John Hawkins



Dr John Hawkins

Welcome to my bit of the Maison de Stuff, home to a huge load of pictures, and my daily blog.

My email address is as above - I've put it in an image in a vein attempt to reduce the amount of spam I get.

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Recent Entries:
Wednesday
Planning an Operation
Scan
Sunday with Mum
Visiting Mum
Another Day of Sloth
Thursday
Living With A Hernia
Tuesday
Exercise Bike
Rye
Money and Wigmore
WFH
Lorenzo Pirisino
Wednesday Weariness
Tuesday Tedium
Monday Malaise
Sunday
Ordering an Exercise Bike
A Bit More Culture
Thursday
The Importance of Being Earnest
Back at Work, and New Year's Resolutions
Back to England
Hanami
Chichibu Distillery
Shinagawa, Chofu and Shinjuku
By the Sea
Atagawa Onsen
Yuka's Graduation and Odaiba
Kyoto to Tokyo
Keeping up with The Thomases

Wednesday
[Wednesday 23rd April]
Pretty uneventful day at the office.

Chie cooked dinner tonight, had a middle eastern-ish meal, with grilled halloumi etc.
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Planning an Operation
[Tuesday 22nd April]
Had a call from my doctor's surgery confirming the results from the scan yesterday. They seemed to think it would only require a simple operation, hopefully just day surgery, and hopefully it would only take a few days to recover afterwards. So they told me I now have to decide when I want to have it operated on - it's not something which will get better by itself, but equally they gave the impression it is probably not urgent in the short term.

It's a bizarre thing when you think about it really, as far as I can tell there's no reason to delay having it sorted out other than the fact it might not fit conveniently into one's social calendar:

April 26th: Dinner at L'Atelier Guillaume with Gerard and Clarissa.
April 27th: La Traviata with Eleanor and Algernon.
April 28th: Afternoon tea with Lady Pottering-Welks and the Bishop of Cheam.
April 29th: Have bowels stitched back together.

In the evening I managed to get back home before Chie for once (although probably only because she went for a quick drink with some people from her office), and so I cooked dinner. I made gnocchi in a cheese, garlic and spinach sauce.

Watched telly for the remainder of the evening.
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Scan
[Monday 21st April]
Went for an ultrasound scan today (no, I'm not having a baby). Having got health insurance through work I had chosen to go privately, and took advantage of a rather posh hospital, which was conveniently within walking distance of my flat. The doctor who did the scan was very posh indeed, I couldn't help but think he felt the whole thing to be somewhat beneath him. At one point he rather obscurely uttered:

"It's all very undignified... life."

Errr, thanks for that. Anywho, he wasn't particularly verbose, but said I do have "a little hernia", before declaring that he was all done, and rather abruptly leaving.

I went into work in the afternoon, and managed to persuade a couple of colleagues to go out for a couple of drinks in the evening. On the way back home I bought a bag of chips, and fely gloriously unhealthy.
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Sunday with Mum
[Sunday 20th April]
Spent most of the day with Mum. Popped out for a bit in the afternoon to visit the village museum, and was rather proud to see a picture of my parents in there, back in the days when they used to run one of the village pubs.

Had a smashing roast dinner in the evening, before heading off to the station, and getting the train back to London.

Weekly New Year's Resolution status:

1) Well not much in the "doing stuff in London" category actually - although I put that partly down to the hernia - it rather knocked the wind out of my sails a bit. Plus also we were away from London for the weekend. When Dad came to visit I'd originally planned to go out for a nice meal somewhere, but I wasn't feeling so great so decided to play it safe and just go to the nearby tapas place instead.

2) No old friends but did see both Mum and Dad this week!

3) Well the exercise bike arrived, however on the inaugural ride I started to feel a twinge of abdominal pain, and thought it better not to risk it.
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Visiting Mum
[Saturday 19th April]
We headed up to the Midlands this morning, to visit Mum for the weekend. Our train arrived just before 1, and we headed straight to Mum's house for lunch. She had made Boston baked beans, a particular favourite of mine, and it was generally agreed Mum's version was a lot less "challenging" than when I make it. Spent the rest of the day indoors.
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Another Day of Sloth
[Friday 18th April]
Worked from home again today, other than that did very little whatsoever - jacket potatoes for dinner and spent the evening watching telly
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Thursday
[Thursday 17th April]
Dad came into the office for breakfast this morning, which was rather nice.

Pretty uneventful evening. Chie went off to some work night out, and I just stayed in, and like a complete slob spent the whole evening in front of the telly. I had a Linda McCartney vegetarian lasagne for dinner. I chose this based on it requiring the absolute minimal effort of all things I could possibly have cooked. Oh, the shame.
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Living With A Hernia
[Wednesday 16th April]
(the title is a Weird Al Yankovic song, a pun on "Living in America").

I went to the doctors in the morning. I had only just registered at this place the previous day. I'd been advised that if I wanted to see a doctor soon I should go along to the drop-in session in the morning, and get there early. So I arrived at something like 8:20, a whole 40 minutes before any of the doctors actually start working, and queued up outside. I was soon joined by a fair number of other people. One particular old gent engaged me in conversation, the archetypal old war stories etc.

The doctor was unusually nice, he seemed to be in no particular rush, was very friendly and chatty. He asked what I did for a living and initially I gave him a very short answer, thinking he was probably in a rush, but then he seemed particularly interested, and it turns out a friend of his was very keen to get a job at my company. Whilst this was a refreshing change from the usual abrupt "bedside manner" of doctors I've previously known, on this particular occasion I couldn't help but think "can we get back to my bowels please?".

So it looks like I probably have a hernia. I'll be going for a further scan next Monday. Assuming the doctors (and my own) suspicions are correct, it ought to be a very easy thing to fix. In the meantime though it is causing me quite a lot of discomfort, even walking is becoming a bit of a struggle.

In the evening Dad came to visit, as he was working in London for a few days. We'd originally had grand plans of a big night out in London with Japanese food and lovely old pubs etc (a bit like Dad's previous visit to London) but I wasn't feeling that great, and so we revised this to a rather unambitious visit to the tapas place near our flat, followed by couple of whiskies back at the flat. Still, it was very nice nonetheless. Dad seemed to particularly like the Ichiro's Malt.
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Tuesday
[Tuesday 15th April]
Don't really remember anything much about today. I went to register at the doctor's in the morning, I think that's probably about it.
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Exercise Bike
[Monday 14th April]
Our exercise bike arrived today. It was a surprising amount of effort just to assemble the thing. I gave it an inaugural spin, but owing to my current medical condition (see Wednesday's entry for details) I didn't want to overdo it.
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Rye
[Sunday 13th April]
Today was the London marathon, and having seen it last year, and thereafter been highly annoyed by all the crowds, we were determined to get right out of London and avoid it altogether this year. Last night we'd had a bit of a look around on the web for a nice place to go for a day out, and somehow had stumbled upon Rye. One of Chie's Japanese guidebooks cited it as being the ichiban kawaii* town in England, and my own research on the web suggested it had at least one extremely old pub. Add to that the fact it was near the sea, and it was a surefire winner.

We were surprisingly well organised today, we got up very early for a Sunday (around 8), and got on a train not long after 9. This was just as well, as being something of a backwater it took over two hours to get there (although part of that was just a long wait for the change at Ashford).

On arrivial, we were immediately delighted with this charming little town. After a short but fairly thorough wander around the lovely cobbled streets and old houses, we headed for the Mermaid Inn for an early lunch, keen to get ourselves a table as we assumed it would be quite popular. It is a beautiful old half-timbered building situated on a narrow cobbled street of the same name. The current building is almost 600 years old, but there has been an inn on this site for even longer than that.

We ate in the back bar there, Chie being very pleased to have got the seat nearest the huge open fireplace. The food was good but in our opinion a bit overpriced - Chie had the roast beef which came in at a hefty 11.50, and I had a omelette, which, although very nice, was a bit much at 8.50. Still, I suppose you are paying for the venue, and all that.

After lunch we had a further stroll around the town centre, and then headed out of town towards the sea. Although Rye was historically a port, the change in landscape over the years has meant it is actually now set a few miles back from the actual sea - there seems to be a lot of reclaimed land around here. So it was actually a fair old walk through the pleasant (although at times slightly wearisome) Suffolk countryside down to the sea. En route we passed Camber Castle (not really much to see there), but far better than that lots of wickle baby baa lambs. Chie was quite delighted. They seemed fairly comfortable with humans and came quite close to the footpath.

After a good hour-and-a-bit's walk we finally made it to the sea, which was a tiny bit of an anti-climax if anything - it wasn't exactly the most attractive bit of coastline in the UK - it was in the midst of a project to renew the sea defences, and the sea itself was a definite shade of brown. Still, it was nice to get some good fresh sea air in our lungs. We initially tried to cheat for the way back to Rye - and investigated buses and taxis, but it seemed neither of these options were particularly viable so eventually just bit the bullet and walked back.

On the way back to Rye we passed once more through the fields with all the lambs in. As we were walking along, I noticed one lamb had got stuck in a little water-filled ditch at the side of the field - he was paddling back and forth but couldn't get out. So I picked the little fellow up and put him back on dry land, where he was quickly reunited with his mother. It was a wondrously wholesome experience.

If anyone is nerdy enough to want to see the GPS tracklog of our walk plotted on Google Maps, then click here.

Back in Rye our thoughts started to turn to heading back to London, but given that we'd just missed one train (and there was only one an hour) we decided we should try to squeeze in a late spot of afternoon tea. We popped into a hotel on the main street where we got a very reasonably priced cream tea, with a very tasty fruit scone. A very pleasant way to round off our day out.

Somehow the train was actually a tad quicker on the way back. I watched the remainder of Nausicaa on my iPod, Chie slept, and the time passed fairly quickly. We got back to Victoria around 8, and walked back to the flat from there.

Back at home for the evening we had ramen for dinner - Chie had brought some instant ramen back from Japan. Very nice.

* In this context ichiban kawaii translates as "prettiest" I suppose.

Weekly New Year's Resolution Status:

1) Doing stuff in London - Well I think the night out with Lorenzo probably counts here - what with visiting my two favourite London pubs and the whisky society. Also today's trip to Rye - yes obviously Rye isn't in London, but it is somewhere we probably wouldn't have visited had we not been living in London.

2) Yes - saw Lorenzo!

3) Exercise bike - waiting for it to arrive.
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Money and Wigmore
[Saturday 12th April]
When I'd left Japan back in December 2006 I still had some money in the bank there, but at the time the exchange rate was pretty awful, so I had decided to just leave it for the time being. Conveniently my most recent trip to Japan coincided with a much more favourable exchange rate, and so on my return to the UK a couple of weeks ago I had brought back some Japanese Yen. So today I set about changing this into pounds in order to pay into my account. Chie, having researched this fairly extensively in the past, recommended Marks and Spencer for currency exchange - their rates certainly seemed to beat all the other bureau de change we saw in central London (although that probably isn't too hard). I was also pleased to discover that banks do actually seem to open on Saturday afternoons these days (for some reason I had remembered them closing at lunchtime). So I had a definite sense of satisfaction on getting this little errand out of the way.

Other than that we did a bit of shopping, including a wander around Selfridge's. Chie's birthday is approaching and as my bonus is burning a whole in my bank account I'd like to really splash out a bit this year. So we took a look at Stella McCartney's little boutique in Selfridge's. I particularly approve of Stella given that, coming from a famously vegetarian family, she doesn't use any leather in the things she makes - there does usually seem to be an irritating correlation between luxury goods and dead cows. They didn't have anything that particularly grabbed us there today, but we'll keep looking.

We'd bought some Wigmore cheese at Selfridge's, which formed the starter for tonight's dinner. To be honest I was a bit disappointed. We'd had Wigmore before, a few years back, and it had been one of the best cheeses I had ever tasted. It was sweet, fragrant and really rich. This time it didn't really taste anything like that. I think part of the reason is that it may have been left to mature for longer - possibly at Selfridge's - and following that horrible experience last year I really don't have a taste for "ripe" cheese. Oh well.
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WFH
[Friday 11th April]
Wasn't feeling so great so decided to work from home today.

Not much else to report really - Chie went out to her Hiroshimakenjinkai in the evening but I just stayed in and watched telly.

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Lorenzo Pirisino
[Thursday 10th April]
Work was a slight improvement I suppose - there was a bit of fire fighting (in the IT sense that is, I don't mean that literally) to do, which jut about always seems to fall on my plate. I guess it gives me a short term sense of purpose so I actually found it to be quite a relief.

Anywho, the trivialities of work aside, today's main event was that my old friend Mr Lorenzo Pirisino was in London, for one night only, and we had arranged to meet up.

The last time we'd seen Lorenzo had been just before we left Japan, and I don't think Lorenzo and I had ever really spent any time in London together, other than perhaps a couple of days out way back when we were students. So I was keen to share with him some of my favourite places, and as such the plan for the evening required very little thought.

We met at Holborn just before 7, and started the evening off at Asadal, the Korean restaurant located conveniently right next door to Holborn tube. Therein I ate a lot of tofu and kimchi, whilst Chie and Lorenzo had a selection of barbecued meats.

Whilst there, we talked about work and money - yes I know, it doesn't sound very exciting. On the subject of possible places Lorenzo might consider living in the future (given, in part, the current slightly ropey economic situation in Italy) I asked him what he thought of Switzerland.

"It's crap.", he promptly and firmly replied.

It is very gratifying to know your old friends haven't changed.

After dinner we moved on to the first of my two favourite London pubs - the Cittie of Yorke. We just had one-and-a-bit drinks there, and sat for a short while appreciating that marvellous interior. I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I met Lorenzo through a role playing games club at university, but anyway because of that it seemed somewhat fitting to be spending time with Lox now in a venue which does look a bit like something out of Dungeons and Dragons.

Next up was of course Ye Olde Mitre with similar olde worlde appeal (in fact much more so), and I'd like to think that went down well with Lorenzo as well.

We rounded off the evening with a visit to the whisky society, to sample a couple of fine drams - although ideally, had Lorenzo been staying another night, we would have saved this for another evening, as I suspect by this point our taste buds were not at their most receptive.

It was great to see Lorenzo again of course, and fabulous to have this opportunity to show him some of my favourite places, as he has often done with me in Florence.

Will post some pictures soon.
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Wednesday Weariness
[Wednesday 9th April]
Another day filled with ennui. I had got so fed up being in the office that I decided to leave at lunchtime, and work the rest of the day from home (besides anything else my new desk is pretty noisy and it is pretty hard to concentrate there, particularly when in this sort of frame of mind).

Alas this was not meant to be though, around 5 it transpired that stuff was going wrong, and my network connection from home was getting a bit unreliable, so I decided I had better go back to the office, and stayed there until some time after 8.

Chie was out at the gym when I got back, but at left some dinner behind for me - Japanese style pasta (spaghetti with shimeji mushrooms) which was very nice.
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Tuesday Tedium
[Tuesday 8th April]
The malaise continued today, and I felt an overwhelming sense of ennui about life in general.

In the evening I attempted to remedy this by leaving the office "early" (which would anywhere else be referred to as "on time"), going home by way of the supermarket, and then embarking on some fairly serious cooking. I decided to make a lasagne - a fairly time consuming dish and not the sort of thing I would usually attempt on a weekday.

I also discovered Sainsbury's Cologne style lager. I generally avoid buying supermarkets' own brand beer (for no real reason than sheer snobbishness), but had been searching around for Dom Kolsch recently, and thought this might be in that neck of the woods. It was actually made in the UK, but nonetheless had a pleasingly dry, bitter and refreshing taste to it. I will probably buy it again. I also liked the overt vegetarian symbol on it, which you don't often get on beer.

I'm not sure dinner etc really served to cure my general feeling of being down in the dumps, but it did at least go some way to taking my mind off it for a bit.
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Monday Malaise
[Monday 7th April]
I am writing this entry a week hence, and don't really remember much about the day in question. I do recall however that the first half of this week was overshadowed by a general malaise. I suppose this could be just post holiday blues, but I had really managed to lose all interest in work whatsoever, and really did not want to be in the office.

I think part of the problem may have been my recent visit to Chichibu Distillery. Obviously the grass is always greener and all that, but seeing the pride Akuto-san took in his work made me wonder if I might be in entirely the wrong industry.
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Sunday
[Sunday 6th April]
Pretty lazy day really, just stayed in the flat all day, mainly messed around on the computer and watched telly.

On my recent trip to Japan, my friend Tanaka-san had given me a little remote controlled helicopter as a present. Having bought the batteries for it yesterday, today me and Chie had a play with it for the first time. It was ludicrously fun. Videos to follow.

As of this Sunday, I'm going to try and do a weekly report on progress against my three New Year's Resolutions. So here we go:

Weekly NYR Status:

1) Doing stuff in London. Yep - The Importance of Being Earnest. Very pleased with that one.

2) Meeting old friends. Nothing this week, but plans to meet up with Lorenzo next week, and Rob the week after that - so it looks like I'll easily meet the target for April, and then some.

3) Exercise. Well, have ordered the bike at least!
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Ordering an Exercise Bike
[Saturday 5th April]
Perhaps the most "at risk" item on my New (Financial) Year's Resolutions is the one relating to exercise. I had been thinking about buying an exercise bike for almost a year now, and never really quite got round to it. So today I decided some forthright action was needed, and with Chie in tow I marched purposefully in the direction of Peter Jones on Sloane Square. Therein I went straight to the home fitness department and then began to construct a convincing argument for myself for why I should just buy the cheapest one and be done with it.

I could tell by the clothing of the shop assistant who came to "assist" that he was the resident fitness specialist. He felt duty bound to do a bit of a sales pitch, which was wholly pointless as I had already made up my mind what to buy, and besides, people like me are conversationally incompatible with the sort of person who actually enjoyed PE in school (and ill-advisedly chose to base some of their future career decisions on that fact).

Anyway, I ordered an exercise bike costing about 200, with only a minimal set of bells and whistles, which would be delivered in just over a week's time. I was one step closer on my path to getting over my complete inability to do any kind of exercise. Of course, the trap most people fall into is to buy the bike simply to satisfy that sense of guilt, and then end up leaving it in a corner and never using it. I think I am more susceptible than most to this sort of eventuality. So my plan is to set a weekly target - 10 miles a week sounds adequate to start with - and I shall report status on a weekly basis via this blog.

After leaving Peter Jones, given that we were in the area, we did a bit more shopping along King's Road. I feel secretly quite smug about the fact that we are within walking distance of this very haughty-taughty area, and can do our weekly shop here should we so decide. We picked up a couple of cakes at a little delicatessen there, and then went into Waitrose for everything else.

Back at the flat, we had a spot of afternoon tea with those cakes, which were rather nice. Then later on for dinner I made a creamy porcini sauce to go with pasta (using dried porcini) which came out rather well.
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A Bit More Culture
[Friday 4th April]
A day at work largely consumed with writing "peer reviews" - we're in the half year review cycle which means we're all required to report on our peers' performance. It's a bit of an odd thing really - it is natural to develop friendships with the people you work with, but then at my company twice a year you're expected to evaluate those people objectively, and that feedback will go into determining their future pay rises, bonuses etc.

Given that it is hard to write that sort of thing while the people you're writing about are peering over your shoulder, and my team is in an open plan area, I decided it only right to find somewhere a bit more private to go and write. So I actually spent most of today sitting in the cafe, which was rather nice.

Anyway, at the end of the working day I went along to the usual Friday beer-and-pizza event, which I haven't actually been to for quite a while what with being on holiday and having had meetings around that time for several of the Fridays leading up to that. That was jolly nice - it was even (almost) warm enough to stand out on the balcony for a short while.

Left the office around 7:30 and met up with Chie on the way back, to go to the Tate Britain - I suppose this also factored into item (1) on my list of new year's resolutions. Every now and again they open late on a Friday, and seemingly try and turn it into a more social venue - with music, a bar, etc. We didn't stay long - it was full of young trendy arty types and frankly I felt a bit alienated, but still, it was another tick in the new year's resolution box.
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Thursday
[Thursday 3rd April]
Not much to report. Fairly uneventful day at work followed by a lazy evening watching the telly. Had trofie pasta (which reminded us a bit of the Swiss Spazli) with pesto for dinner, which was rather nice.
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The Importance of Being Earnest
[Wednesday 2nd April]
So, inline with my new financial year's resolution established yesterday, I got straight on to booking us theatre tickets. I had noticed that The Importance of Being Earnest was on at the Vaudeville Theatre on the Strand as we just happened to be walking past at some point. Having seen te film Wilde, and been entertained by many of his famous quotes which seem to pop up all over the place, I was quite convinced Wilde was my sort of cup of tea, but it occurred to me I had never actually seen any of his plays. So this seemed to be a perfect opportunity.

I had got us the cheapest seats I could find (I am ashamed at my uncharacteristic stinginess here, but given that the cheapest seats were 22 and the next ones up appeared to be over 40 I hope I may be forgiven), and yet was pleasantly surprised to find we were right on the front row. So we very close and I had plenty of legroom - I couldn't really discern how paying an extra 20 each would have got us anything better than that.

Anyhow, the rather banal topic of money aside, I was a little unsure how I would take to the play itself. I am always nervous about any sort of live performance - once you sit down you're sort of stuck there, if it really stinks you can't really just get up and leave.

Luckily those fears were unfounded, and I found it very entertaining right from the start. The sets and costumes were all very nicely done, and there was a charming level of upper class foppishness which pervaded through all the actors. Probably only a few bits were laugh out loud funny - obviously a certain amount of the humour had been lost over time - but I had a big smile on my face the whole way through.

Chie seemed to rather enjoy it too, and so there's a definite tick in the box there for week 1 of the new financial year's resolution agenda.
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Back at Work, and New Year's Resolutions
[Tuesday 1st April]
First day back at work after my holiday. I had thought it might be a bit of an ordeal going back into the office the day after a long haul flight from Japan, but in actual fact it wasn't too bad. I suppose in retrospect I've done this sort of thing so many times now (and this isn't as bad as when I used to fly to Seattle, arrive Monday morning and go straight into the office). So I guess I've just got used to it. Both on the way out and the way back from Japan this time I actually seemed to just completely cheat jetlag - none of the usual waking up at 4AM and not being able to get back to sleep.

So the day at work wasn't too bad, I didn't have quite the mountain of mail I was expecting - apparently it had been a fairly quiet couple of weeks while I was away, no major emergencies and lots of other people had been on vacation, business trips, training courses etc.

I didn't do a particularly good job of instigating New Year's Resolutions in January, so I'm going to use the start of the financial year as a second opportunity to do this.

Moreover our break in Japan has been a good opportunity to take stock of life in the UK, particularly given that when we told people we lived in London most people there said "Wow - that must be so exciting!" and I thought, well, errr not really - we hardly ever do anything here. So with this, plus a couple of other long running concerns I've had, I have come up with some New (Financial) Year's Resolutions:

1) Do at least one thing each week that makes it worthwhile living in London. I.e. go to the theatre, visit a museum, visit a park, etc.

2) Meet up with an old friend (anyone we knew from before when we moved to Japan in 2005) at least once a month.

3) Buy an exercise bike, and cycle X miles on it each week (exact figure still TBD).

I shall attempt to keep track of how successfully these go via this blog.
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Back to England
[Monday 31st March]
So then, our two-and-a-little-bit week holiday had come to an end, and it was time to go back to England. Chie's friend and her husband, who we had stayed with the night before, kindly got up early and gave us a lift to a convenient station to get on the line to Narita, which took about an hour. We got to the airport around 9.

Unfortunately I had forgotten to bring my gold card so we couldn't wait in the NorthWest lounge as we often have in the past - but anyway I had started to detect they probably thought I was being a bit cheeky, having not flown with them for about 18 months now (come to think of it, the card may well have expired anyway).

The flight itself was not quite as pleasant as the one on the way over. For one thing I suppose it's never as fun on the way back from a holiday as it is on the way out. Besides that though it was a lot bumpier in places, and there were problems with the entertainment system. They had to reboot it several times, and although mine eventually started working about two or three hours into the flight, Chie's never did. Initially they offered her (and the woman sitting next to her, who had the same problem) a portable DVD player, but the selection was nothing like what was on offer on the little seatback screen. The woman sitting next to her, who had apparently experienced this problem several times before, managed to convince them to upgrade her to upper class. This seemed to only serve to annoy Chie more. Eventually they did offer to let Chie to also use an upper class seat, although just for watching movies - she'd have to come back to premium economy for her meals etc.

Given the slightly frosty reception we'd received at Narita airport (the woman at the check-in desk barely said anything to us at all), and the fact that the food was frankly pretty crap both ways, I am wondering if it might be time to reconsider my recent loyalty to Virgin Atlantic for future flights to Japan. I'm certainly not going to be considering BA any time soon, and I tired of all the European carriers (KLM/Lufthansa/Air France) long ago, but I have never tried ANA and they do sound fairly promising. There is something to be said for an entirely Japanese ran plane - I have noticed that the Japanese stewards/stewardesses on Virgin are always a lot more polite than the English ones, although come to think of it that is only when speaking Japanese to Japanese customers.

Anyway, we landed at Heathrow at just after 3:30, and despite almost running down the corridors to try and beat the queues, it still took Chie ages to get through immigration - no matter what time we fly at there always seems to be a plane full of people with dubious visa statuses having landed just before ours. We did find out today though that as she has a spouse visa when we're travelling together she can, apparently, join the same line as me.

We got the Heathrow Express from there, and were at Paddington just after 5. We jumped straight in a taxi and were back at home by 5:30. So I guess that's not too bad - 2 hours from touch down to our flat - but we probably could have shaved 30 minutes off that if Chie hadn't had to queue up for immigration.

Robin (my uncle) had stayed there for a weekend while we were away, and he'd obviously decided to have a bit of a clean around - the place looked fabulous, and had a delightful fragrance to it. So it was even nicer than usual to come back to.

We didn't really do much for the remainder of the day, unusually for us we actually did a bit of unpacking and given that neither of us had got any sleep on the plane we were unable to stay awake any longer by the time it got to around 9 o' clock.
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Hanami
[Sunday 30th March 2008]
Today was our last full day in Tokyo.

On the one hand it was a great day, as a couple of things fell into place very nicely - a lot of Chie's old university friends were in Tokyo, having stayed over the night before, and also the cherry blossom was in full swing - so the combination of these two could mean only one thing - hanami. Anyone who has ever been to Japan in this season will know that the hanami is one of the biggest highlights of the Japanese year.

On the other hand the weather wasn't that great and there were a certain amount of frustrating logistics to overcome. I had stayed at Aoki-san's house in Chofu the night before, and Chie had stayed with her friends a little further down the Keio line towards Shinjuku - so both effectively being suburbs on the West side of Tokyo. Tonight we'd both be staying at Chie's old work friend's place which was sort of on the way to Narita airport, which meant being right over on the East side of Tokyo. The plan - quite sensibly - was to have the hanami in the afternoon in the grounds of Yasukuni shrine, which is right in the centre of Tokyo. However getting there still seemed to consume a frutratingly large part of the day.

Our luggage had become a huge nuisance by this point, and by the time we had struggled across Tokyo with it, and then found a convenient place to deposit it, and then forced our way through the crowds to get into Yasukuni shrine (as well as waiting pointlessly outside for half an hour due to a miscommunication on where we should be meeting) it was already after 2 o' clock. It had basically taken me three hours to get from Chofu to there.

So once we got there it was great - I'd known this group of Chie's friends for as long as I'd known Chie (in some cases longer), so it was great to see them all again, and despite it being a tad on the chilly side it was great to be out in the open air, enjoying the cherry blossom and a drink or two. There were a number of stalls setup in the grounds of Yasukuni, each with a few tables in front of it, and the guy serving us at the stall we chose was spectacularly camp. One of my favourite lines, after bringing us some food, was "futotene!" - it literally means "get chubby!". I guess that would only really have worked at a table of very well groomed young ladies such as ours (presumably the comment was redundant in my case).

Unfortunately though, by about 3 it had started to rain, and it was no longer particularly pleasant to sit outside. So that was it then - the entire sum of my hanami time for 2008 came to just under an hour. Ho, hum.

We then took a quick look at the Yasukini shrine itself, and then headed out, thinking initially we should try and find a cafe or something, but it seemed everywhere in the vicinity was full. Hardly surprising really - there had been thousands of people at the park, it had just started to rain, and they'd probably all had similar thoughts.

Eventually Chie decided we should probably just head off, as it would take a while to get to her old work friend's place on the East side of Tokyo, and we were due there for dinner. So we said our goodbyes and were on our way by 4. Pretty frustrating today - I probably spent four or more hours today lugging bags about and travelling across Tokyo, only to see Chie's friends for less than half that time. Oh well.

So we then spent the evening at Ochiai-san's place, somewhere near Motoyawata (the only place name I vaguely recognised in this otherwise entirely unfamiliar part of Tokyo). Actually we can't call her Ochiai-san any more - since that is her surname (as she was a colleague of Chie's, this was the polite way to address her at the time) and she has since got married. So I wasn't really sure what I should call her any more, and just avoided saying her name at all for the whole evening. They ordered in pizza for dinner and we had a very pleasant and relaxing time chatting and comparing wedding photos.
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Chichibu Distillery
[Saturday 29th March 2008]
I had first heard of (and tried) whisky from what Watanabe-san referred to as Chichibu distillery on my first visit to Quercus back in May 2005. It was one of the Ichiro's Malt series, distilled in 1988, from a bottle bearing an Acorn motif, rather than the now more familiar playing card labels. I was immediately impressed - as I wrote at the time, everything just seemed to be in perfect proportions, and that one dram was single handedly responsible for my future interest in Japanese whisky (I started that wikipedia article!).

Chichibu became a regular dram for me on my many visits to Quercus, and as Ichiro Akuto was a friend of Watanabe-san's, I was even fortunate enough to meet the great man on a few occasions (such as in November 2005). Watanabe-san was a particular pioneer of the whisky - at the time when I was first drinking it there it was hardly available anywhere else, so I was really pleased to watch its' meteroic rise within the whisky world - from Whisky Live Tokyo 2006 to all the press it started receieving later on that year. I was really pleased on my return to the UK to see that Ichiro's Malt had started appearing in whisky shops here in London, and was developing a real profile for itself.

The fine malts I was drinking were all from the old Chichibu distillery, sometimes also referred to as Hanyu or "Golden Horse" distillery. Sadly this had closed a few years ago, but Akuto-san, grandson of the original distiller, had managed to buy up much of the stock, and sell it on under the now much acclaimed Ichiro's Malt range. This was, one presumes, also a bid to raise funds for building a new Chichibu distillery.

I had often heard talk of this new Chichibu distillery on my visits to Quercus, both from Watanabe-san, and on occasion from Akuto-san himself - and we all felt a definite sense of excitement about the project.

It was then to my delight that I heard that on this visit the new distillery had now opened, and started distilling, and Watanabe-san had been able to arrange for us to go on a tour. This was a real privilege - I believe only a handful of whisky industry dignitaries (people like Dave Broom) had so far been to visit the place, and when they went there I think it hadn't actually started distilling yet.

So we met with Watanabe-san at 11:00 at Ikebukuro station, and also met there Toyoda-san, another regular of Quercus I had met a couple of times before, and shared a keen interest in Chichibu. From there we got on the Seibu line to Saitama, a little under an hour-and-a-half's journey. It's then about a 15 minute taxi ride to the distillery from Seibu-Ikebukuro station (although the place is so new, our taxi driver had no idea it even existed).

As we came over the brow of the hill, and the pagoda roof of the maltings at Chichbu came in sight, there was audible excitement in the taxi (I wonder what the driver made of it!). We then got out to spend a while admiring the fine new building, set to a backdrop of the mountains of Saitama prefecture.

We then met Akuto-san inside, and were given a fantastic and detailed tour of the distillery - see the pictures for the full details.

I've also written a more detailed article about our visit for the excellent Nonjatta blog (a blog all about Japanese whisky).

It is hard to explain the excitement I experienced at this new distillery - it had been quite similar to my visit to Kilchoman last year. I suppose partly it is the sense of delight at seeing someone else's dream project come to life. After we finished the tour we took a picture of Akuto-san standing outside the distillery - I'm very fond of that shot - I have seldom ever seen a man looking more proud, content and satisfied than Akuto-san did in that picture. And rightly so - the man has a huge talent for whisky, it runs in his blood, and I am confident the new Chichibu distillery will be a resounding success.

We got on the train back to Tokyo around 3, and at Ikebukuro station said our goodbyes to Watanabe-san and Toyoda-san.

Chie and I then headed over to a little district of Tokyo somwhere near Shibuya (whose name espapes me) to meet up with a load of her old university friends at a nice little Italian restaurant there. I spent the remainder of the day in something of a daze, visiting Chichibu was undoubtedly one of the biggest highlights of this whole trip, and probably my whole year!
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Shinagawa, Chofu and Shinjuku
[Friday 28th March 2008]
A nice relaxing day - we hadn't really planned very much other than that we were going to stay the night at Aoki-san's house (a friend from my previous job).

In the morning we left Kamata and headed over to Shinagawa, where we were going to meet up with Yuka-chan for lunch. This was going to be our last time to see Chie's family during this trip, and we said our goodbyes at Shinagawa station. I imagine it will be at least another year before Chie and I come back to Japan again, but hopefully now that Chie's Dad has retired (as of the end of this month, officially) they might be able to come and visit us in the UK in the intervening time.

From Shinagawa, Chie and I then headed over to Chofu - the suburb of Tokyo where I used to work, and where my friend Aoki-san lives. It was the first time I'd seen his new house, up until the time I left Japan it had just been a flat plot of land (see here). This felt really good actually - finding a place to live, and then waiting for it to be built, had been a very long and drawn out process for him and his wife, and so I was really pleased for them to see the finished result. Aoki-san was particularly pleased with the luscious patch of green grass out the front - something of a rarity in Japan due to the climate.

We had lunch at Aoki-san's house, Kirilche-san (who is from Bulgaria) prepared us a feast from her homeland, of stuffed peppers and aubergines, and some sort of baked cheese rice which was all very tasty. Aoki-san then had a meeting to attend later on in the afternoon, so we followed him as far as Shinjuku, where we took the opportunity to do some shopping.

We spent the evening back at Aoki-san's house, enjoying more of Kirilche-san's fabulous Bulgarian hospitality - she seemed determined to make us eat until we collapsed from exhaustion.
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By the Sea
[Thursday 27th March 2008]
We were only staying the one night on the Izu peninsula, and so this morning we checked out of our hotel and started to wend our way back to Tokyo.

We all mutually decided it would be nice to stop off somewhere on the way back, to enjoy a bit of the fine coastal scenery on the Izu peninsula, and perhaps find a nice spot for a picnic. So we got the train to Izu-kogen, a little town a bit further North up the peninsula from Atagawa.

From Izu-kogen station we took a stroll down to the coast to see one of the two famous supension footbridges that make up part of the coastal path there. Conveniently just round the corner from there was a very nice spot down on the rocks where we could stop off for lunch, right by the sea.

That hour or two spent down by the sea there was probably one of my favourites bits of the whole holiday - it was a very pleasant spring day, the sky was blue, the air was fresh, and it was a lovely picturesque spot, improved even more by a nice lunch and a beer or two. There's something indefinably great about eating and drinking in the open air, even more so when it is by the sea.

We then meandered back to the town centre of Izu-kogen and then took a wander along some of the town's cherry tree lined streets - pretty much our first decent sakura of the season. Even though the sakura was not yet in full bloom the festival atmosphere of the hanami was already underway, and the streets were lined with stalls, and people were picnicking out on the lawns.

We then got the train back to Tokyo once more. For tonight Chie's Dad had booked us all into a hotel in a fairly non-descript district of Tokyo called Kamata. It was a bit of a contrast to the Merdidien of the other night - this being more of a "business hotel" with a room about as small as it could conceivably be made. Still, it was cheap. For dinner we went out and found an Italian restaurant - I wanted a bit of a break from Japanese food.
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Atagawa Onsen
[Wednesday 26th March 2008]
The original plan for today was for a family trip to an onsen as a sort of mini post graduation celebration for Yuka-chan. As it turned out though, Yuka was now entrenched in job hunting and wouldn't be able to join us. So the rest of us went along without her.

Chie had extensively researched possible venues before this trip to Japan, and had eventually settled upon the Izu peninsula. Chie and I had been to the Izu peninsula once before, again just for one night, and had enjoyed it very much. This time we went to a different town (Atagawa) which we had seen from the train on the previous visit.

We got on the train in Tokyo around midday, and then had a very pleasant run from there down to Atagawa, with a bento for lunch on board (Chie and I had stopped by a department store in Ginza on the way which she'd found out does vegetarian bento boxes).

We arrived at our hotel around 2:30, and after checking in and poking our noses around a bit, we decided to go out for a stroll along the seafront. It was a bracing sort of a day, a tad windy, but otherwise fairly warm and with a lovely blue sky.

We then headed back to the hotel, and before dinner me and Chie went for a swim and a stint in the jacuzzi.

Dinner was a typical ryokan feast, served in the room (actually Chie's parents' room which was next door to ours). It wasn't quite the culinary pinnacle that the one in Shimoda (at the Kurofune hotel) had been, and our Nakae-san was a little ill-tempered, but still there was plenty of variety in the food as always, and I definitely wasn't left hungry.

After dinner Chie and I went to try out the actual onsen baths. There was one mixed onsen (I decided not to bother with the separate ones), with a sort of jungle theme to it, lots of little pools to bathe in, and perhaps best of all a waterslide (admittedly not that classy, but quite fun - I haven't been on one of these for years).

All in all very nice.
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Yuka's Graduation and Odaiba
[Tuesday 25th March 2008]
The main reason for being back in Tokyo by today (and for Chie's parents also coming to Tokyo) was that today was Yuka-chan's (Chie's little sister's) graduation ceremony. It was held in a big hotel / conference centre place near Daimon, and so in the morning we headed over there from our hotel on Odaiba.

Unfortunately I had to go into do a bit of work at my company's Tokyo office today, so I only really caught the start of the ceremony, but did at least get to see Yuka-chan in her graduation outfit (which would probably look like a kimono to Western eyes, but is in fact a hakama) and took a couple of pictures.

So I had lunch at my company's office in Tokyo, and then spent the remainder of the afternoon there. I didn't mind too much going to the office - this was only one of two days I did work related stuff over the whole two-and-a-bit weeks off, and inbetween I didn't check my mail or anything like that at all.

After finishing "work" I headed back to Odaiba to meet up with Chie and her parents for dinner. We dined at Gonpachi, a small chain of restaurants, one of which was used in that famously stupid fight scene in Kill Bill. We got a table by the window, and were treated to some very nice night-time views out over Tokyo bay, including the Rainbow Bridge and those little dinner boats. The food wasn't bad either - after some complex negotiation about what exactly vegetarian meant, they did a set course menu with lots of interesting dishes - my favourite probably being the vegetable tempura served with white truffle flavoured salt. To my surprise you actually really could taste the truffle in it.
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Kyoto to Tokyo
[Monday 24th March 2008]
After a late breakfast at Dale and Erina's house, Chie and I headed back to Kyoto, and from there got on the Shinkansen back to Tokyo. We had initiall thought about visiting another temple in Kyoto, but then decided not to bother on account of having to mess about with our bags, and wade through the crowds of people again. A second plan to stop by Fuji Gotemba distillery on the way to Tokyo was also abandoned when we realised it was already getting on a bit, and by the time we got there it would probably be closed. So we just went straight back to Tokyo.

Chie's Dad had booked for us to stay at Le Meridien on Odaiba for the next two nights. He'd found a superb deal - somewhere in the region of 60 quid a night. Although being on Odaiba means it is not the most conveniently located of Tokyo's hotels, it was by far the most spacious and upmarket of all the hotels we stayed in on this trip, and also boasted some rather nice views.

After checking in, both Chie and I headed back into the centre for separate evening engagements. Chie went to meet somebody from the Tokyo office of the company she works for, and I met up my friend Tanaka-san in Asakusa.

Went to an assortment of bars, including good old Bar Kamiya, and also Kagetsu (which I may have inadvertantly referred to elsewhere as Kazuki), the ramen chain which does a vegetarian ramen. Tanaka-san seemed very keen to try it, in some state of disbelief that this was even possible, and actually seemed to quite like it.

It was superb to see Tanaka-san again - although he came along to my birthday do on the first night we were in Japan, it had been quite a large grop in the end so we hadn't had much time to talk. So tonight we had some real "quality time" together, to chew over life, the universe and everything.
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Keeping up with The Thomases
[Sunday 23rd March]
We packed up our things and left Hiroshima this morning, stopping in briefly at Chie's grandparents' house on the way to the station for another quick hello and goodbye.

We got on the shinkansen before midday, and were at Kyoto station by 2. There we met up with our old friends Dale and Erina (Mr and Mrs Thomas), who live near Kyoto, with their two little kids - Kittichan and the newest addition to the clan - wee Gilihad.

After a quick spot of lunch in Kyoto station, we got on a bus and headed towards Kiyomizu temple - I'd decided I'd quite like to see this based largely on the fact that of all the temples in Kyoto I haven't yet been to, this was probably the most famous.

I was quite surprised by the crowds - Kyoto is always very popular with tourists, but I don't remember other temples I've been to being quite so crowded as this. The temple is particularly famous for a sort of large balcony which looks out over the grounds of the temple, and further afield to the rest of Kyoto. We probably didn't catch it in quite the best season as the trees were all still a bit bare looking - a couple of weeks later and we'd have cherry blossom (plus about twice as many people). From pictures I've seen it is also really striking in Autumn when the leaves have all turned colour, plus I imagine a covering of snow would look great too.

Still, it was nice to see nonetheless - a trip to Japan without a visit to a temple (ideally in Kyoto) would feel somewhat lacking somehow.

From there, we took a meander through the charming little alleys of Kyoto to Maruyama Koen - a park famous for its cherry blossom (which, again, we were a bit too early for). I have been there a couple of times before and it felt good to be back again. We then took a taxi back to Kyoto station.

From Kyoto station we got on a local train to the little suburb where Dale and Erina live - about 25 minutes away. Dale and Erina had made the rather bold move of actually buying a house a year or two ago, and as is often the case in Japan it was a new build.

It transpires they have also acquired a dog, a cross of a poodle and a Yorkshire terrier - yes, somebody had seen fit to breed together what are possibly the two most irritating dogs you can imagine. It was the epitomy of small yappy dogs, and seemed to take a particular dislike to me (having immediately identified me as the person who would be most irritable, presumably I give off some sort of scent to that effect). The moment I got through the door it came running at me and started jumping at me and yapping in a very excitable manner. Appropriately, they have named it Scylla.

We had dinner at Dale and Erina's house, then, as has sort of become a tradition now on our visits to Dale and Erina, we left the girls chatting at home, whilst us menfolk went out (also to chat, of course) over a couple of beers at a nearby bar.

Here follows some droney retrospective on life, the universe and everything. Feel free to stop reading if you feel this might make you nauseous.

Dale and Erina where actually a large part of the reason as to why Chie and I met way back in 2000 - Dale and Erina had already been together for a while before then, Erina was a friend of Chie's, and Dale was a friend of mine. With the obvious facts that Erina is Japanese and Dale is English, that they're of a similar age, and went to the same universities etc, there are a number of obvious parallels between us and them. Plus the fact that they met before we did (and that Erina seems to have a very clear idea of what she wants from life) means that they tend to get to the big milestones before we do - they got married first, lived in Japan together first, bought a house first, had kids first, and so on.

To this end I have on several occasions looked to Dale and Erina for a sort of forecast of what life might be like after making those kinds of big decisions - certainly before I accepted the job offer in Japan back in 2005 I had a long chat with Dale about it, heard all of his woes about living and working as a foreigner in Japan, and for better or worse took the job anyway.

So now Chie and I are back in the UK, Dale and Erina are still in Japan - and in that sense it feels like we're no longer one step behind them on the same basic trajectory, but instead have just decided to take a different course altogether. Comparing us and them, it looks now like our decisions have been more driven by career (mostly mine), and there's have been driven by family - both in the sense of Erina's desire to be close to her parents, and to have kids. Obviously being closer to my family was a reason I wanted to come back to England, but as a couple that couldn't really be a determining factor - as obviously coming back here had the opposite effect for Chie.

So as a means of some kind of calibration I couldn't help but look at Dale and Erina, and compare them to us, and try to work out who overall was happier (sorry Dale and/or Erina if you're reading - I don't mean to make out that you're some kind of lab rats!). On the one hand Chie and I seem to have no financial worries (at least for the time being, touch wood) - we're both working, we have plenty of money in the bank, ample coming in each month, and no debts whatsoever. Dale and Erina however have a mortgage to pay, two kids to clothe and feed, and whilst I guess the cost of living is cheaper there, they're doing all that from just one salary, and in fact Dale was in the middle of changing jobs when we were there. I'm sure they manage fine (Erina seems to be a very competent keeper of finances), but that did appear to be an issue - they seem to have to keep a constant eye on their spending.

The other obvious big difference is kids versus no kids. People who have kids always seem to say exactly the same things - it is extremely hard work, they never get any sleep, and then, my favourite bit, the obligatory "but it is definitely worth it!". I have to say, having visited a number of people with young families over the past couple of years, it seldom seems particularly idyllic - constant stress, worry and hard work which inevitably causes tension between the parents, and from all of that a bit of a sense to visitors that you're in the way and ought to make your apologies and leave at the earliest opportunity. No doubt underlying all that stress is some deep primordial sense of satisfaction for the parents, which clearly as someone who isn't a parent I can't really imagine, but from an outside perspective it doesn't appear to be a particularly attractive proposition right now!

Then there's job satisfaction - as already noted Dale had just changed jobs, I think he'd got pretty fed up with the conditions at his previous one (largely down to the ordeals of working in a Japanese office it seems), and is going to be returning to a more academic environment. So certainly he was very frustrated up until now, but perhaps in a couple of months time things might be much better for him. My job has been quite stressful over the last six months, but having the opportunity to take a holiday and get some distance from it I am still convinced it is the best place for me - certainly in terms of the company itself there is nowhere else I would rather work.

One area of dissatisfaction for both me and Dale was social life - for him it seems more than anything else he'd like the opportunity to socialise with Japanese speaking people so he could improve his Japanese - given that he speaks English both at home and at work (up until now at least) he was very frustrated about not having any real opportunity to improve his nihongo. I too would like to know more people and get out in the evenings and at the weekends a bit more, but I guess things are improving for me - if I compare the first three months of this year with the first three months of last year I probably have been going out a lot more, and know a lot more people in London now. I guess if that trajectory continues, in another year's time (assuming we're still in London) I'll probably be quite happy. I got the impression Dale had more of a sense of isolation than I do - quite naturally I suppose.

So what have we learnt? Well, it would be churlish and unfair to just proclaim that we're happier than they are, we are after all leading two (four?) different lives, and are fundamentally different people who want different things... However, Dale and Erina are the closest thing I have to a parallel universe in which Chie and I had decided to stay in Japan, settle down there, and maybe have kids already.

I think, on balance, for the time being at least, we did the right thing.
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