Wandering in Osaka

We decided Sunday would be a good day to visit Osaka Castle. A decision also reached by a large percentage of Osaka’s population. We took the train round to Osakajokoen station, again making use of our JR passes to travel for free. From the station, we walked through the park towards the castle and encountered an unexpected sight. A group of falconers were congregated just outside the castle walls and showing off their birds.

dsc_0065 2

dsc_0066 2I was fascinated to see that the birds appeared to have been transported to the park in cat boxes fixed to the luggage racks of bicycles. Although we did later see one elderly gentleman cycling out of the park with an owl perched on his handlebars. Not an everyday occurrence.

The castle itself was, as you’d expect, quite unlike what we’d expect to see in the UK.

img_3293We paid our entrance fee of about £4 and headed for the entrance. There was a very long queue of people waiting to get in, which was disappointing, until we realised that the line was only for the lift and we were welcome to use the stairs if we wanted, so we did. There was a display of historic items in each floor of the castle so we stopped off to view them as we went, nicely breaking up the journey for us. There were great views of Osaka from the top.

dsc_0179 2There was also a lot of information about the importance of the castle in a variety of power struggles around the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The castle itself was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi who is viewed as one of the three men who were key to the unification of Japan, the others being Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu.

After the castle, we headed back to our flat but not before stopping off at Big Echo Karaoke to take advantage of the cheap Sunday afternoon rates. We each tried an entirely new repertoire of songs. I’m beginning to think we should pick one or two and stick with them till we get them right.

After our little sing-song, we inspected a few menus to try to choose a dinner venue. Eventually, we settled on a little yakitori place and enjoyed skewered chicken in a variety of forms before heading back home. This was our last proper day in Osaka as we’re headed for Hiroshima on Monday.

“I’ve watched C-Beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate.”

Today’s title is lifted from the “Tears in rain” speech made by Rutger Hauer’s character, Roy Batty, in Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece, Blade Runner. We moved from Kyoto to Osaka on Saturday so we’re having a Saturday night in the city that inspired much of the set design for that movie. It was also the setting for Scott’s later (underrated) Black Rain.

Before we get to the neon glitz and 3D animated restaurant signs, we first had to manage the journey. When we arrived in Kyoto, we took a taxi from the main station to our ryokan but, after two days of eating nothing but Japanese food, I felt prepared to meet any challenge the transport system may have for us. After breakfast, we packed up and checked out. We then walked down to the nearest subway station. I have been very impressed by the widespread availability of elevators in stations. They are very helpful when, between us, we have two suitcases, a dobro, a mandolin, a camera backpack, a handbag and a man-bag. The lift helped ease us down to the right platform for a subway to Kyoto train station.

Once there, we decided that we would take a local train that would take us direct to Osaka station. Our pass entitled us to take the bullet train, which is faster, but it stops at a station called Shin-Osaka where we would have to change to get to Osaka so we decided the convenience was worth the slower journey. We got to Osaka at around 11:30 and we were booked at an AirBnB where we couldn’t check in until 3:00pm. Luckily, all Japanese stations are equipped with a vast array of luggage lockers and a left luggage counter, so we were able to store all of our bags and start being tourists immediately.

Well, immediately after a cup of English Breakfast tea, which wasn’t available at the ryokan so we were going a bit cold turkey for a proper cuppa. Over our tea, we looked at what was available for us to go and visit, and settled on the Osaka Museum of Housing and Living. This was a short subway ride away and, once again, our Pasmo cards worked seamlessly on the Osaka urban transport system.

The museum itself featured scale models of Osaka showing its growth over the centuries. It also had a full scale reproduction of some city streets that we could walk through and learn a little more about Japanese life in the mid-19th century. It’s not a huge museum but well worth a visit if you have an hour or two to kill in Osaka. After the museum, we went for a stroll down a covered market street. I was impressed by the effort that went in to this particular drain cover:

2 - 1 (2)We’ve since seen a few more cast in the same way but this is the only one so far that’s been painted. This street also gave me the opportunity to try another typical Japanese activity: Pachinko. The aim of the game is to fire little silver balls into a hole. I played for about 15 minutes and still have no idea how it works. I see no need to attempt a repeat experience.

It was time to head to our AirBnB which is a short walk away from Fukushima station on the JR Osaka Loop Line. Because it’s a JR line, we were able to travel for free with our rail passes. The flat is best described as compact, but that is what we were expecting from Japan so it didn’t come as a shock. After settling in and buying some of life’s necessities (tea bags and milk), we decided to head out for dinner. I was keen on some comfort food, so we found a little Italian place just around the corner from the flat. It had a Google Rating of 4.5 from 148 reviews, which is pretty decent for that number of reviews. We arrived at 5:20pm, and there was already a line of people waiting to get in when it opened at 5:30.

The pizza was amazing. The patron/chef/waiter is a one man whirlwind. There is no other staff. You order your pizza from him at the counter. You tell him what you want to drink, then you help yourself to the drink and open it yourself. Regalo is highly recommended if you find yourself in Osaka in need of a pizza.

After dinner, we really had to pay a visit to Dotonbori, the canal-side area famous for its neon signs, animated large scale food reproductions and vast quantity of restaurants.

There is a remarkable Japanese word, Kuidaore, meaning to ruin oneself by extravagance in food. It seems to have been coined for Dotonbori.

The most famous sign of all in this area is the Glico running man, which has been a Dotonbori icon for over 80 years.


After taking this shot, we strolled along the main drag and, at one point, we were stopped by a young Australian lady who asked if we had seen the running man. She had somehow missed it and needed directions which we were able to provide.

I’m amazed by how completely different a feel there has been to each of the Japanese cities we’ve visited so far. I’ve discovered, however, that the Japanese themselves perceive residents of each city to have differing vices. As mentioned above, it’s food here in Osaka. In Kyoto, it’s clothing – specifically kimonos. And in Tokyo? Footwear apparently. They love a shoe over there.

Thoughts of my old desk

We are having a flying visit to Kyoto. We decided to spend two nights in each of Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima so we’re moving to Osaka on Saturday. This makes Friday our last night in Kyoto and our only full day there. We investigated the tourist sights and discovered that not only was Kyoto Imperial Palace open to the general public, but there was a free English language guided tour every day at 10:00am and 2:00pm. We had already booked breakfast in the Ryokan for 8:00am, so we were awake in plenty of time to make the early tour.

And after my Japanese food adventure of Thursday night, I was looking forward(?) to my first ever Japanese breakfast.

img_3204You can imagine how excited I was to see the big lump of cured fish right in front of me, plus the spirit burner cooking the tofu in the top left corner of my tray. I surprised myself with how much of this little lot I managed to eat. I really am a man of simple tastes but, on the other hand, when faced with the choice of eating what’s there or going hungry I will avoid peckishness.

Enough of the food chat. After the necessary sustenance, we were off on the subway to the Imperial Palace. Bless our little Tokyo Pasmo cards. It would appear that Japan has a system so integrated that the automated subway cards for one city are also valid in multiple other cities. What kind of mind-boggling technology must they have adopted to be able to achieve a level of transport integration that countries like the UK can only not give a damn about implementing? Rant over. Off we went to the palace and got ourselves in place for the tour.


And it was wonderful. The Japanese lady who showed us round was hugely knowledgeable about the palace and grounds, and also about Japanese history more generally. I know I’m nothing but a tourist and have been here less than a week but I have learned more about Japan in that time than in my entire life to date. And it makes me eager to learn more. We heard about the enthronement ceremonies that took place in Kyoto until the enthronement of Yoshohito – subsequently Emperor Taisho – when Tokyo took over. We learned about the practice of an emperor being named posthumously after the era in which he ruled. And we learned about 16 petals on the chrysanthemum, which was formerly the number of petals reserved for the emperor but it is now the national symbol, which is why it appears on the front cover of all Japanese passports. All thoroughly fascinating stuff.

We were also given a whistle stop tour on the Japanese thatching process. Sacred buildings are thatched, not with reeds as we would expect in the UK, but with bark. Specifically, the bark of the Japanese cypress tree. Expert craftsmen peel the bark from the trees  and build it up in layers, compressing it as they go, before laying it on the roof. The more sacred the building, the thicker the bark thatch must be. It’s a highly skilled task to be able to peel the bark for the job. If done well, the bark regrows within seven years. If done badly, the tree dies. Unsurprisingly, craftsmen able to do this well are becoming more scarce and the cost of the work is increasing rapidly.

After the palace, we returned to the Ryokan as our afternoon plan was to visit a shrine and I needed to change into walking boots. Because this was not just any old shrine, but the Fushimi Inari shrine. Incidentally, I’ve learned another Japanese word. Kitsune means fox. And Inari is a deity who appears in the form of a fox. There are over three thousand Inari shrines in Japan, and Fushimi Inari is the Sohonsha, or head shrine. As such an important place, the shrine at the entrance is really crowded with people who come to pray.


But this is also the place that made me think about my old desk on the 41st floor of One Canada Square in Canary Wharf. While working there we would be forced to undergo periodic fire drills, in which event all staff would be obliged to walk down 41 floors to assemble at our designated muster points. When I carry my personal bulk down 41 floors, I feel it in my knees for a day or two after and I swore I would never make the reverse journey and drag myself up those same 41 floors. Well, thanks to visiting not only the “base camp” shrine but also the equivalent at the top of Mt. Inari, my iPhone assures me that I did in fact climb the equivalent of those 41 floors. Twice.

IMG_3220.PNGAnd back down again, of course. The path to the shrine is a fascinating feat, not only of construction but of maintenance. The entrance to an Inari shrine is usually marked by a torii, or gate, painted in vermilion. But this is the head shrine, so one gate isn’t nearly enough.


The climb passes through what is effectively a corridor of torii.

dsc_0148 But in a country as humid as Japan, wooden structures on this scale require constant monitoring and repair. Many of the columns have visible damage but there are regular reminders of the work being undertaken to maintain the pristine appearance of the walk to the top.

dsc_0207After the climb and descent, we were back on the subway and back to the ryokan. After stopping off for a quick beer because, frankly, we deserved it.

We once again enjoyed a typical Japanese dinner in our room and, once again, I was obliged to be adventurous or starve. Adventure won the day. We had both stayed in western garb for dinner, so decided to pop out afterwards for a stroll in our surroundings. The hotel is close to Nishiki market which is Kyoto’s traditional food market. It’s a covered street almost half a kilometre long where you can try and buy all sorts of Japanese delicacies.


The one that appealed to me least was the octopus with quail’s egg, where the egg is stuffed into the head of the octopus so that it looked like…well…an octopus. We skipped Nishiki and, once again, enjoyed an hour in a karaoke room. This time, I destroyed classics by Sweet (Ballroom Blitz), Jesus and Mary Chain (Just Like Honey), Bobbie Gentry (Ballad of Billie Jo – 4 semitones lower than the original), and Ishbel channeled performances  by Blondie (The Tide is High), Rod Stewart (You’re in My Heart) and the Rolling Stones (Get Off of My Cloud).

We’ve decided we’ll be singing karaoke once in each Japanese city we visit. Watch out for the big hits from Osaka next!

Anagram travel

Today, we travelled from Tokyo to Kyoto. These cities are anagrams of each other, but it transpires that there’s a reason for this. Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, means Capital City. Tokyo was called Edo until the capital was moved there, at which point it was re-named “The capital in the East” or, in Japanese, Tokyo. Finding that out solved a little mystery for me so I thought I’d share it.

We chose today to start using our JR Rail Pass which will give us 7 days of travel on Japanese Rail lines. We bought the pass before leaving the UK and received a voucher which we had to exchange at a major station in Japan. For us, this meant Tokyo Station. We opted for the “Green Car” Pass which is the equivalent of First Class on UK trains. I paid the premium because I had read so many scare stories about the lack of luggage space in ordinary carriages of Japanese trains. To be fair, there’s not much luggage space in the green car either, but it was pretty quiet so we were able to get most things up in the overhead luggage rack and tucked the suitcases into the two seats behind us, which were empty all the way to Kyoto.

We travelled the 450km by bullet train, or Shinkansen. The pass doesn’t allow travel on the superfast non-stop express, but the Hikari service, which stops at a few stations en route, still covers the distance in a highly respectable 2hrs 40mins. Having spent the best part of 20 years commuting on the Brighton line into London, it was a delight to experience a railway being run properly.

We arrived in Kyoto on time and grabbed a taxi to the place where we were staying. I had booked a Ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese style of inn. You may be unaware (I certainly was) that Japan pretty much invented the concept of the hotel and the oldest Ryokans date back to the start of the 8th century. In the Ryokan, the floors of the rooms are covered in tatami mats. We remove our shoes at the door and step through a sliding door into our living space.

img_1397 Another aspect of the inn is the availability of communal baths where guests can go and cleanse themselves. Ishbel and I both took advantage of this facility after arriving and it turned out that we were each the only people in our respective, gender segregated baths. Afterwards, we dressed in our Yukata – an indoor kimono type of robe. Once we were dressed in these, I changed back to western clothes. I realised that we would be required to sit cross legged on the floor to eat dinner, and the yukata barely covered my modesty when seated in a sedate western fashion. It would certainly result in overexposure if I were to wear it while dining.

I had taken the dinner, bed and breakfast option. As a highly unadventurous diner, this was quite a major step for me. Dinner was served in the room and I grew increasingly nervous as the meal arrived.

img_3196 You may be able to spot here a considerable quantity of raw fish on the plate in front of Ishbel. Also, that thing in the sauce on the plate at the left of the picture is a fish head. Well, I ordered it so I had to live with the consequences. It turns out the fish head had quite a bit of fish meat on it and the sauce was quite delicious. Most of the raw fish was reasonably pleasant and the tempura was good. Surprisingly, I was able to eat enough so that I didn’t feel the need to sneak out for a burger later in the evening. Ishbel had no qualms about any of it of course.

After dinner, we rang for the trays to be removed. When the table was cleared, our bed was laid out.

We both enjoyed a comfortable night on the triple layered futons. I’m starting to get the hang of this Japanese thing. Slightly. Let’s wait and see how breakfast goes.

Architecture and Karaoke

We decided that today would be a day to see some of Tokyo’s iconic buildings. We wanted to visit the Teien Art Museum, an art deco masterpiece with a uniquely Japanese flavour, but it was closed. We settled on a couple of alternatives and, making full use of our Pasmo cards, we set off on the subway system.

Yesterday, I posted about the Emperor Meiji and referenced his embracing of openness towards western cultural influences in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. One of the significant changes he made was to end Japan’s prohibition on Christian preaching. This resulted in the establishment of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Tokyo, with its seat at St. Mary’s Cathedral – a wooden construction built in the Gothic style in 1899. And, like so much of Tokyo, burned to the ground during the second world war.  Its replacement, designed by Kenzo Tange and completed in 1964, is a building of stunning beauty.


This was out in a fairly suburban part of Tokyo but if you have any interest in architecture, I would say it was well worth the trip. As we walked back to the subway station, we saw an interesting road sign.


It’s a reminder of the everyday threat under which Tokyo goes about its normal business.

Although thwarted by the Teien Museum, we had another art based building on our list, The National Art Center Tokyo (note for pedants: that’s how they spell centre, so I’m respecting that).  This is a more recent building, opened in 2007. They don’t have a permanent collection and instead display rolling temporary exhibitions. Currently there is a Japanese calligraphy exhibition underway which seemed very popular but the finer points escape us. The internal spaces in the building are spectacular.

img_1364It was an easy walk back to our flat from here and, as we strolled and chatted, it suddenly struck us why Tokyo taxis look so odd.

dsc_0124 3It’s a long time since UK cars were built with wing mirrors on the actual wings of the car. We didn’t figure this out for ages but once you notice, it really does look odd.

We went out for a quiet dinner this evening. There are some things that don’t make sense to do when there are only two of you. On the other hand, if those things are bucket list items, you need to go ahead and do them anyway. So it was that, after our quiet dinner, I dragged Ishbel into Karaoke Kan as there was no way I was leaving Tokyo without having sung karaoke. I managed to book us a room for 2 through a combination of the receptionist’s broken English and my non-existent Japanese. I wanted to book an hour but Ishbel decided that was far too long and we only booked a half hour. We emerged 90 minutes later having run through what might best be described as an eclectic selection. I put my heart and soul into songs famous and obscure by The Clash, Jimmy Cliff, Grandaster Flash and Melle Mel, Eddie Cochran and the Dead Kennedys. Ishbel did the same with Dusty Springfield, Kirsty MacColl, Stealers Wheel and Judy Garland. We both decided to try a bit of Johnny Cash – a surprisingly successful (to our jaded ears) duet on Folsom Prison Blues.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we repeated the experience before we leave Japan.

Turning up and turning down, I’m turning in I’m turning round…

Our first full day in Tokyo and I couldn’t resist stealing the title of today’s post from The Vapors’ 1980 pop-punk classic, Turning Japanese. A cliche, but I like it.

We were awake fairly early and quickly realised that the industrial chic decor of our AirBnB doesn’t do a lot for keeping in the heat or keeping out the cold. We switched on the heater and waited for the room to heat up a little before starting our day. The intention for today was to see some of the guidebook sites for the city, so we decided to head over to the Meiji Shrine. The Emperor Meiji, a near contemporary of Queen Victoria, was the 122nd emperor of Japan ruling from 1867 until 1912. It was he who liberalised Japan to a great extent, laying the foundations for it to become the industrialized power that it is today.


He, together with his wife the Empress Shoken, is still greatly revered by the Japanese people and the shrine was built through public donations and was officially finished in 1926. It’s a Shinto shrine; a religion about which I haven’t previously had much knowledge but is not based on a deity. Or, it’s based on the belief that deities are everywhere. I’m still not sure which.

We had a pleasant wander around the grounds here, and were interested to discover that there was an exhibition of schools’ calligraphy as part of a competition. img_3121

We also discovered that, during his reign, the Emperor Meiji not only started eating western food but, on occasion, would enjoy a glass of wine with it.

dsc_0066That’s why there were several barrels of burgundy donated as part of the consecration ritual for the shrine.

From here we decided we would go to the Tokyo Tower to get a good view of the whole of Tokyo. It was a cold, crisp, sunny day so hopefully a good time to enjoy the view from the top. To get there, we once again took the subway. On the way to the shrine, we had acquired Pasmo cards – the equivalent of London’s Oyster cards (or Hong Kong’s Octopus). It is really very convenient and you can speed your way through the subway system. I believe it was not always the case in the past, but the system is now very easy to negotiate as there is plentiful bi-lingual signage and most announcements are made in English as well as Japanese. Having the stations on each line sequentially numbered is also very helpful.

So we arrived at the Tokyo Tower, and faced the decision of whether to buy a ticket to go just up to the Main Deck, or all the way to the Top Deck. The tower is a little higher than the Eiffel Tower which it closely resembles, but the Top Deck is at 250m, some 25m below the highest observation deck on the Parisian structure. If you recall, I mentioned Ishbel’s unhappiness with heights when we were on the cable car at the Wynn Palace in Macau. She was a little reluctant to go to the Top Deck, but she agreed to try it after a little gentle persuasion. I still have fingernail marks in my hand where she was holding it as we took the glass lift up to the last level. Nevertheless, she got used to it and the views were definitely worth the ascent.

dsc_0080After getting back down to ground level, we took a little stroll around the area. There’s an interesting phenomenon here around how restaurants attract passing trade. Some of them have menus with pictures on them which allow non-Japanese speakers like ourselves to simply point and smile to get what we want. Others go one better.

img_3146They display what I sincerely hope are artificial reproductions of the food available inside. This isn’t something I’ve ever encountered before and I really like it.

We didn’t have dinner in this place, despite its tempting window display. We ate instead at a place called Kushimura, a Yakitori restaurant in Roppongi, a 15 minute walk from our flat. The food is skewered and cooked over charcoal right in front of you and it is truly delicious. We enjoyed about a half dozen skewers each, which was plenty. I don’t mean to tell tales but the guy next to us had about 20 all on his own. I guess it all depends how hungry you are when you get there.

And so ended our day as we walked back to the flat in freezing temperatures. Japan is really our only true winter stop on the entire journey. As such, we compromised somewhat in our packing and don’t have any winter clothes with us. And it is cold here. We’re throwing on multiple layers to try to cope with it and so far, so just about bearable.

Hong Kong to Tokyo – First impressions of Japan

An easy start to the day today as we re-packed the small amount of gear we had taken out of the suitcases and took a leisurely stroll from the hotel on to the departures level at the airport. Check in was painless as we checked the bags and walked the guitar case over to the outsize baggage counter.


They were kind enough to put on a “Fragile” label, but the green spangly case is starting to pick up a bit of character from the journey.

I’m sorry to keep comparing BA unfavourably to Cathay Pacific but, once again, the service was perfect. We even received a text while sitting in the lounge informing us that the flight would be delayed by 15 minutes. BA doesn’t even regard 15 minutes as a delay.

Anyway, we were loaded and away not too long after the scheduled departure time for the quick 4 hour hop to Tokyo. That gave me enough time to watch Deadpool 2 on the huge screen that is so much better than BA. Sorry, but it is.

img_3114Landing in Tokyo, we were quickly through immigration and the bags were waiting for us when we got to baggage reclaim. Then we were straight out through customs and facing, once again, a land where we don’t speak a word of the language or read a letter of the alphabet. Not quite true. We now recognise one character, which is the same in both Chinese and Japanese: 人 means people. OK, not all that helpful, but it’s a start. 

We knew that our target was Akasaka station, on the Chiyoda line of the Tokyo underground system. The nice lady at the airport ticket office sold us a ticket for the Skyliner express train, which would take us to Ueno where we would change to a train to Nishi-nippori, where we would change on to the Chiyoda line to Akasaka. Easy peasy, Japanese-y.

And then a strange thing happened. As we struggled on to the Skyliner and tried to stow all our bags in the limited available space, we were helped by a young man with a Scottish accent. It turns out he’s been living in Japan for the last two years working in robotics. Also, he’s a Glasgow University graduate, and studied Computing Science, just like I tried to do back in 1977. We had a lovely chat with him on the ride in and he gave us his business card so we could contact him if we needed help while we were in town, which was really nice of him.

We completed the rest of the journey safely, although I was constantly confused by escalator etiquette here (stand on the left, walk on the right) which is the opposite of the London Underground. I think we just managed to avoid the start of the real rush hour as we emerged from Akasaka station and took possession of our AirBnB. It’s a charming little place that the landlord has set up to look like a post-industrial loft. All bare wood, exposed brick and concrete.

dsc_0002dsc_0004We then had the interesting task of figuring out how to flush the toilet. I had been warned about this in advance by a colleague who had recently visited Japan but any pearls of wisdom he provided had since deserted me.


A combination of Google and trial and error got us there in the end.

Having settled in to the apartment, we decided to stretch our legs and get in a couple of necessities. Tea bags and milk, primarily. It turns out that we find ourselves in quite a lively part of Tokyo. Bearing in mind that this was about 8pm on a Monday evening, there was a remarkable number of significantly pissed-up salarymen roving the streets in large groups. Dark suits and dark overcoats are still the standard uniform – it doesn’t look like the permanent dress-down or business casual approach has yet been embraced over here.

The other surprising phenomenon was the cycling culture. We have always assumed, perhaps in an ill-informed and stereotypical kind of way, that the Japanese respected order and rules are expected to be obeyed. There is a significant number of cyclists who don’t play that way. A lot of them are cycling on pavements at speeds that don’t seem safe for them or us.

Anyway, we found a little supermarket where we acquired the requisites for a cup of tea, and also food for breakfast the next day. That will be the first meal we’ve prepared for ourselves since the 16th of December in Johannesburg. It’s a tough life.

Back to Hong Kong for a night

Our flight to Tokyo leaves at 10:15 am on Monday so we decided to save ourselves some hassle by getting back to Hong Kong on the Sunday and booking in to an airport hotel. The best combination of rate and convenience was the Regal Airport Hotel, which is joined to Terminal 1 by a footbridge so would make for an easy journey on Monday morning. I booked it for around £130 – above our self-imposed nightly allowance of £100 but saving on early morning taxi transfer costs.

So it was that we said goodbye to Macau. We’re documenting the travels of Ishbel’s spangly guitar case for the nice people at Chapman Cases by getting a photo of it in every location. Usually it’s on its own but this time Ishbel was stuck with holding on to it while I took the picture. I love her rock star vibe in this.

img_3108 We were waiting at the hotel for the complimentary bus service to the ferry terminal to catch our transfer to Hong Kong. It duly arrived and we bought our tickets and checked the two suitcases and the guitar case. The mandolin and the camera case always travel as hand luggage no matter where we go.

The day was much clearer than Saturday so Ishbel was finally able to get a nice clear shot of the bridge between Macau and Cotai.


We took the ferry to Hong Kong Island rather than Kowloon because it was a much shorter walk with all our luggage to get to the nearest MTR station. It meant we had to make one change on our route, at Central, but there was a trolley available there which was very helpful. Especially as Ishbel had just accused me of getting grumpy as we hefted our luggage along seemingly eternal corridors. And it was true. I sensed myself getting – grumpy seems a little mild – psychotic?

All was well once the trolley was snared and we took the airport express train, having first topped up our Octopus cards with exactly the right amount needed for the fare. We arrived at the Regal hotel and recognised that it was enormous. And there was an enormous queue for check-in too. It’s obviously the place where airlines put passengers when they’ve had to cancel their flight until the next day. And it really is very handy for the airport, as you can see tell from our view.

dsc_0030 We’d had enough of the hurly burly for the time being so we just had a burger and beer in one of the hotel restaurants then had an early night in anticipation of the next leg of the trip. Tokyo tomorrow.


The pretender to Vegas’ gambling crown

After our Friday exploration of Macau’s rich pre- and post-colonial history, we decided we should take a look at the activity for which this place is most famous: gambling. We’ve been staying at the Hotel Lisboa which is in the heart of Macau’s oldest inhabited area but there’s more to the former Portuguese colony than just the peninsula.

macau mapAcross the water, there’s the old settlement of Taipa and the area where there appears to be a concerted attempt to reconstruct the Las Vegas Strip: Cotai. We think of ourselves now as experienced Vegas visitors so we decided to head over there and see what all the fuss was about. There are a number of free shuttle buses that run between casinos in the same family group, so we walked over to Wynn (which is built to look exactly the same as its Vegas namesake) and hopped on the bus to Wynn Palace in Cotai.


Ishbel’s hopes of spectacular shots of the Pearl River Delta from the bridge as we crossed were thwarted by a lingering humid haze. Arriving at the Wynn Palace, we spotted a cable car ride that went out over their (Bellagio-like) fountain show, so we took that to escape. To be fair, I rushed Ishbel on to it before she had time to think. Only when we were on the ride was she able to demonstrate her famously happy-go-lucky attitude to heights.


We walked from there to the Venetian which was remarkably similar to the Venetian in Vegas, neither of which bear much resemblance to Venice. Not nearly enough of a smell.

Old school Vegas visitors will tell you that the Strip isn’t real Vegas and that it lacks the life and vibrancy of old Vegas. Having now visited Cotai, I would say that they’ve managed to replicate the Strip but have sucked even more soul out of the experience.

img_1301As we walked from the Venetian to the Parisian, Ishbel and I engaged in a lively debate about whether the Macau Eiffel Tower was bigger than the Vegas Eiffel Tower. It turns out they’re both roughly half the size of some kind of homage tower in Paris.

By this time, we’d had enough of dealing with these second or third generation pale imitations of what were in any case poor copies. We headed for the free shuttle bus from the Parisian back to the Sands. On arrival back in Macau peninsula, and since we were in the area anyway, we once again joined the queue for the custard tarts at Margaret’s Cafe e Nata.

img_1305Close inspection of this photo will reveal two things: one is my (relatively) towering presence at the back of the ridiculously long line; the other is the astoundingly cavalier attitude of Macau residents to electrical wiring, and cable management generally. So much so that it merited a close-up.


In the evening we picked up our laundry, which we had dropped off on our first day here, and had a relatively sedate meal in one of the small hotel restaurants. We have necessarily become much more adept in our use of chopsticks on this journey than at any other time during our lives. It’s amazing what a little practise can do.

We leave from Hong Kong for Tokyo on Monday and had decided that we would stay near the airport on Sunday evening. We had hoped to be able to take the new bridge from Macau to HK, but there’s no way of doing that without transiting through China. We’ve already used up our single-entry China visa, so the bridge is a non-starter for us. We’ll be taking the ferry to Hong Kong tomorrow before our Japanese adventure starts on Monday.

Mandarins and Temples

We haven’t done much advance planning for our stay in Macau. We had been hoping that there may have been a poker tournament taking place that we could have entered but there’s an odd dynamic around poker in Macau, as compared to Las Vegas. The authorities impose a table cap on casinos which limits the number of gaming tables that each establishment can have operating at any one time. An open poker table counts against that cap, so casinos would prefer to have a real gaming table running than having to allocate ten or twenty tables to support a poker tournament where all they’re going to receive is the one-time rake against the entry fee (usually 10% – 15%). It also means they have no incentive to offer low limit cash games in poker, since they will rake more from each pot in higher stakes games. All this adds up to there being no poker for us here, so we started looking for alternative entertainment.

The Macau Tourism website was helpful in this respect and we picked a couple of their recommended sights to visit. First stop was the Mandarin’s House. This is a typical mid-19th century Chinese residential compound  that once belonged to a gentleman named Zheng Guanying, who was an influential writer on economics and political affairs.

The house is really interesting with a number of design elements that would eventually come to be featured in 20th century Western architecture as well as more traditional aspects such as a central atrium with a pool to catch rainwater to help cool the building.

dsc_0124 2dsc_0144There were many decorative features both internally and externally. Friezes were obviously a major theme of architecture during the building’s heyday, and we liked the way the clay drainage pipes were cast to look like bamboo.


img_3993We spent quite a while wandering around the maze of rooms within the compound, and would definitely recommend a visit here if you find yourself in this part of the world.

Afterwards, we walked on to Barra Square (nothing to do with the Scottish island in the Outer Hebrides) to visit A-Ma temple, the oldest part of which dates back  to 1488, just 4 years before Columbus set off for the New World.  This appears to be very much a working temple as the complex was filled with supplicants praying and, presumably, making requests of the relevant deity. The incense smoke was fairly thick at the bottom of the stairs.

img_3092And it just got thicker the higher you walked and, presumably, the bigger the requests in the prayers became. The lampshade-like objects are all incense sticks.

And there must be a pretty big request associated with the telegraph pole sized joss sticks at the top of the hill. By this point, our eyes were starting to water and the air was catching in our throats with the overpowering incense smell so we descended and left the temple.

We walked back to the hotel but not quite directly. We decided that we would brave the queue at Margaret’s Cafe e Nata to pick up a custard tart as a little treat. The queue was long but it moved quite quickly and we acquired four of these tasty morsels for the equivalent of £1 each. And they were delicious.

That staved off our hunger for a while so we spent a couple of hours playing our instruments before heading out for dinner. We ate at a place called Ali’s Curry House. If it had been in the UK, the name would have put me off but it was actually very good food and they sold local Macau beer which was very tasty.

Despite the disappointment around the poker, we had a splendid day in Macau.