any flowery prose to help enjoy them.
One of the guys doing the masterclass was the manager at Port Ellen maltings. Not many distilleries have their own maltings now, so this is a part of the process you don't always get to hear much about on distillery tours etc. So that was very interesting. I had wondered how different levels of peating (PPM for those in the know) were achieved, and it turned out to be fairly simple - it was just a question of how long you smoked the malted barley for. The other interesting revelation (although one I had probably heard before) was that initially the whole process of drying out the malted barley using peat fires was just a means to an end - not an intentional thing to introduce flavour. To make whisky, you want the barley to release sugar, and to do that it needs to begin to germinate, but not keep on germinating - so the smoking / drying process is there actually to stop germination at a certain point in time. Peat was used for this purpose simply because there was a lot of it lying around on Islay, not initially because of the flavour it would impart.
The malts at the masterclass were, from start to finish - an unpeated 8 year old Caol Ila (surprisingly nice), followed by the regular editions of Caol Ila, Lagavulin and Talisker (no surprises there, but still nice) and then a coouple of real treats on the end - a 28 year old Port Ellen and a 30 year old Brora. In retrospect I wish I'd just skipped the first four (with the possible exception of the unpeated Caol Ila, which was very interesting) and then spent the rest of the time lingering on the final two. I find the more whisky I drink, the less I'm able to really appreciate all the nuances etc.
Emboldened with some fine whiskies, I then returned to the main exhibition in an unsurprisingly more positive frame of mind. I took another sweep of the stands, trying a surprisingly good Mackmyra (Swedish whisky!), a Douglas Laing Port Ellen (my favourite independent bottler for that malt - they were responsible for the legendary Fortnum and Mason bottle), and each of the two Japanese companies' (Nikka and Suntory) offerings, where I also profited from the opportunity to practice some Japanese. One of the exhibitors on the Nikka stand rather kindly said he overheard his colleague involved in a conversation in Japanese, and assumed he was talking to a Japanese person.
It is easy yo get carried away at these sorts of events (my previous visit to Whisky Live Tokyo was a testament to this), so I thought after a while of sampling I ought to take a bit of a break, and sit down to watch some demonstrations. First off was a demonstration of making cocktails using whisky - I have to admit to being hugely cynical in this regard, but must confess I had a quick sip of a couple (one a sort of Manhattan made using Bowmore, and the other a lemony hot toddy with some other malt in - maybe An Cnoc?) and they were actually pretty good. Following that there was then another talk/presentation/demonstration/whatever you call it done by the legendary Richard Paterson (who I'd also met in Tokyo) where he got three people up on stage and had them make their own blended whisky on the spot. I hadn't actually seen Richard present in Tokyo, and so this was the first time to witness one of his shows - and he was absolutely fll of energy and pazzazz (if that's a word). Very entertaining to watch.
Some time after 6, a guy who I work with came along to join me for the evening portion, and I tried as best I could to provide him with recommendations on where I thought all the highlights were - although naturally by this point my judgement may have become somewhat impaired. We got talking to one of the exhibitors from the Suntory stand and spent a while lamenting the fact that people in England basically aren't interested in whisky - he said he had been surprised when he first came to the UK that nobody drank whisky in pubs here, and I embarked on my usual rant about the total lack of whisky bars (apart from the old faithful SMWS) in London.
The day's proceedings came to a close at 9, and we were all booted out. Although we had vaguely eaten at the exhibition (a rather uninteresting ciabatta roll filled, in my case, with a slice of nut roast), we were both still peckish, and decided to go to get something to eat. We settled on the tapas place near our office (not to be confused with the one near my flat), and from there on the conversation predictably devolved into talking shop.
- Actually Cooking for a Change
- [Thursday 28th February]
Tonight was the first night this week that we actually cooked dinner at home, and the cupboards are consequently looking very understocked. So I resorted to the old stalwart - spaghetti with some pasta sauce out of a jar. Not really sure if this qualifies as cooking per se, it's really more like rehydrating / reheating. Still, it did something to alleviate my sense of decadence / laziness at would otherwise could have been a week where I ate out pretty much every day.
Other than that, not much to report. I watched an episode of The Big Bang Theory. It's a sitcom about nerds. I ought to find this culturally offensive, given that it is, in essence, a formulaic shovelling of tired old clichés about the geekier members of our society. Somehow though I am still compelled to watch it - this being now something like the third episode I've seen.
As always with American sitcoms I experienced the sense of bewilderment at how, regardless of occupation, everyone on TV in the US seems to live in a spacious apartment (nicely parodied on Futurama the other day - "do they have any idea how much an apartment of that size on the sun costs"?). Fittingly my continual paranoia about under achieving swept aside the clearly implausible nature of this, and came instead to conclude that the rest of the world did live in nicer houses than I did.