Back in Tokyo and suddenly I’m gigging

We were awake early on Wednesday morning to finish packing for the train from Hiroshima to Tokyo.  We were booked on the 9:54 which required a change at Shin-Kobe. There are direct trains between the two cities, but they are all Nozomi superfast express trains which aren’t covered by the JR Pass we’ve been using for all our train travel. There were 11 minutes for us to make the connection which, given the punctuality of the trains, was plenty of time. It was particularly straightforward since we arrived at and departed from the same platform at Shin-Kobe.

We arrived in Tokyo mid-afternoon. I had booked us for the night into the Mitsui Garden Hotel Kyobashi which was a 5 minute walk from the station, or would have been if Google Maps hadn’t provided odd instructions for getting there. We eventually arrived and checked in to another compact hotel room.

Having been cooped up on the train for a lot of the day so far, we headed out for a walk and to build up an appetite for dinner. Also, I had been trying to find some Bluegrass music in Tokyo and had googled a bar called Rocky Top which was reasonably close to our hotel. We knew the music wouldn’t be starting until later in the evening but rather than wandering aimlessly, we decided to walk down to where Google Maps told us it was located to scope it out.

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The walk took us through Ginza, an area which features all of the high-end shopping establishments you could ever hope to encounter, if that’s your thing. We walked to the place where Rocky Top should have been but couldn’t find it. We are so used to bars and restaurants having street front entrances in the UK, we keep forgetting that Tokyo establishments can be located on the upper floors of buildings. Having missed it on the way down the street, we spotted the sign on our second sweep of the area. To be fair to us, night had fallen by this time and the bar sign wasn’t yet illuminated as the place hadn’t yet opened. We went up to the third floor to have a look at it anyway and the sign outside confirmed that there would be a bluegrass band playing that night.

We still had a couple of hours to kill before they started so we walked back up to the station. On our way in on the Shinkansen, we’d caught a glimpse of the frontage of the old part of the station on its western side. We had come out of the modern, east side and hadn’t seen it when we arrived so we decided to go and take a look.

IMG_3509.JPGWe then looked for somewhere for dinner and discovered a Japanese foodstuff that we hadn’t previously encountered on our travels: Omurice. It’s rice, inside an omelette. Tasty.

After dinner, it was time to go and get our bluegrass fix so back to Rocky Top we headed. We were relieved to see that the external sign was now illuminated, so up we went and in through the door. The room holds maybe 30 to 40 seats with a stage at one end and a bar at the other. We were seated just inside the door and asked whether we had been there before, which we hadn’t, and were warned that there was a cover charge for the music, which we knew about. We ordered a couple of Asahi draft beers and took in our surroundings. We were the only westerners in the room and, by the time the band started, there were around 15 others there to enjoy the music, all Japanese.

I had heard that bluegrass had a substantial following in Japan and it has been mentioned a  few times in the book I’m currently reading, a chronicle of the life of Bill Monroe, the acknowledged father of bluegrass. There is also a famous Japanese mandolin luthier, Eiichi Sumi, who first came to prominence for building some of the top end models of Kentucky mandolins when they were being built in Japan. Kentucky later moved production to China and Sumi built mandolins under his own name.

I digress. The band started playing, and they were excellent. Very tight with some quite formidable four part harmonies, particularly noticeable on their version of Fox on the Run, the Manfred Mann song that The Country Gentlemen later covered and converted to a bluegrass classic.

img_3512At the end of their first set, the young bass player, Shinnosuke, came over for a chat with us. We discovered he was the son of the banjo player and he also played with some of his contemporaries in a rock band but enjoyed bluegrass very much. He told us that, for the second set, the band usually invites guest vocalists and instrumentalists on to stage with them and tried to encourage one or both of us to participate. We were obviously reluctant to do so since the quality of what we heard in the first half was way beyond what we could achieve.

img_1585But of course, I did it anyway. I sang Gotta Travel On and received thunderous applause, which only goes to show how polite Japanese people are.

There was quite a bit of talent scattered around the audience and it was clear from the song choices that the people there knew a lot about bluegrass music. The third set was back to the band performing again. Their name had been written in Japanese outside the bar but Shinnosuke told us they were called River of Time – an excellent bluegrass band name.

If you find yourself in Japan and want to hear bluegrass, make sure you get along to Rocky Top.

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.