Nick Brown

Joined May 2016
  • Day7

    Kamakura-eleon ; We Come and Go

    May 17 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 22 °C

    Today we said goodbye to the shit-hole that was and, barring immediate refurbishment subsequent to our departure, is the Tokyo House Inn.

    This isn't quite the damning dismissal it might appear to be. Shit-holes, most particularly the plumbed-in variety, are an utterly essential facility in homes and business establishments, with their absence considered a puzzling quirk at best and, at worst, a flagrant breach of The Workplace (Health, Safety, and Welfare) Regulations 1992.They serve a purpose and are indisposable in the field of bodily waste disposal.

    Similarly, the Tokyo House Inn served a purpose. It's just a shame that purpose didn't encompass the provision of rudimentary rest-house services.

    Whilst I genuinely appreciated the attempt at providing a power-socket terminal for each bed, on mine the USB ports were broken. Worse, on the beds where they were functional, their operation entailed the permanent illumination of a blue LED which is the absolute worst light output possible for science/heath reasons I don't understand but will proclaim as irrefutable fact regardless. As a simple annoyance, however, this persistent twinkle was completely overshadowed by the absence of shadow being cast by our dorm-room door. A simple frame encasing a large, frosted-glass panel, its translucence became prominently problematic at night time as it permitted the passage of light from the hallway outside, which we were able to switch off but that would be shortly afterward switched back on again by another Inn guest as our hallway was a key thoroughfare between bunks and bathroom. Oh, and breakfast was a complete joke; the punchline being that it took about twenty minutes to mildly singe a slice of bread in a table-top toaster oven of which there were precisely two for a hostel holding upwards of fifty people, eighteen-or-so of whom would be breakfasting at around the same time every day.

    I’m informed that the female and couple dorms (in the building next-door) were better, but even if true this would be sexist/couple-ist so would still count against them. Overall, I’d give the Tokyo House Inn two-out-of-five stars ; one for location (one minute walk from a Family-Mart, mitigating the breakfast situation) and one because one-star reviews are generally discarded out of hand as being whiny and reactive and I’d hate for my considered, structured views to be pigeon-holed as such. Also any place calling itself an ‘Inn’ should serve beer and they didn’t. One-and-a-half stars.

    Before departing we all posed for a picture outside, genuinely chuffed to have the place literally behind us. Somewhat notably, this was the first time we’d all convened with our baggage ready to start actually ‘travelling’ together. I was surprised to see some people had brought suitcases instead of rucksacks, but also at how compact some peoples’ luggage was compared to my own. Still, I don’t workout multiple times a week to not bring as heavy a bag as my airline would permit. Additionally, I’d resolved to bring sufficient clothing to wear something different nearly every day without having to do laundry; a decision that (spoilers!), once I witnessed the consequent distress and trauma of those who eventually did undertake to do laundry when the opportunity arose, I felt entirely reassured by.

    I don’t much recall the specifics of the journey we took (broadly, following Yukko through and on several excellent, on-time and well-maintained public transit vehicles), but we eventually ended up in Kamakura; a coastal town south of Tokyo where we’d be spending the day and night. Today’s hostel, the ‘Webase Hostel’, was a short walk from the station and was every bit the cheese to the Tokyo House Inn’s chalk, with extensive on-site amenities, fully operational facilities and sleeping quarters encased in opacity. We couldn’t check-in immediately so we dropped our bags in a holding room and we headed out for lunch.

    A short walk down the coast-line we found a couple of small restaurants, with the majority of us opting for the Thai café. The size of our group clearly overwhelmed the kitchen and some peoples’ orders took quite a while to materialise, I noted smugly whilst devouring my speedily-delivered bowl of red curry & rice.

    Once everybody had eaten we wandered further down the coast then ventured in-land through the quant streets of this tourist-town, spying and sampling some of the various shopping establishments. In one shop, Ruth discovered the existence of and developed a quick passion for Japanese puzzle-boxes ; delicately-crafted wooden constructs with convoluted methods for opening and priced by size and complexity. Whilst none available here piqued her interest sufficiently to prompt a purchase, Ruth’s mission to find a suitable souvenir puzzle-box is a worthy enough B-story to warrant mention and follow-up. To be continued…

    We soon-after arrived at our first itinerary-stop of the day; the ‘Daibutsu’ at the Kotoku-In Temple. ‘Daibutsu’ is an informally-used Japanese term for giant Buddha statues, with this usage proven formally accurate in this case. The bronze-cast statue, dating back to the thirteenth century, was indeed large; the second-largest in Japan I was told but most definitely the largest we’d be witnessing on thistrip. It possessed this effect whereby it seemed to grow larger the closer you got to it, which is an ancient Japanese principle known as ‘perspective’. We were able to go inside it, but there wasn’t much there. Aside from excellent acoustics, which enabled me to win the hastily-devised ‘evil laugh’ competition (in doing-so likely offending many of those visiting with religious alignment to the subject matter).

    It was at this point in the day that it was highlighted to me that it looked like I was burning. Whilst I had applied sunscreen earlier in the day, we had both been on the go for longer than the specified protection period stated on the bottle and, as had also been pointed out to me, the sunscreen I was using appeared to have a greater marketing emphasis on its skin-moisturisation properties than UV-resistance, with its apparent effects reflecting these priorities. I’d also not brought any sunscreen with me this day since, as aforementioned in an earlier blog, my travel bag had either the capacity for sunscreen, a water-bottle or an umbrella but no combination of the three. Veronika kindly let me borrow (on a no-returns basis) some of her actually-protective German-branded cream ; kindness I reciprocated by misjudging my grip on the bottle and inadvertently squirting a decent dollop of it over her bag.

    Zeniarai Benzaiten Ugafuku Shrine was the next stop listed on the itinerary, which was helpful as there’s no way I’d have been able to transcribe its name from mere audible reference. This entailed a brief, albeit challenging for some, wander through the nearby woodland wherein the less mature amongst us entertained themselves by climbing trees whilst the more mature remarked on the immaturity of this undertaking. The 800 year-old shrine itself was deep in the wooded hills, surrounded by rock walls and could only be reached on-foot via a carved-out tunnel. Upon arrival we were informed of the tradition of entering a cave beside the shrine and washing our money (both coins and notes) in the spring waters with legend stating this would cause the money to multiply. As I’ve been seeking a credit extension for a while now, I gave my Mastercard a quick rinse whilst I was at it.

    Up some steps near the main shrine was a smaller, secondary shrine adorned with a symbol that I instantly recognised as the ‘triforce’ logo from the Legend of Zelda video games. Despite this slightly marring my perception of Nintendo’s creativity, it was pretty cool to see this adorning such a place in such a country and its usage in this context went some way to distilling the aesthetic inspirations for much of Breath of the Wild ; an observation I’d have shared if I’d felt anybody around me would have appreciated it (possibly-Martin, with whom I’d previously discussed the game series with and probably-Christina, his partner/girlfriend/wife, weren’t with us today).

    Before departing the shrine I bought an ice-cream, which was interestingly churned from vending apparatus that required the insertion of flavoured capsules not dissimilar to a Nespresso machine. The resultant product was fairly good, though less interesting than the manner in which it was made insomuch as I distinctly recall and jotted down notes as regards the process but can’t remember what flavour I had. It might have been matcha flavoured, since around 80% of confectionary items in this country appear to be and all of them are distinctly and equally unmemorable.

    We wandered back toward civilisation and to a supermarket, where we were advised there were no evening dinner plans nor much close by to where we werestaying, so to buy some food for dinner and breakfast the next day. The supermarket was pretty upmarket, with concession-style food distributors offering fancily-packed prepared foodstuffs with various samples available to help inform purchases. Mind, I’ve no basis for comparison so this could quite easily have been a downmarket Lidl/Aldi equivalent and a theoretical Waitrose-level grocery-shopping experience exists to be discovered. From my perspective, however, this was at minimum Sainsburys-standard, with Tesco overtures and Asda influences coupled with Co-op conveniences, M&S Food Hall-style amenities and a bit of Booths to balance. Morrisons is also a supermarket.

    I purchased a variety of baked goods, requiring no further preparation or cooking to become edible (my favourite foodstuffs), for both my evening meal and breakfast as well as a bonus, crème-patisserie laden tart for immediate consumption. As the day’s hours waned, we then hurriedly returned to the hostel so as to have daylight time for a promised outing to the nearby beach.

    Beaches, as a general concept, are hardly high on my holiday highlight list. I feel this is likely due to the natural connotation between ‘beaches’ and ‘beach-holidays’, the latter of which I find monstrously dull. Any excess of time spent lounging on a beach is time that might be spent seeing or experiencing something of deeper aesthetic or cultural value than a narrow mass of sand or rocks beside a lapping expanse of water. However, on this occasion, as the afternoon waned and the assurance that this would be the only opportunity during our trip to visit a beach was voiced (a lie, but whatever), the prospect evolved from lazy diversion to that of time-limited challenge. Hurriedly checking-in to the hostel I rushed to my elevated bad-compartment within our group’s sleeping-quarters, quickly changed into appropriate gear, grabbed my microfibre towel, slipped on my slip-on Birkenstocks and wandered the two-minute walk to the seafront.

    Upon arrival at the beach I immediately left the beach, proceeding straight into the water-feature without which the beach would not be a beach but that technically isn’t a part of the beach itself. The sun had receded behind the clouds and the wind was picking-up, rendering the standard crotch-level checkpoint a point of no return; the maintenance of comfortable body-temperature only achievable by continuing to the shoulder-submersion depths.

    After some brief wave-jumping with various members of the group, Veronika splashed into the ocean to join the fun. The two of us somehow ended up a fair distance down the coast from the rest of the group, possibly a result of currents or potentially a reactionary defence mechanism instigated by my ego to ensure I was outside of direct-comparison range of the buff muscularity that Craig had got goin' on. I’m pretty comfortable in both my skin and with the developed fibrous tissues beneath stretching and forming said skin, but even a top-tier BMW doesn’t want to share a showroom with a Bentley. I’d already made a mental note (because of course I had) of Veronika’s stated affinity for the ‘good-looking men’ of the Marvel movies, and I doubt she was referring to Happy Hogan. Personally, even I wouldn’t kick Chris Pratt out of bed; though almost entirely out of fear of him kicking back.

    I continue to enjoy Veronika’s company, both within our established sub-group and during occasional, fleeting one-on-one moments such as this. I was also quite taken with her choice of swimwear, which I might elaborate on were I not an anointed gentleman of the British realm. That said, I still can’t be sure whether she and Flo are an item. They don’t outwardly express affection in excess of ‘friendly’, but then perhaps that’s par-for-the-course for German couples. I don’t know; I do care, but I can’t figure out a way to enquire that wouldn’t overtly outlay some ulterior aspiration. Speaking of Flo, he had neglected to bring any swimwear with him so had remained on the beach, but soon grew envious of the jollity on display so ventured into the sea in his underwear; a brave fashion choice that placed him in the highest echelons of body-confidence.

    After the beach, a bunch of us went once again for a group-soak in the hostel’s bath-house. As before, this entailed sex-segregation and obligatory full nudity, guaranteeing the inevitable movie adaptation of this blog will need significant edits to achieve a family-friendly classification rating. But this wasn’t a problem; any mild reticence from our first-time alleviated by a sense of habituality. With this repeated mention and undeniable thematic recurrence of male form and body-image you’d think I’d have something profound to say about the modern-day societal pressures imposed on men, the prevalence of gender-norm expectations and the inescapable, harmful impact toxic masculinity has on the world at large. But I don’t.

    In the evening hours we all congregated in the hostel’s common area, cooked (or simply ate) our pre-purchased food and just generally co-existed together with the generic socialising and conversation so frequently associated with such gatherings. As most people peeled off to bed, a group of us remained up until the late/early hours, with the main conversation topic seemingly being the attempted explanation of British humour to the Germans, by way of listing and detailing the premises of popular comedy shows from the last fifty-or-so-years.

    There was concurrence on the amusement value of Monty Python, though upon mention of the ‘Fliegender Zirkus’ special shows the troupe had produced specifically for the German audience I was surprised to find that they preferred the German-dubbed, original English production. I’m told that the Lumberjack song in particular is far more amusing in the German translation as opposed to the Michael Palin reciting-phonetically-transcribed-German version. Despite the Python link, they hadn’t heard of Fawlty Towers so we attempted in earnest to convey both Torquay and the particular hilarity of the ‘Germans’ episode, though I don’t think we sufficiently sold it. Whilst, somewhat ironically, this description of describing classic comedy is rather flat, as a topic on which I feel fairly schooled I found this evening to be a tremendously enjoyable cultural exchange. Although I stopped short of mentioning ‘Allo Allo’, which is questionable in terms of its portrayal of Germans but, more importantly, really isn’t very funny or well written and as such any endorsement by myself would tarnish my established taste in terms of all things comedic.

    I mean, I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it…
     
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  • Day6

    Tokyo 4DX

    May 16 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 21 °C

    On our final full day in Tokyo I rose extra-early to attend the pre-paid, optional activity entitled 'Sumo Experience'. This apparently hadn't been a popular choice as only myself and one of the couples, (I want to say Christina and Martin?) had signed up for it.

    I'd intended to purchase breakfast the previous night before going to bed but, as I've often held as irrefutable fact, its impossible for a person to know what they're going to want for breakfast until the time comes. This is why I have five different breakfast cereals on-the-go at any one time and still more often than not choose to grab something out and about where there's range and choice. For too long Overlord Kellogg has controlled and constrained our fundamental breakfast freedoms ; Rise up! Revolt! Or buy variety packs.

    I wandered down to the ever-open Family Mart and picked up a chocolate croissant and a large coffee. Contrary to expectation, instead of sugary cream the croissant actually had a strip of solidified chocolate running through its centre, making it taste more like a mis-shaped pain au chocolat than a standard filled croissant. I preferred this to such a degree that it was worthy of mention in this blog, which is an inarguably high bar. I noticed I was inadvertently wearing two socks from different pairs, so went back to my room to correct the situation before we headed out.

    Yukko led and directed us via the train network to the Sumida City ward of Tokyo then abandoned us to get back to the hostel in time for the rest of the group to wake-up. Martin, if his name was Martin, and I bonded briefly by discussing our shared affinity for the Zelda series whilst Christina, if her name was Christina (or even, thinking about it, if it wasn't), endeared herself to me by permitting this conversation to proceed. I feel somewhat bad I'm not 100% on their names, but whilst they were technically in our group they opted to spend much of their time following their own itinerary, so our subsequent interaction was minimal. They seemed nice, if demonstrably forgettable, and I deeply hope I made a similar impression.

    We were soon collected by the Sumo Experience organiser, who led us through some of the nearby backstreets to a 'sumo stable'. These are places where sumo wrestlers train and, most of them anyway, live. Apparently, as we were told via brief lecture/Q&A prior to entering, only around 10% of sumo wrestlers are sufficiently successful to be actually paid for what they do, with the rest receiving only room and board as recompense until they can reach the lofty salaried echelons. Sumos wearing black-belts are the unpaid, 'junior' types whilst those in white-belts receive payment and the privilege of being permitted to live elsewhere should they so choose. Every morning they train for five hours before eating lunch for a full two-hours. I was content we were here to witness a portion of the former as the latter, and the requisite 'portions' it must entail, I expect might have turned my stomach.

    After taking off our shoes at the door, a mildly annoying custom prevalent across Japan that must really extend the product life-cycle of flooring and consequently frustrate interior fittings retailers seeking to maximise recurrent consumer spend, we were funnelled into what I'll call the 'training room'; a rectangular space with wood-paneled walls and a dirt-floor furnished with some benches/cushions on the near side for us to sit on.

    The sumos wrestlers were already training and didn't skip a beat as our prying eyes entered. There were around ten of them in the room, sharing around forty chins between them, and we had an excellent, unobstructed view of their morning training regimen. We were close enough to smell the sweat, so I opted to breath through my mouth. On the ground beneath the dirt were two white lines and sketched into it was a circle surrounding them, representing the starting points and arena boundary for their practice bouts. Only two fought at a time, with the others observing, stretching and quietly chatting amongst themselves, occasionally punctuating whatever their point was with a friendly slap of each others' ample body fat.

    After observing numerous bouts, dramatic rolls and lunges (putting on my best fighting game announcer voice) "a new challenger entered the arena". Though not really a 'challenger' per se, as this guy wore a white belt and so was likely rolling in a little late from wherever he lived independently. As the largest and sweatiest (before he'd even begun) of the bunch, perhaps rolling in would in fact be a preferred locomotive option for him, so as to mitigate what must be massive strain on his disproportionately stubby legs and fat-rippled back.

    At one end of the room sat a man in a portable chair reading a newspaper. Less overweight than the Sumos, and far less sweaty, it transpired that this guy was the sumo trainer and so present to guide, instruct, develop his squad and clearly, given his reading material, catch-up on current events and possibly have a crack at the daily crossword. Do crosswords work in Japanese? Given their logographic approach to written language I'd imagine they'd be fairly complex to both design and complete. Especially if they go with cryptic clues.

    Cryptic crosswords are dumb. I'm not ; I've got certificates to prove it, but I cannot comprehend how anybody derives enjoyment from 'solving' a cryptic clue. Relying upon reading then essentially 'un-reading' a clue to distort it's meaning and arrangement to identify and extract the 'deviously' concealed anagrams, homonyms, homophones, homographs and then filtering the remaining lexical wreckage through a strainer of common phrases, idioms and quotations to return a result that, even if quite logically obtained and fitting the designated space, has a strong likelihood of being 'wrong'. Getting good isn't fun and the learned skill has nil transferable value. Trial and error isn't challenge, it's grind, with the exercise ultimately devolving into 'what was the crossword-setter thinking?' ; a telepathic feat you'll need to consistently replicate twenty-or-so times to evade mistake. And let's not forget that mistakes on a crossword require either a firm rubbing-out if you had the foresight to use pencil or the application of liquid paper should you have had the foolhardy confidence to attempt with pen. Crosswords suck and I sincerely hope the Japanese aren't subjected to them.

    After leaving the Sumo stable we went to meet up with the rest of the group at the Edo Tokyo museum down the street. The building in which the museum is housed is fairly impressive ; elevated above a congregation space and accessed via escalators. Primarily concerned with the history of Tokyo through the Edo period, a circa-250 year period of peace, development and shogunate administration, perusing the exhibitions felt like the most educational and sincerely tourist-y thing we'd done so far. I learnt that 'Tokyo' and 'Kyoto' are essentially the same word, only rearranged. How cryptic...

    To satisfy the curiosity of my tour group I at one point climbed into a reproduction 'litter' ; one of those vehicular capsules that would be carried by underlings to transport persons of royalty or other high social standing. The enquiry was whether I, as the tallest of the group, would be able to fit. I did. Anticlimactic I agree, but I don't seem to have many pictures from this day so will likely include this one and therefore needed to define the context.

    Once we'd had our fill of history, Yukko lead us through the nearby streets to a restaurant where we'd be indulging in a meal not dissimilar to, aside from portion size, what Sumo wrestlers eat called Chanko Nabe. Essentially a 'hot pot' containing meat and veg, again being cooked (or at least kept warm) via cooking apparatus fixed into the table, it was reasonably tasty without being mind-blowing. There were no seats with the intention being that we sit cross-legged on the floor, something that I, as somebody who has skipped their weekly yoga class so consistently that you could argue I never signed up for one, find rather painful. Honestly, how the Japanese can extrapolate the technology of a lavatory chair to unnecessarily complex degrees whilst seemingly un-inventing the dining chair is beyond me... But I was sat with Veronika so, conscious that my British penchant for complaining might be misinterpreted as a personality trait, I kept my moaning to a minimum.

    Particular attention was drawn to some jellified balls that were floating around in the pot, with us being invited to try them and attempt to guess at what they were. There were two variants, white-ish and black-ish, but they both tasted of very little; the novelty being purely the texture, which was admittedly quite odd. Rubbery and gelatinous, we would have never guessed what they were so consequently didn't. It transpired thst they were Konnuyaku, a substance derived from the corm of a Konjac plant. So that's that cleared up then.

    We next had some general free time in the local district, the name of which I didn't record. Regardless, myself and a few others decided to stick with Yukko and she obliged in taking us on a brief tour. Much of the area was residential, but we wandered down to the bank of the Sumida river and absorbed Tokyo from a fresh angle. There were a few men there, fully dressed in business attire, seemingly fast asleep on both the benches and the various rocky/grassy outcrops. In a city with a vigorous corporate culture and long working hours, some people are apparently accustomed to grabbing a little shut-eye whenever and wherever they can. None of them looked particularly comfortable however ; definitely an untapped market here for portable, sartorial neck-pillows.

    Returning to the station, Yukko and I decided to stage a mock Sumo battle; to show those that didn't visit the stable what they had missed out on. Mid-grapple, I'm told an actual proper Sumo-wrestler wandered past and chuckled at our amateurish attempts. It's condescending attitudes toward plucky up-starts such as this that ensures the elite/trainee divide and 90%-unremunerated status quo will remain unchallenged.

    Our next, and final non-optional, stop of the day was Tokyo's Samurai Museum, located a short 5 minute walk from the hostel. An exhibition space detailing the history of, shockingly, the samauri concluded in a live demonstration from a not-samurai (as they no-longer exist) apparently trained in their combat methods. It was fun, though in a post Kill Bill world I expect a little more blood for my buck. The trivia the demonstrator was most keen to share was that George Lucas had been inspired by samurai technique when scribing the lightsabre culture in Star Wars. Of course, if you know and care about Star Wars you knew this fact already and if you don't you wouldn't be that much impressed anyway and instantly forget it. Much like how George Lucas forgot all about this thematic stimulus come Phantom Menace.

    We also got the opportunity to dress-up in some samurai gear, which some people saw as tacky/childish/uncouth but some of us considered tacky/childish/uncouth and also possibly fun. Ruth and I dressed as combating warriors and staged a faux-fight with our faux-weapons and it was indeed faux-fun.

    In the evening a selection of us attended the optional activity of the 'Robot Show'. Held in a multi-storey venue in the heart of Shinjuku, it had no robots and was barely a restaurant but was a diverting slice of tourism-focussed entertainment clearly designed to deliver on the stereotypical perception of Japanese craziness. It's genuinely hard describe what it was/is and will likely continue to be, but I'll try.

    Upon arrival you climb the steps to the top-floor for a sort-of 'reception', where they try to sell you over-priced beer to enhance your appreciation of the live entertainment; a genuinely competent singer supported by a band dressed in cheap Halloween-standard robot costumes. Everything is grey and shiny in that way people thought the future was going to be back in the 1970s.

    After a bit, you're told to take your seats for the show so go back down the steps, deeper than where you began, to what I'll describe as the 'arena'. Sat in rows on either side of a rectangular space you're again invited to buy over-priced beer and do because by this point you're realising that whatever this is going to be it could only be enhanced by being tipsy.

    The show starts. House lights dim. Then sound; heavy beats, chords, an instant cacophony of noise as brightly-lit, colourful, fast-moving parade floats enter from either side, loaded with scantily-clad people banging drums like their lives depend on it. These floats move and spin about for a bit before being intermittently joined/replaced by a procession of increasingly weird constructions, sometimes ridden sometimes sailing solo, sweeping and dancing across the staging zone.

    There are four 'acts', but their distinctions are ambiguous. One seems to attempt a narrative, concluding a post-apocalyptic conflict with a mage-princess riding a dragon versus a battle-queen controlling a giant mecha-man (all because the good giant panda failed to best the evil animatronic serpent literally seconds earlier).

    Eventually some people adorned with glow-sticks come out and dance to a Michael Jackson medley (I'm guessing Leaving Neverland hasn't been localised yet) and it ends. We notice now, house lights back on, there's barely a single Japanese person in the audience. This wasn't for them. This isn't them. This was for us; and we had it. So job done.
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  • Day5

    Tokyo Drift (Still Fast Still Furious)

    May 15 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 21 °C

    I quickly quenched my mild after-effects of the previous night out with a hearty breakfast from the Family Mart just round the corner from the hostel. These brilliant little convenience stores, which I encountered previously in Vietnam, are open 24-hours and so had been 'conveniently' open at whatever time it had been when we'd come home from Golden Gai. This meant I'd been able to consume a two-litre bottle of water and savoury something-or-other before sleep, thereby supressing hangover symptoms to the degree that my morning chocolate croissant/donut/coffee combo provided all the boost I needed for what was to be another relentlessly-scheduled day. Sufficiently busy as to render the chosen title for this post adjectively cogent and not merely an esoteric reference to a low-grossing 13 year old movie uniquely released in the space both before and after its franchise was culturally relevant.

    Others hadn't fared quite as well and so the initial pace was notably subdued as we headed to our first stop of the day ; the Imperial Palace, where the Emperor and his family live. It's like visiting Buckingham Palace; you can't (or at least we didn't) go in, but we wandered around the outer grounds, admiring the moat and walls that were once a part of the largest fortress in the world.

    Looking away from the palace we had a good view of one of Tokyo's commercial districts, with large skyscrapers dominating the skyline. It looked odd somehow. Calling upon all my childhood spot-the-difference experience I eventually realised that unlike other such city views, including much of those around Tokyo, there were no corporate logos adorning the sides of the buildings. I wondered if this was because it was considered improper or perhaps even formally not permitted to direct advertisements toward the palace. I was going to raise this question to Yukko, but literally nobody else though this was an interesting observation except me so I just let it go. It was sunny this morning and I forgot my cap, which was a pain in the arse and, latterly, face.

    The most notable architectural feature of the outer palace was apparently this bit where there were two bridges. I counted them and, yep, their calculations were correct. We spent a little while in the Imperial Gardens where we were granted 'free time' to explore. I ended up going for a walk with the female half of the German duo. She seems cool ; I hope I get to spend some more time with her.

    We departed the palace and headed via the rail network to the Harajuku district; the apparent centre of Japanese subculture and fashion. Signs on archways, just begging to be vandalised, labelled the main pedestrianised road as 'Takeshita Street', which was lined left and right with stores both large and boutique-y alongside all manner of eating establishments. Now, anyone who's ever been shopping with me will know how hard it is to hold me back from sampling every clothier and accessory retailer going, trying on everything in sight and effectively enacting a real-life makeover montage, ultimately emerging encumbered with too many shopping bags to carry, but I somehow resisted this urge and patiently followed the group and Yukko through some narrow side-streets to where we'd been booked-in for lunch.

    As a large group, it was unrealistic that we'd be able to find eating establishments able to accommodate us all on a single table. Rather, we would frequently be herded into a designated area of an eatery and spread ourselves across a few smaller tables. With Ruth and I largely wandering together during our point-to-point journeys, we entered together and took two seats on a table for four. Leaving two spare seats, our eating companions would depend upon the random-ish order of entry of our fellow travellers, factoring in the preferences of groupings/couples to sit together. We ended up being joined by 'the Germans' ; Florian (whose name at this point I'd misremembered and therefore spoke aloud as 'Fabian') and Veronika, whom I'd wandered the Imperial Gardens with but whose name at this point I don't think I'd learned.

    Today's restaurant was the first we visited that involved an element that would become fairly commonplace during the trip ; cooking your food yourself at the table. I can't recall the name of the dish we cooked and I'm writing sans internet so will look it up and pop it into these extra special double-brackets later ((Okonomiyaki)), but we were essentially provided a bowl full of salad bits with an floury/batter-like liquid which we mixed together vigorously then cooked on a hot-plate similarly to a pancake, cooking/adding our chosen meats as we went. It tasted good, especially with a squirt of the provided (and recommended) mayonnaise accompaniment.

    Our table had received our ingredients last and so concluded our moderately-successful cooking also last. This, coupled with Ruth's fairly slow average eating speed, meant everybody else had left by the time our table was ready for the bill. You could therefore posit that Ruth's consumption rate was a direct cause of she and I spending further time with Florian and Veronika and, therefore, all that would subsequently flow from this grouping. I probably owe Ruth a drink. Or the equivalent of owing someone a drink when said someone has made it patently clear over two weeks of travelling they don't enjoy the taste of alcohol.

    After paying-up, the four of us went for a bit of a wander around the local area, ending up walking the length of Takeshita Street, observing some of the odd offerings. The Germans had spotted a 100-yen store when we'd first arrived, which had been on my list of things to visit whilst in Japan, so we went there for a browse. Essentially the slightly-pricier equivalent of a UK pound-store, it was fun to look at both the familiar and unfamiliar items on display, adorned with exciting, overly-enthusiastic Japanese branding. I bought a couple of cheap gifts for people that I almost immediately misplaced and lost because I brought a fashionable, cross-body sling bag for day-trips as opposed to something useful you can actually fit things into.

    We re-joined the rest of the group and Yukko lead us to the nearby Meiji Jingu shrine in the middle of the large, bulbous park we'd seen from the top of the Tokyo Met Tower on Day 1. The path was rough and gravelly down the middle with neat, level paving down either side. Yukko told us that it was expected that visitors walked down the sides as, traditionally, only those of noble birth would walk down the centre. Considering myself sufficiently removed from this tradition and of requisite station regardless to walk where I liked, I chose to walk down the left-hand side with everybody else primarily to better preserve my shoe-soles.

    The Meiji Jingu shrine itself was/is dedicated to the deified spirits of former Emperor Meiji and Empress "Doesn't-get-her-name-in-the-shrine-name" Shōken. He was apparently rather into western culture, and set an example by eating western food alongside imported wines, which must have been tricky as none of the Japanese restaurants we've visited yet have had an even halfway-decent wine list.

    En route to the shrine there was a feature comprising of barrels of foreign, mainly French, wine on one side of the road and correspondingly on the other side of the road a similar stack of far-prettier sake barrels adorned with Japanese calligraphy and symbols. I postulate that the intention of this arrangement was to symbolise the aforementioned blend of western/eastern cultures and not to suggest, as would be a fair alternative explanation, that he was a bit of a piss-head.

    The shrine itself was decent, if unspectacular. Look, I've been to lots of temples/shrines/pagodas over the past year and the consequence of this repetition is each new one loses some of the oomph it might otherwise have had. The Japanese ones are big on 'gates' it seems, which is fine but an odd aspect to centre on as ordinarily the passageway to an attraction isn't the attraction itself and, where it is, the place feels a little lacking. I guess it's not about the destination, but the journey. Much like life and, in a similar vein, Game of Thrones. Winter did come. And it was shit.

    After absorbing and appreciating the shrine, and it's gates, we travelled on to our final tour-stop for the day ; Shibuya. This is a significant commercial and business district in Tokyo and home to one of the conceptually-oddest tourist attractions I've ever visited ; the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world.

    We, of course, crossed this crossing along with the swathes of other people going about their day. There were numerous others attempting to film or take selfies within the merging mass of people, to the extent I had to wonder whether it's world-record status was self-fulfilling. Without the participation of the many tourists coming to see/ride the crossing, would it indeed be the busiest? I guess that's something of a thought experiment, insomuch as it's completely inconsequential and generally a waste of brain power that could be applied to actual productivity. If a tree falls in a forest and nobody's around it basically doesn't matter.

    Near to the crossing was a statue of a dog. There was an accompanying sad story relating to the dog that Yukko outlined which caused some in the group to get teary-eyed. Not me though. I wasn't listening.

    We entered one of the nearby buildings, which I think was part of the station (as most buildings in Tokyo appear to be) and went up to a walkway crossing the main road with an excellent view of the pedestrian crossing we'd just experienced. This exact location is, notably, the location of the first hideout in Persona 5. It looked exactly as expected and, being completely out in the open in a public space, remains a stupid place to refer to as a 'hideout'.

    Around half of the group, suffering from Golden-Gai-induced tiredness, at this point went home, but those of us that remained took an elevator up a nearby tower to obtain a sunset view of the ward. As the sun disappeared and the myriad neon signs illuminated and flashed I was struck by a sensation of awe and beauty and that this would be a terrible country for epileptics.

    The original itinerary for the day had proposed a second evening out at a more upmarket, 'fancy' zone in Tokyo, though with so many people departing the attendee list was rapidly depleting. Florian and Veronika were up for it (showing they clearly hadn't drunk enough the previous night), though Ruth wasn't and as for me...my body was willing but my brain knew that (unlike anybody else) I had to be up before 5am the next day for the optional 'Sumo Experience'.

    So, flaking on these plans, our developing foursome travelled back (via an incomprehensibly busy subway train) to Shinjuku to find somewhere to eat, both since it was that time anyway and it transpired Veronika suffers from severe hangriness which if left untreated we don't know what would happen as we never dared let it. Having little success finding places with available seating, and Florian expressing a desire to have Gyoza, I took them to the place a little off the main track I'd been to alone on my first night in the city.

    We of course ordered Gyoza and, as the main to this accompaniment, we opted for the purported 'house speciality' of chicken wings. Contrary to the rest of us, Ruth didn't want them spicy so we were careful to order three spicy portions and one non-spicy portion. This was difficult to relay with the language barrier and ultimately had to be described as 'four portions, one not spicy' with pointing and gestures reinforcing our aim. When the order arrived, we received a humongous stack of four orders of five wings apiece on a single plate and a second plate holding a single, un-flavoured wing.

    Ruth had an unsuccessful stab at scraping the powdered spice coating from the other wings before ordering a further order of unspiced ones. Those of us whose orders had been correctly provided for dug-in, keen to sample whatever exotic spice concoction had been prepared and delicately applied to our fried, dismembered fowl.

    It was pepper. Just pepper. There was no Colonel's secret here; they'd simply removed wing from chicken, cooked it to appropriate tenderness and then dunked it in a presumably-massive vat of a table condiment best enjoyed sparingly. They were inarguably 'spicy', but lacked any element of nuance or technique in their flavouring. Because it was pepper.

    The order mix-up, unique take on meat preparation and general holiday-feeling vibe resulted in much fun and merriment. I'm really starting to like the Germans. Florian does that thing I do where I correct what people say on a technicality of either fact or definition or, ideally, both. It's mildly annoying, which means I'm mildly annoying so we cancel each other out. He's a self-confessed 'foodie' and is set to sample as many of Japan's delicacies as he can manage and, dammit, I want to try them all too! Veronika is just...great. First impressions indicate a degree of intelligence (a masters degree to be specific), she's pretty, funny (like, actual funny, not the funny we pretend people are when they're just pretty), has a really cute laugh that I seem to be able to make happen with decent regularity and chose to supplement her meal with a beer, meaning I'm not the only one at the table ordering a pint (or the Japanese 'medium' size, whatever that is). Yeah...if she was here alone I'd definitely be flirting with her. I probably am a bit anyway.

    Afterward we went for a brief wander through Shinjuku before heading back to the hostel for some much-needed kip ahead of my early-start the next day. Flo and Veronika discussed potentially going out for the fancy night out by themselves, but I don't think they did.
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  • Day4

    Two-kyo

    May 14 in Japan ⋅ 🌧 18 °C

    We awoke to rain on Day 2. Not heavy rain. Not even medium rain really. Just a light spluttering of wetness, but it was excuse sufficient to wear one of the pairs of trousers that were bulking-up my rucksack and trial the mini-umbrella, carefully purchased to fit inside my equally-mini day-bag.

    First activity today was Sushi-making. Using our JR rail passes given to us on Day One, an Oyster-esque stored value card that can also be used in some shops, we travelled to somewhere I-don't-think-we-were-told-where where we entered a non-descript building to find a singular elevator shaft and no stairs. We took it in turns to use the lift till we all arrived in a kitchen, where we'd be learning how to make sushi.

    Before we'd come to Japan we'd been asked to declare whether or not we ate raw fish. After googling the question for guidance I'd decided I'd rather not, since many of the 'answers' were veritable horror stories of stomach-bugs, hospital-stays and one slow, agonising, diarrhoea-y death. Any such risk is of course variable dependent on the general competency of the chef, so with our lunch today to be self-prepared I was very comfortable with my decision. My declaration had been translated as being 'vegetarian', so I was given a plate of veg and something possibly-cheese to wrap into the rice/seaweed rolls we'd be making.

    The processes involved were all fairly simple, just finikity and time-consuming. When you're paying high prices for sushi it's unlikely the ingredients or even the skillset pushing up the price, it'll be the time, labour and tedium required to put the damn things together. Everybody's attempts were resoundingly successful and both the presentation and taste indistinguishable from the professionally-produced. It was genuinely fun to give it a go, but I don't see myself doing it again. Nice to know I could though.

    After consuming our creations we headed back to the train and travelled to Akihabara. This is a specialised shopping district also known as 'Electric Town', specialising in electronics and, increasingly, outlets catering to the 'otaku' culture, which covers general shut-in hobbies such as anime, manga, video-games and generally weird establishments.

    Our first stop in this district, following a quick stop-off at an anime 'conversion' photo booth that Hannah insisted we all attempt to squeeze into, was one of the famous (infamous?) maid cafés. Broadly, these are cafés where the waitresses dress-up in some measure of 'traditional' maid outfit and serve the predominantly male clientelle whilst displaying submissive mannerisms and speaking 'cute', insultingly reductive pleasantries in annoyingly squeaky voices and occasionally dancing about like loons swinging about glow-sticks to the apparent genuine delight of their regular customers. It was weird, and not in a good way. Also, they took about 40 minutes to serve us ice-cream. Wouldn't go back, but glad we went so as to learn the lesson not to go back.

    We were eventually served and so permitted to leave, opting to make the most of our freedom by returning to the Sega Centre we'd briefly popped into earlier so as to re-take the anime photograph that hadn't met Hannah's standards the first time round. I don't know if the second take was better as I'd thoroughly lost what minimal interest I'd had in the endeavour by this point, but afterward the big group split into smaller collectives for unguided exploration time. My little sub-group decided to more thoroughly explore the Sega Centre.

    Since Sega and Nintendo are bezzie-mates these days, there was ample Ninty presence in the Sega arcade. Whilst we've got Mario Kart arcade in a few places in the UK, I'd never before seen an arcade version of 'Luigi's Mansion' before, which makes sense for a kinda weird, slightly niche spin-off franchise that isn't even really that good. The play instructions were all in Japanese so I'd already lost a life before I'd figured out the pump/point/drag mechanics of the massive plastic vacuum-cleaner guns. After Ruth and I had both succumbed to the childish horrors of the haunted Mario-verse mansion, we hung up our vibrating nozzles and wandered over to take the wheel at the mushroom kingdom's more popular pastime. We'd hoped to play Mario Kart against each other, but Ruth put her 100-yen coin in the wrong slot so we ended up in separate game instances. We did, however, select the same course and began at the same moment, so my finishing-first still counts as a victory from a pan-dimensional perspective.

    Next stop was a four-storey, pink-ish building we'd spotted upon first emerging from the train station which may have had an elegant, subtle name in Japanese but had been helpfully translated on the signage to simply 'sex shop'. Unlike some of the places in Shinjuku, this was for the retail of accessories to the act not the act itself, so were comfortable having a look around. Everything BDSM/dungeon-related was on display in the subterrainean basement, which was pleasingly logical from a store merchandising perspective. The ground and first floors contained products of little surprise from a technological standpoint, albeit the size range of certain apparatus extended to far larger sizes than I'd before seen which, the relative average sizes of the Japanese people compared to the west, did surprise somewhat. The third and fourth floors were for 'men only' so Ruth had to wait outside whilst we perused. What we saw up there can obviously only be revealed in the 'mens only' version of this blog post.

    Before Yukko had left us to our 'free time' (ie. no formal itinerary activities) she had suggested to us to seek out a nearby 'hidden shrine'. She'd broadly waved her arm in the approximate direction, so we set out to explore the area. After around 20 minutes fruitless searching we gave up and used Google Maps, but the co-ordinates pointed to the middle of a block of buildings we'd encircled a few times already. I then spotted a tiny, dark alleyway down which you'd think only cats and possibly drug-dealers might venture and, lo and behold, it led to a small courtyard containing a basic shrine clearly placed in such a difficult-to-find spot so as to have any attributable merit. We took a picture as proof (Yukko had promised free beer to whoever found it) and left.

    We visited a few other otaku-geared shops, though much of the floor-space was dedicated to manga which isn't all that interesting when you're not into the medium and can't comprehend the language. There were some pop-culture and video-game items to peruse also, albeit little that wasn't available internationally so nothing pried-open my wallet hinge. I did find an awesome, old, Legend of Zelda Game & Watch device in mint condition, but it cost more than my trip's entire budget so sadly it remained in it's alarmed and guarded glass display cabinet.

    I was keen to try out a Gatcha machine ; basically the coin/twist capsule toy machines I feel we used to have more of in the UK but are huge here in Japan. There were lines of assorted Gatcha machines outside many of the shops on the main street but, again with a little help from Google Maps, Ruth and I found, or rather rediscovered, a dedicated Gatcha establishment we'd eyed-up a couple of hours earlier across the street from Creepy-Maids-R-Us. I had a go on pokemon and Star Wars branded machines. I didn't get either of the toys I really wanted, but then that's how the 'getcha'.

    We were running out of afternoon so decided to grab some quick food someplace familiar; McDonalds. I went as exotic as was possible and had the McTeriyaki burger, which was nice but a little sloppy. Though, adhering to Japanese custom, we weren't able to walk and eat simultaneously and the McDonalds wanted a cover charge to eat-in so we had to eat whilst standing in the doorway. Given we had to be back for an evening activity not everyone (Ruth) had time to finish so she had to politely carry her food without consuming it all the way back to the hostel. I'm told the re-heated, microwaved remnants were 'fine'.

    In the evening we went for a walk into the Shinjuku zone to visit the Golden Gai ; a network of six, very narrow alleyways lined with small bars, most seating around ten or less (most often less!) at a time. There was a real mixture of places; some had cover charges in addition to drink prices, others had cover-charge waiver offers for 'foreigners' and others were 'open' with closed doors, discriminately advising via curt signage that tourists were not welcome ; local bars for local people and there was nothing for us to see there.

    As a group of nearly-19 (I was noting by this point that a couple of people in the group were using the itinerary as more of a guideline than a law), it was impossible for us all to visit the same bar concurrently, so we branched off into smaller units. Will, Craig, Ruth, Hannah, one of the Victorias and myself opted for a tiny establishment dubbing itself as some form of 'tiki bar', albeit with only minimal aesthetic trim and half-hearted musical accompaniment to back the ruse up.

    Perusing the menu I spotted a whisky that Alex had suggested to me to try and, if at all possible, bring back for her. I thusly splashed my banker cash and ordered a 'Hibiki', the most expensive whisky on the menu, on the rocks and casually sipped it with class and dignity whilst the proletariats accompanying me knocked back lager or noisily sucked their cheap cocktail concoctions through straws. This is how you make friends.

    The whisky was delicious, as was the second, mildly less expensive whisky that followed called 'Nikka' and which had also been on Alex's suggested list. Two posh beverages consumed, we departed the tiki-bar to find the rest of the group, whom were converging on the only bar in the district sufficiently large to almost hold us all.

    At the most logical 'entrance' to the Golden Gai zone there's a bar both proudly proclaiming it's welcoming attitude to strangers AND boasting it's facilities that enable participation in a massively-popular Japanese pastime; karaoke. Huddled closely together in the far/near end of the bar (depends which door you went in I guess...), we gulped back very cheap, averagely-priced whiskies, beers and cocktails with a view to achieving sufficient merriment to have a go. Alas, the machine didn't have my standard 'go to' song, One Week, in it's selection so I mainly stuck to random duets where the performer's motivation had sapped somewhat between picking their song and their turn coming around. I did 'perform' Lose Yourself by Eminem solo when whomever had picked the song failed to show-up, which went about as well as you can imagine. Florian, one of the two German travellers I haven't spoken to much yet, seemed most keen and, as most who are keen are, was a good singer. But I later found out he sings/trains his voice in his own time, which is cheating really.

    I don't know how late we were out, which is generally an indicator of a great night out and a rough morning to come.
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  • Day3

    Toky-One

    May 13 in Japan ⋅ ⛅ 20 °C

    I decided to have the hotel's semi-included breakfast to start my day, which they threw in for a small additional charge on check-in (also known as 'not included'). It was an all-you-can-eat buffet fusion, blending an array of Japanese dishes with some concessions made for western travellers. I began with a croissant and a bowl of granola with yoghurt, but this was just a warm-up for the rice, rolled-omelettes and various mysterious space-based blends I spooned into my neatly compartmentalised tray before shoveling mouthwards. Around half of what I tried was delicious, which was a more favourable ratio than I expected.

    Next stop was the first stop of my formal 'trip' ; a short walk a few streets over to the hostel I'd be spending the next few nights and meet up with the people I'd be travelling with for the next couple of weeks. I aimed to arrive at a quarter-to the meeting hour, figuring this would make me my standard early, but it transpired many/most of the rest of the group had stayed the prior night at the first hostel, tarnishing my promptness with the undue stain of relative apparent lateness.

    I found a seat in the hostel's common area where the 'Dragon Trip' group had begun to assemble. It was to be a relatively large group of 19 ; a quantum I was fairly comfortable with. As everyone is aware, my personal group comfort zone is somewhere between 3 and 4 plus myself, and the non-existence of groups containing fractions of people explains why I'm never comfortable in any group or with anyone, ever. That said, the more proximate the groupings to my ideal the broadly better I perform, factoring in of course variables such as personality, vocal octave and body odour. With three-to-four acceptable individuals it is possible to adequately check and balance singular conversations whilst actively monitoring body language to ensure engagement. Discussions can ebb and flow with participants able to take periodic breathers without risking isolation or disrupting rhythm, awaiting a convenient opportunity to provide iterative interjection or perform a segue to an alternative topic.

    Now then, the mathematically-minded may note that nineteen is neither three, four, a number between three and four or really rather close to three or four, unless you consider the entire possible numerical spectrum, in which case they are basically the same thing. However, group dynamics being what they are, any group exceeding 7 people will naturally split into smaller groups to enable the most favourable conditions for co-existence. Coupling this fact with the standard tolerability ratio of one person in three, variable dependent on the aligning or conflicting current moods of those concerned, then there resulted a fair likelihood I could find myself in a loose, fluctuating, multi-group setting with individual(s) that wouldn't consistently piss me off.

    We were treated to an introductory briefing by our 'adventure leader' Yukko Nakamura, who would be our guide for the duration of the tour. She told us, unlike the other guides for the Japaness Dragon Trip, she was actually Japanese as opposed to a foreigner with learned knowledge of Japan. The positive benefit of this, as she told us, was she had deeper knowledge of culture, customs and practices so our experiences may be more authentic, though this pro is an extrapolated paraphrasing of what she actually said since the balancing con was thst her English wasn't so great. Mind, it was and is adequate to task so I like to think we got the better deal, which is generally the best way to think when you have absolutely no say or influence on the matter.

    We went around the room one-by-one to introduce ourselves to the rest of the group. I told them my name was Nick.

    Leaving our bags chained up in the hostel's holding area (the corner of the common room), we set off to the first entry on the itinerary ; the Tokyo Metropolitan Building, which is the headquarters of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Whilst, clearly, a dull grey skyscraper dedicated to governmental administration is in itself fascinating, the main draw here was the viewing platform near the top which offered stunning views of the city surrounding it, which I was reliably informed was Tokyo.

    After snapping some pictures we returned to street-level and then below street level into the nearby inner-city train station to catch our very first train as an unwieldy collective upon Tokyo's crowded public transport system. Yukko did a great job keeping us all together, ensuring we all maintained a degree of connection as we squeezed across multiple train cars, emerging altogether at the apparently famous tsukiji fish market.

    After a brief guided walkround, we were given 'free time' to go grab some lunch at the market. By this point I'd achieved some low-level, safe interaction with some fellow northern-englanders ; Ryan, from Cheshire but sounding more mancunian than I do, and Ruth, from seemingly literally the middle of nowhere in the general vicinity of Ennerdale water in Cumbria. We selected an authentic market stall, insomuch as it was authentically a stall located in the market, to eat from. They both ordered fish, as you would, albeit Ruth failed to finish hers (as would become something of a running theme) whilst I was awkward and opted for a beef dish. It came with a side-bowl I wasn't expecting that I briefly considered might be for washing my fingers in, before spotting other patrons slurping it as a soup. Slurping here is considered highly complimentary and should be done with sufficient volume that the chefs can hear your positive audible supping. Insecure chefs occasionally serve their food at scalding temperatures simply to achieve this feedback loop.

    We next headed to Asakusa to visit Sensō-Ji temple. Yes, much like India and Vietnam before it this trip would, and by the time of this write-up has, entail visiting numerous temples each purportedly distinct from the rest but being broadly mild variations on a fairly narrow theme. This first one was fine, though more interesting was the large marketplace laid out in front of it. We stopped at a stall of Yukko's suggestion, serving colourful sweet-treats that looked to be fudge or chocolate but were in actuality a compacted smush of sweet-potato. First sweet-potato came for our premium fries, now they're taking on our confectionary...we need to nip this madness in the bud lest we lose all that is sacred and tasty to this terrible, nauseating taste-trend(!).

    We were given some free time to wander about, finding a somewhat dilapidated amusement park (which we had insufficient time to visit) and a woman with an owl so calm and still I initially mistook it for stuffed. They were promoting a local animal/pet cafe, which are a huge deal in Tokyo with variants spotted for cats, rabbits, hedgehogs and 'variety' offerings where they've basically popped a coffee machine into a petting zoo. Well, only the woman was actively 'promoting' the cafe ; the owl didn't have a clue what was going on.

    After a while we headed back toward the hostel, but had one final itinerary activity before check-in. Down the street was an establishment dedicated to something described as one of Japan's 'national obsessions' ; batting cages. I'd known this was a 'thing' from playing Persona 5 but hadn't acknowledged just how integrating into their culture this dull, beefed-up rounders game truly was. Without the reward of Proficiency points the activity felt lacking, but it was fun for what it was. Primary issue for me was that, given the standard average differentiation between my height and the local populace, I had to semi-squat during my swings to be at the appropriate height to make contact. Of 30-ish balls I hit it more frequently than I didn't, which I chalked up as a success.

    All swung-out, we returned to the hostel and formally checked-in. It was more complicated than it should have been to get our bags unchained, but once sorted I investigated what would be our facilities for the next three nights. 'Functional' is as generous as I can be in terms of description ; wooden, creaky bunk-beds with thin pillows and basic shared bathroom facilities. Still, the shower was hot and powerful, the mattresses comfortable and just over half the power outlets near my bunk were operational, so it could have been worse.

    We had one final, optional activity for the day ; visiting a local bath-house. This is also quintessentially Japanese, also a side-activity in Persona 5 and also I'm going to do basically everything optional since why would I come all the way to Japan and choose to miss-out on unique experiences?

    Several people did choose to miss out on this one though. Maybe they were too tired or maybe they felt clean enough, but possibly a few were put-off by the fully-nude dress code of the bath-house. A short five-minute walk from the hostel, only six of us decided to make the trip. Upon arrival you remove your shoes, pay the entry fee, are handed a very small towel and head into one of two doors, determined by your gender. Myself, a Devonshire guy called Craig and an American from Colorado called Will were the male contingent, all casually entering the locker-room to be immediately surrounded by a hoarde of naked Japanese men just generally going about the business of getting clean. Fully clothed, and also western, we were the conspicuous ones so we quickly stripped down to our birthday suits and went to experiment with the available pools and equipment. There were three pools ; one was really, really unbearably hot, the second was really, really unbearably cold and the third, in true goldilocks tradition, was 'just right'. Except for some reason they'd decided to pass an electrical current through the water, which was both highly uncomfortable and perplexing to me in terms of the science involved in making that a safe thing to do. There were also sit-down sink and shower apparatus, which I used to have a full body/hair wash before heading back to the hostel.

    Tired after a busy first day, I immediately went back out and visited a nearby vegan burger-bar with Ruth and a girl called Hannah, from somewhere Norfolk-way I think. Maybe Norwich. I remember thinking Alan Partridge when she said, but then remember trying to remember whether Alan Partridge was from Norwich or Norfolk and had no wifi so couldn't check. She's a stripper, which I do remember as I've never met a stripper before (outside of the context of stripping). I expect she found the bath-house a less irregular experience than the rest of us.

    We had vegan burgers to aid our hunger, had a quick walk around Shinjuku to aid digestion then returned to the hostel to aid our brewing exhaustion. It had been a busy first day, but there were many more to come.
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  • Day2

    Flying Solo

    May 12 in Japan ⋅ ☀️ 19 °C

    Ah, the now-customary day-of-travel blog entry. Habitually consisting of little else other than sitting still and waiting to move, then sitting still and waiting whilst being moved, then finally making a move once the thing that was moving you whilst you sat sits still, I ordinarily still manage to make a meal out of it.

    Neatly, and also customarily, this one begins with a meal. Departing from Manchester Terminal 1 and not finding the expected Wetherspoons (which is either in Terminal 2, a totally different airport or possibly don't exist in airports and I imagined the whole thing) I went to Giraffe for breakfast because I remember hearing in the news that the chain that operates them isn't doing too well and wanted to support them (and also, bearing this news out, there were plenty of available tables). I had the standard-size English breakfast, foregoing the double-sized version for a couple of quid extra because since my last Bupa medical I've been trying to eat less sat-fats, since spending most of my variable pay award on this trip been trying to spend a little less cash and since my last girlfriend trying to consume less meat. Lower-calories, cheaper price, ever-so-slightly-less dead pigs; Win / Win / Mitigated Loss.

    But I had to eat it with one of those damn silly knives that barely cut anything, all for fear that if they provided effective slicing implements somebody might smuggle one aboard an aircraft and threaten to cut something they shouldn't. This is exactly what the terrorists want. If we allow fear to mildly inconvenience our breakfast experience then they've won. How about instead you just embed microchips within your normal, sharp knives and persistently track them throughout the eating experience via a high-tec sensor array that monitors their positioning, incline and activity and ensures none leave the premises with an alarm system to alert should one pass the perimeter. Simple and practical. C'mon Giraffe ; this is why you're losing market-share to Nandos.

    Even with the delay imposed by ineffective eating apparatus, I still had time to kill so wandered around the shops. I bought a travel pillow, which I'd been meaning to buy anyway but had forgotten to, although once I realised I could deduct VAT from the purchase as I was heading outside of the EU I retroactively decided I'd made a savvy decision to delay my purchase till this moment.

    Then came the flight(s). Due to a computer error I'd been unable to check-in online so had to take the seat they allocated to me. On my first flight, Manchester to Abu-Dhabi, I was given an aisle seat, which would have been my first choice anyway.

    Now then, it was of course omnipresent in my mind that I'd never before flown without somebody I know being also aboard. Those that know me, plus now those that don't strangely enough reading this blog, will know I'm not the biggest fan of flying. In fact, to express as an equally abbreviated version of the natural antonym of the most likely etymological origin of 'fan', you might say I am a 'mod' of flying. As such, presuming that last bit made any sense to you at all, you can imagine there may have been a degree of trepidation and nervousness on my part as the plane broke away from the gate, sped down the runway and lifted itself up into the gloomy Manchester air.

    I was fine. Like, honestly, the most relaxed I've ever felt on a plane. I don't myself understand the derivation of my fear of flying but it seems it might be heightened, not soothed, by having people around me. Hear that, everybody who's ever flown with me(?) ; it's YOUR fault.

    Anyway I watched Glass first of all, the fittingly average conclusion to the generally-okay Shyamalan 'twisty-ending' trilogy. Then I watched 'Bad Times at El Royale' because I knew it was written and directed by somebody who worked on Buffy who apparently now, having seen this film, dreams at night of being Quentin Tarantino. And actually, he did a bang up job at the attempt. It had a bit of a 'Can't Believe it's not Butter' vibe, but was far better than The Hateful Eight. Next I watched an American Dad and a Family Guy, leaving me only enough time for the first two thirds of 'Johnny English : The Third One' before landing at Abu-Dhabi for a transfer.

    Much like my experience with Emirates/Dubai, transferring was a painless affair and the luggage passed straight through. I activated my new Revolut card, quickly converted some Pound Sterling to Dirham and bought a tube of M&Ms minis (which, tragically, they seem to have stopped selling in the UK) and then bought a turkey & cheese toastie with the contactless functionality. Seriously, for precisely this purpose, Revolut knocks out of the park anything that we (ie. who I work for) has to offer. For travelling to foreign destinations with pre-loaded, instantly convertible currency then get a Revolut account. For literally anything else, go HSBC. Or, you know, whoever you currently bank with.

    Second flight I watched the final third of Johnny English the Third or whatever, then the Jason Bateman-led dark-lite comedy 'Game Night', which was on par with all Jason Bateman's other dark-lite comedies; gently amusing but afraid to truly commit to the bit. I then had a bit of a kip.

    And what an epic kip it was. Not normally one to sleep on a plane, being generally preoccupied with the concept of being on a plane, I'd considered the prospect of sleep unlikely. But it transpires that the secret to getting some decent sleep on a plane is to have three whole seats, plus accompanying pillows and blankets, all to yourself. If only I'd known this earlier...

    After a little fiddling about I achieved the ideal configuration. Folding down all of the tray-tables halfway and covering with a blanket created a soft boundary to keep me from rolling onto the floor, with the one closest to the window doubling-up as a convenient bedside table. Strategic organisation of the remaining blankets provided both coverage and surface-friction to prevent slippage whilst stacking the pillows up against the window, coupled with my purchased neck-pillow, provided cushioned comfort for a soft spot to rest my head.

    Reasonably well-rested, I arrived at Narita airport and passed effortlessly through immigration to find my bag waiting for me on the carousel. Score one for the fabled Japanese efficiency. Following the directions given to me by the tour company I located the 'Skyliner' ticket desk and mentally rehearsed the Japanese phrase for requesting a ticket, but when my turn came decided instead to awkwardly point at a nearby sign instead. I was understood, and reassured by this first demonstration of tolerance for ignorant foreigners.

    The train was due in a short five minutes, but all passengers were allocated an individual, and spacious, seat with ample room for my ample legs and excessively-ample luggage. The seats were mechanical; insomuch as they spin around at the conclusion of an A to B journey so as to be always facing forwards. As somebody who oddly prefers to travel backwards on trains I was largely indifferent to this functionality, though still impressed by the ingenuity.

    Reaching Tokyo city I transferred to a busy overground commuter train, eventually reaching Shin-Okubu station. I quickly located the Premier Cabin Hotel where I'd be spending my first night and checked into my teeny-tiny room, cleverly designed to contain precisely the furniture and amenities you require with just enough floor-space to move between them. I had a brief lie-down, then ate a couple of the Graze bars I'd brought with me so as to provide the necessary sustainance to later tinker about with the electronic lavatory apparatus. Equipped with a seat-warmer, multi-directional and pressure-adjustable cleansing nozzles and a deoderiser, it was an all-round superior shitting experience.

    I showered and changed then went out to explore. Dusk was approaching so I wandered where the lights were brightest, travelling south into northern Shinjuku. As the daylight fully faded and the neon signage activated my surroundings transformed into a sensory overload of colour, sound and smells. Small restaurants lined the streets, alongside a smattering of gaming arcades, pachinko halls and other, seedier-looking establishments to be expected of an area I later learned was Tokyo's red light district. However, even more so than Amsterdam, the area is considered a respectable location for an evening out and the patrons at the non strictly-adult-oriented establishments appeared well-dressed, of seemingly high social calibre and the prices set to match.

    After some brief meandering through the main and side-streets I experienced a slow, dawning realisation that I sort-of, kinda knew where I was. Tall buildings, open spaces and weirdly particularly a parking-lot all felt to be laid-out in a strangely familiar arrangement. I then realised, and confirmed later with a Google-check, that this is one of the areas one of the hub-zones of the Yakuza video games are based upon, and I'd therefore spent many digital hours running around a fictionalised recreation of this exact place. They give the place a different name in the game (naming it Kamurocho instead of Kabukichō), but it's so similar I can only imagine this is done so as to avoid the implication that the area is riddled with organised crime. Given, as I say, the service some of these places provide I'd be unsurprised to discover some legally-dubious administration underpinning much of it.

    Whilst there were many eating establishments to choose from, I eventually opted for a place recommended to me by the hotel. I'd presumed they would be therefore somewhat foreigner-oriented, but they only had one staff member who knew any English, and her mastery was only that of a parlour trick. Like that video of a horse that can count, there was rhythmic emulation of the basic concept but minimal interpretation of its meaning. The point-at-picture method prevailed and I thoroughly enjoyed my meal of fried chicken and gyoza.

    Returned to my 'cabin' to get some sleep. But, because jet-lag, didn't really happen.
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  • Day9

    Better late than Never

    December 15, 2018 in India ⋅ ☀️ 25 °C

    The following is taken from an unfinished working draft compiled on the morning of Sunday 16th December 2018. Words have been inserted and phraseology amended in an attempt to achieve cohesion but, given the mood and sentiment being conveyed, this is rarely achieved. Reader discretion is advised.

    //

    I've just about had it with this fucking country.

    I mean, seriously, would it kill you to put a sodding sausage on your breakfast menu? Here I am/was in a fascinating facsimile of a top-class hotel and I head downstairs for the most important meal of the day to find, literally, not a sausage. And don't try to sell me on your continental, not even *your* continental, salami-style spicy red things...I'm talking a proper British banger, fried or grilled I ain't picky, cooked to bursting point and ready to be plated or shoved into a bap with a dollop of ketchup and maybe a dash of mustard if I'm feeling fruity.

    From what sentiment is this glaring omission borne? Some sort of offensive overhang from colonial times? Well let me tell you the Romans used to rule over England but not once have I boycotted the pizza. Quite the opposite in fact. Oh, and I notice you're quite happy to have stacks of American pancakes on offer with maple syrup; because they're such a ruddy faultless nation. Well, I suppose Canadians are. They think they're a country; so adorable. And yes they were delicious and yes I had my fair share and then some, so a typical American portion, but you better be watching yourself with these double-standards or we're gonna have a proper falling-out.

    Oh and then to be patronised on our way out by Mickey Mouse was the icing on the also-delicious French pastries on offer. Obviously not the actual Mickey Mouse, but if India was a theme park conglomerate with television, movie and merchandise monopolies spanning the globe, then this was the guy in the oversized suit signing autographs. His attire was so overwhelmingly, stereotypically 'traditional' that if you'd sliced him in two it would read 'India' through the middle, like some bloodied and presumably now-dead stick of Blackpool rock. I'd have taken a picture of him, but that would have been buying into the crass commercialism you're obviously trying to peddle here and I'm not buyng.

    So we were on the road, literally the worst place and the place we have predominantly been whilst in India, but thankfully only briefly. After a moment's respite on a deserted viewing platform, which by our presence we soon made 'serted', we headed in grand-old-duke-of-york tradition to the top of a hill where we found a cluster of temples.

    I say 'found' like this was an easy task. No, as if trying to hammer-home their status as '2nd biggest population on earth', the area around the temples was absolutely packed with people. What's more, these people weren't even tourists...they were here to 'pray' or something, I don't know I don't speak the language, and so had no concept of the impediment they were causing good folk like us trying to both reach and then photograph these religious establishments.

    And these people were forming queues to get inside; taking the single most crappy part of British culture and extrapolating the concept ad nauseum. Now I don't know about you, and I don't much care, but I've never witnessed people having to stand in line to enter a church (apart from that one time, which I won't mention as it undercuts my argument). And there was no 'visitor' or 'premium' entrance we could make use of; to see the innards of this genuinely impressive structure dedicated to Chamundi, the slayer of Mahishasura with some sort of connection to Shiva and for whom the hill we were up was named, we would have to queue along with them. We had no time for such nonsense so didn't bother.

    We would later be told that the main temple was dedicated to the wife of Shiva, which my Year 7 Religious Education recollections misremember as 'Pavlova' as opposed to the more correct 'Parvati'. Preferable childhood memories remember it as being 'Kali', as in "Kali Maa...Kali Maaa...Kali Maaaaa...Shakti de". Incidentally, if Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom was intended to act as a realistic cultural advertisement for this country, which without fact-checking I presume it was and was well-received as such, then it completely fails to live up to the expected standards; I've experienced precisely nil elephant rides, zero meals of miniature snakes inside a bigger snake and only a handful of minecart chases.

    Bypassing the madness of the goddess temple, we went to the far less popular, quieter and less impressive temple dedicated to Shiva, which really is modern-day feminism run amock. Here we were conned into leaving our shoes outside in the general vicinity of some dude just sitting about whom, upon our re-emergence, expected payment for having not stolen them. Our guide to the temple, whom we hadn't formally hired and just sort-of started showing us around, also expected payment which was fine as he did something of genuine worth, the temple was well kept, his narrative interesting and the red dot he popped on my forehead aiding with my cultural immersion though being thankfully impermanent, but the 'shoe-watcher' did literally nothing. I eventually paid him something because Charlotte gave me one of those 'it's only a couple of quid, you'd spend more than that on a cup of coffee' looks and also said something to similar effect. Also a cup of coffee has genuine tangible worth and I tend to order Americanos, which rarely breach the £1.89 mark.

    It was a question of relativity more than anything; paying some guy to sit on his arse, which he'd been doing anyway, somewhat close to our footwear devalued the worth I'd expressed by giving only a little more than a couple of quid to our tour-guide. Had I been able to find him again and slip him a little extra I mightn't have begrudged the trainer-guardian a little something, but he'd already wandered off to find his next group of outsiders to vaguely walk alongside till assimilating himself as their chargeable chaparone. It was akin to equating a farmer with a scarecrow, which is an equivalency you really shouldn't make in a country pub when most of the patrons own shotguns.

    Roger witheld payment. I've never respected him more.

    We fought our way back through the throngs of locals to our driver, who was able to pick us up in a convenient place only by completely disregarding etiquette and traffic laws and seriously inconveniencing a multitude of coaches. He proceeded to deliver us to some palace, 'Mysore Palace' I'm presuming via extrapolation of location and thing, which was a vast, elegant structure with many beautifully architected(?) rooms that I might have enjoyed had I not had to lug around my shoes with me instead of on me because, surprise surprise, here was yet another place where sporting my moderately expensive, soft-soled and extremely comfortable footwear wasn't welcome. Whilst presented as some sort of 'display of respect' for the regal and religious traditions of the nation, I'm suspicious that the whole ruse is a long-game con by big pharma to stimulate demand for athletes-foot treatment and, much like flat-earthers, until science completely and utterly refuses this hypothesis I will presume it to be absolute verified fact.

    We had off-brand cornettos and I saw a camel. Best/least-loathsome part of the day by far.

    We next went to another palace, the 'Summer Palace', which is what rich folk used to have before conservatories. Entry cost to this miniature structure, containing some impressive if somewhat dilapidated wall paintings, varied in proportion to how much of an Indian you were. It was a binary scale, with residents being charged a set fee and foreigners being quite fairly charged a measly twelve times as much. Much like we do in the UK when international visitors pay £672 for a day at Alton Towers except of course they don't because that would be fucking racist and also nobody goes to Alton Towers without a coupon.

    Mysore done, we began the drive back to Bangalore, where we'd be spending our final evening/night at a party/shindig being put on by the former bride/groom, now husband/wife, for people that had travelled to the wedding/reception. On the way the driver asked if we'd like to stop for some food and we said we did and he asked what sort of place do you want to stop and we said let's try an Indian version of a foreign place we were familiar with like McDonalds and he said okay so he asked which one should we go to and we discussed it and said McDonalds and he said "McDonalds?" and we agreed we'd said McDonalds so he knew we'd said McDonalds and he stopped at KFC. Whilst we enjoyed our KFC, which tasted like chicken, a road traffic accident occurred right outside the restaurant and our driver took it upon himself to go and mediate the resulting confrontation between perp and victim. It was the only shit I'd seen him give about road safety all week.

    Given the general, rampant lackadaisical attitude of seemingly most road users through the week I was genuinely surprised we hadn't observed more incidents of this sort. Indeed it's true what they say, even though it patently isn't, that when you wait forever for a bus two come along at once. The onward at one point became an onward standstill as some sort of incident up ahead brought traffic to a halt. We were too far away to see what had caused the accident. It might have been a bus. Or perhaps two buses, travelling concurrently and thusly colliding. We needn't have worried though (albeit I sincerely hope nobody was hurt) as the line of vehicles behind simply drove off the road into a field, in doing so churning up said field from a bland yet naturally consistent grassy green into a muddied, muddy mess. Was this legal? Whose field was it? Were the vehicles capable of safely traversing this non-road surface? Didn't matter.

    We arrived in Bangalore in the evening. Absolutely meeting the established low-expectations already held, the driver first took us to a lovely, centrally-located hotel where we tried to check-in only to be told we had no booking and the correct hotel was some fire subsidiary lodgings out in the suburbs. Eventually arriving we had to change and leave with exorbitant quickness so as to get back into the city for our evening activity, a mere stone's throw from the not-our-hotel we were first taken to.

    Arriving at the gorgeous, decadent destination (another hotel ; one that I think, had we been earlier delivered here, I expect from instinct would have been able to judge as out of our range), we were late but the newly-weds were even later, demonstrating such deep fashionability as to justify their own designer lines. I'd personally love a stylish/ironic Muthukrishnan/Ramanan branded wrist-watch.

    Nam and Sid had laid on a very lavish get-together/party for all their visiting guests before we all headed off home. Hosting on the top-floor / roof bar of the absolute best hotel in Bangalore (of the five I'd visited, which is a sufficient sample), there were nibbles and an open-bar and the mood and spirits of all those present only enhanced as the mood-altering spirits were consumed.

    All well and good you might say? All's well that ends well you might say? Well, so I thought at the time. Only now, on reflection, do I notice the truth. See, the genuinely generous and excellent evening did actively and efficiently damper the memories and experience of our nightmarish day, but is that really healthy? Being coaxed, by way of free provision, into such indulgement really only amounts to a coping mechanism, providing surface-level relief but causing unhealthy repression that could cause long-term damage. And I say this with the authority of somebody who's seen every episode of Frasier, much of Cheers and that one cameo in Wings.

    Even in the short-term, the ramifications of this treatment were/are severe. After hours and drinks-a-plenty we collectively went back to Nam's brother's place which was both further away than I expected yet not as far out as it felt. There followed the provision and intake of further intoxicants until I think about 4am or so or thereabouts, my uncertainty on this being a part of the problem. Somebody called David and I a taxi and we got back to the hotel around an hour and a half before we had to leave for the airport so we smartly decided we'd have a quick kip.

    I don't really remember what happened next, but we definitely didn't wake up when we were supposed to, something presumably instigated by a third party did successfully wake us up and we thusly hurriedly swept our cluttered belongings into our bags then scrambled downstairs into our awaiting car to commence this confusing, disorienting and nausea-inducing journey to the airport (which, admittedly, might be stimulating less nausea were I not also typing this...).

    I recognise on reflection, now at the airport and eating a monstrous stack of French toast I'm hoping is a secret, undiscovered hangover cure, that this blog post might appear ill-tempered, exaggerated and totally unrepresentative of both my final day and my broad sentiment as regards my time in India. Whilst totally true on both fronts, I can't be arsed writing it all up again. So as to mitigate potential offence, I'll maybe wait a few months before posting it and plonk in a meta framing device that portrays the whole piece as a sort of found-footage/narrative piece. Yeah, that sounds like a really 'me' thing to do.
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  • Day8

    Ancient Medieval Times (Hampi to Mysore)

    December 14, 2018 in the United Kingdom ⋅ ⛅ 1 °C

    We had planned to wake at sunrise for a walk. An excellent plan indeed, with the minor flaw being that we neglected to investigate exactly when sunrise was scheduled to occur. Upon reliance that sunrise was one of the standard earliest occurrences each day we thusly set our alarms to go off 'early' so they might wake us and we might rise 'early'. We did and they did and we did, but the sun had beaten us to it.

    We went for a walk regardless, enjoying the sight of further, larger monkeys of a different species to the ones we saw yesterday. I couldn't name the species of either of them however ; I only know of one type of monkey, the spider-monkey, and neither type we saw were those, which at least narrows the pool of potential species they actually were by one.

    Though we'd missed the strict commencement of sunrise, the sun was still in the initial phase of its daily routine so we were still able to witness much of what we'd hoped for. The gently glowing gradually seeped through the morning mist to that perfect stage of illumination when you can look directly at it without harm, though for liability reasons must insist you don't and also I was wearing sunglasses. We captured some excellent pictures across the paddy fields and wove our way through the rocky roads and cliffsides toward a nearby lake. Here we met Roger, who was returning from a morning boat-ride he'd taken, having managed to be up before sunrise by implementing the sneaky tactic of checking when the thing he wanted to see would be happening.

    We collectively wandered back to the 'resort' (read: collection of concrete outhouses assembled around a cluster of wooden shacks), followed by a dog. Experiencing some slight pangs of separation anxiety, having entrusted my mildly cat-shy housemate with care of Figaro, it was nice to be the target of a four-legged friendship, but alas I could not reciprocate. As loveable and needy as the little dog was he/she was as dirty and mangy as they come, looking like it had taken a tumble in a tussle with a hedge-trimmer. Like how dogs might look in The Walking Dead if the animals caught the virus, if they could afford animals in the show, if the comic animator could draw animals of if anything related to that franchise was worth paying attention to any more.

    But as much as we tried to shoo the little dog away, he continued to follow ; I'd decided it was a 'he' by now. He didn't jump at us or pester, just followed behind or alongside with a sad yet hopeful, heart-breaking expression. I wanted to stroke him, but wasn't that committed to discovering the effectiveness of my rabies jab. Poor Benjy, I'd decided his name was Benjy by now, trailed us all the way back to the compound (a more accurate descriptor than 'resort'), where one of the staff violently warded him away.

    Feeling a little sad, there was only one thing to cheer me up; as it cheers me up every day in every circumstance without fail - breakfast(!). Craving a proper English Breakfast I'd spotted a close approximation on the dining-shack menu; 'Enlish Breakfast', which I dutifully ordered. And an approximation it was - fried eggs, ample beans, a tomato and mushroom mixture and toast with butter and jam. Recalling breakfast was still on Oscar's tab and that I had brewing dislike for Oscar given his lies and false promises and how even a week after the event he's still failed to send me the cost-breakdown of the trip I demanded, I ordered a second breakfast of cornflakes and milk. The corn-flakes were Asda Smart-price quality but fine, but notably they brought me a jug of hot-milk for pouring onto them. They tasted great, bringing back nostalgic memories of when I used to microwave my corn-flakes as a kid ; unsurprising given they were the exact same concoction only with the heating applied at a different point in the preparation.

    Side-note, as opposed to everything else being totally on-note, I only recently realised how irregular some people find the heating of certain breakfast cereals. There are genuinely people out there eating things like Weetabix and Shreddies COLD, and they act like I'm the weird one.

    After breakfast we packed up the car, again having to relegate my bag to the roof, then travelled to Hampi. Well, I think we were technically in Hampi, the region, but we were going to Hampi the city, or former city given it was now an unpopulated expanse of former civilisation. We discussed whether this was an 'ancient' city given it 'only' dated back to the fifteenth century, and even now with the benefit of numerous online dictionaries I'm not sure. If it was on the other side of the world we'd call it 'medieval', so for ease, equality and to move on from this tedious contemplation I'll be doing that.

    Hampi is a gorgeous series of medieval monuments, medieval ruins and medieval temples set amongst a picturesque backdrop of rocky hills strewn with boulders, many of which I'm sure pre-date medieval times but I can't be sure (Mark, where are you when I need you?). Features of particular note include the former medieval bazaar, the medieval elephant stables (sadly lacking in present-day elephants) and a medieval stone chariot shrine/sculpture they ensure is impossible to take a tourist-free picture of to support their sales of souvenir postcard-packs (which a couple of us did actually buy). There were also several large statues where the 'big deal' according to our guide, whom we'd picked up on the roadside en route, was that they'd been carved out from a single stone. Personally I'd have though that would be easier than determining some medieval method of fusing together multiple stones. I suppose there was risk of an error meaning starting-over, which might be a problem if there were a shortage of massive stones to carve into but, trust me, that wasn't a problem.

    We weren't the only visitors to Hampi today; far from it! As a historical and thusly educational site there were an abundance of school-trip groups from schools presumably quite far away, given we could see for miles around and there was no civilisation, barring the ruined possibly-ancient possibly-medieval one, in sight. Whilst Indian history was clearly on their syllabi, one topic I'd infer from behaviour was lacking from their curriculum was 'white people'.

    We were fascinating to them; particularly Charlotte whom yeah, objectively of the lot of us, showed decent taste. We couldn't work out whether it was her blonde hair or her freckles or her female-ness, but she was clearly the favourite, posing for more pictures on the day than...I'm going to say 'Kim Kardashian' at a 'movie premiere', presuming that's something she'd do at somewhere she goes for reasons she knows. I've really never understood nor cared to look into who or what or why she is.

    Not to say we, her bodyguard contingent, weren't popular too ; our pasty faces in steady selfie demand and our hands being shook more often than...I'm going to say 'Donald Trump's' at a 'campaign rally', this being something I know he does at a thing he unfortunately goes to for reasons pertaining to the downfall of western democracy. Dick. Still, we were but the sideshow to the main event, our little meet-and-greets routinely wrapping whilst Charlotte's crowd of adoring public continued to swell. I'm going to ascribe it to novelty mathematics; as a group of three guys and a girl we would only ever be, at best, the first white guy they see for a brief moment before becoming one of three, sapping our specialness, whereas being the sole female amongst us enabled her to retain and even enhance her uniquity. I'm sure if I was the only bloke with three ladies I might have been in equal demand. Yeah...I think I can convince my self-esteem to buy that...

    By early afternoon we'd had our fill and were starting to burn, so got back in the car for our onward journey. The roads were far better than the previous day's though still very long; a necessary feature, I was told, to stretch the distance between where we were and where we were going. Possibly tired of listening to our chit-chat, or just tired in general, the driver decided to play his music over the car speakers for this next stretch. The first tune that blasted forth from his playlist was a little ditty by Justin Bieber, which I was proud to not recognise as such. I put in my headphones and watched Brooklyn Nine-Nine, that show I saved, on my phone.

    After battling through traffic, animals in the road and this one point where we literally stopped right in the middle of active train-tracks playing chicken with an oncoming truck, night fell and we stopped in a small town to try and get some dinner. This was far from a tourist spot, with no English spoken by the locals and few clues as to the composition of the delicacies on offer, but we took a gamble on a nearby bakery and lucked-out with some delicious pastry bakes that looked and tasted a bit like spicy filled-croissants and some slices of cake that looked and tasted like cake.

    We arrived into Mysore late in the evening at a beautiful hotel that both reminded us of the West and hammered home just how shabby our previous day's accommodation had been. Roger tried to get a drink, without luck, whilst the rest of us attempted to catch-up on the sleep we hadn't quite managed to accomplish the night before. This wasn't difficult; it was a truly lovely establishment with proper thermostat-driven A/C, consistently warm showers and a mini-bar; like, not just a selection of items on a counter they called a mini-bar or some bags of nuts with price-tags on them but a proper plugged-in fridge keeping things cool and everything. There were no Kit-kats so I gave it a miss, but it was still nice.
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  • Day7

    6. MONKEYS! (Bangalore to Hampi)

    December 13, 2018 in India ⋅ ⛅ 29 °C

    We left a little later than scheduled this morning; one of our number, who shall remain nameless, sleeping through their alarm. Roger finally showed-up and we got on our way, but our lost twenty minutes would have a irreparable impact on our day.

    We had a new driver this morning. I've yet to pronounce his name correctly and can't write it down, but he came bundled with a new car and therefore additional capacity for our onward journey. However, whilst we would each be able to enjoy moderately spacious seating, i was told there wasn't room for my bag inside the car so it had to be tied to the roof. Had we been ready to leave a little earlier I'm almost certain I've had found a way to make it all fit.

    A little ways down what most closely approximates a motorway we stopped at a fair similie of a coffee-shop for breakfast. I ordered some eggy-wrap thing, that was as satisfying as my description of it, and a café latte since I wasn't confident the barrista had properly understood my preferred proportions for an Americano with milk. Unfortunately, contravening what I understand to be an international coffee-house code of conduct, there was no Wi-Fi. I'm fairly sure I heard the staff discussing how there was usually Wi-Fi, but they'd literally just cancelled their service contract twenty minutes earlier.

    Shortly afterwards we stopped at the roadside for some coconut water. I'd never tried this before, at least not direct from the coconut, and it was cool to watch the guy violently slash away the top quarter of the green fruit and casually pop a straw in. It tasted delicious ; much like coconut water consumed via other means only in a more degradable, less ergonomic container. Mind, to me coconut water has always felt like a pre-9AM drink and it was pushing 9:05 by the time we had it. Shame.

    Our first proper, sight-seeing stop was at Chitradurga Fort, an historic site weaving it's way up the side of a hill and home to 19(!) temples. With only an hour to spend here, and Mark not being with us, we saw only a handful of these and intimately photographed even fewer. The etymology for Chitradurga is 'picture fort', rendering Chitradurga Fort a 'Fort-Fort' and placing on my list of phrases including 'ATM Machine' and 'PIN Number' whereby abbreviations are inadvertently and inefficiently elongated by the appending of one of the words being abbreviated, adding bulk to a conversation and delaying the conveyance of any point being uttered. Very much the lingual equivalent of a delayed departure.

    It was an impressive archaeological structure that wound up a hillside to a high plateau. Making our way up in the baking midday rays, having narrowly missed the soft morning heat, it was when we neared the top that we spotted something, or somethings, first in the distance and then up close as we cautiously approached...

    MONKEYS! First one then several then tons. MONKEYS! Ruddy loads of them! Everywhere we looked, mainly as we were only interested in looking at MONKEYS!, there they were; climbing, jumping, swinging, scavenging, generally MONKEYing around and being awesome! We took pictures of the MONKEYS! which I'll try to resist making the only uploads accompanying this post.

    Momentarily, the terrible toils resultant of our twenty-minute tardiness evaporated as we soaked in the live and interactive simian sideshow. They didn't know we were late; monkeys don't know what time it is or even have a concept of time. Sure, an infinite number of them typing on an infinite quantity of typewriters would, presuming a supply of infinite ink-ribbons, eventually write Stephen Hawking's 'A Brief History of Time' and every yet-to-be-written future text expanding on and indeed correcting many of Hawking's claims, but these monkeys were here, bereft of stationary and finite in number. Which is a good job, or I doubt I'd have fit them in frame.

    If only we'd had a little longer to enjoy their company, but alas we were on a strict schedule (far stricter than it should have been) so we hurriedly took some pics then descended the hill and scrambled back into the car. Charlotte and David bought ice-lollies they had to wolf down so quickly they must have suffered brain-freeze.

    Our destination would be Hampi. The only thing standing between us and there was the absolute worst road in the entire effing world. It was under construction, tacitly implying it was somehow previously even worse, and had been chopped into single-lane sections joined by patches of gravel and road-humps of such high elevation to be more akin to be less a sleeping policeman and more a slumbering sumo. This meant our driver would briefly accelerate to the absolute top-speed possible, determined by vehicular capability as opposed to petty concerns such as speed laws, then almost immediately brake as he immediately encountered either a slow-moving (ie. driving at legal limit) vehicle, bump or gravel patch. Add to this the swerving around vehicles he could pass and the necessary left and right shifts across the tarmac-free joining points and you've all the ingredients for a home-cooked course of nausea. Whilst, practically, I can't link this circumstance with our morning delay, as a fully versed chaotician (ie. I've seen Jurassic Park) I believe that any incidence within a deterministic, nonlinear system can have a consequential impact that might appear unconnected yet is in truth the direct stimulus. As such, the onus falls to prove that leaving late DIDN'T cause my sickness, for which I've yet to receive any acceptable proof.

    After a while we stopped at a roadside restaurant for a rest-stop. Whilst the others ate, Charlotte and I just bought water and went to play on the swings in the playground next-door, as you do. My lunch-skipping might have been perceived as being due to the nausea I'd hardly been silent about, but was in fact a valiant and selfless deed of reducing demand on the kitchen and thusly expedite the food-orders placed, recovering for us a few moments of our lost time. Charlotte just wasn't hungry.

    The drive was long but entailed passing through a number of varied, yet consistently interesting, small villages. This was increasingly the furthest we'd yet been from the more-developed zones of India, with many areas appearing to straddle the line between 'simple' and 'poor'. At one point Charlotte remarked on how impressive it was that our driver knew his way through the windy, twisty backstreets of remote Indian villages, so I pointed out the sat-nav that was in full view and been periodically delivering directions at fully audible volume. Expecting to arrive at a fully mod-conned 3-star hotel, because the itinerary said that's where we were going, we eventually arrived at what on first impressions I'd generously have described as a 'simple' and less-generously have termed a shit-hole.

    But first impressions can be deceiving. True, the room accommodations were very basic breeze-block constructions, infested with wildlife, fitted with the first and only mosquito nets we'd encounter for the whole trip and with bathroom facilities you'd contently forgo eating/drinking/sweating lest you actually have to use them, but the location was simply breath-taking. Once we adjusted our mind-sets to the idea we'd be basically 'camping' as opposed to 'hotel-ing' for the night we quickly appreciated our lot but even more quickly got back in the car so as to try to visit a nearby attraction before the day was out. I'd have loved a little time to freshen-up a little, even twenty minutes would have done it, but no dice.

    We drove about twenty minutes to 'Monkey Temple' which, despite some diligent googling, I can't find an authentic, local name for. It's a temple (shocker!) dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman, set atop a hill with a winding stairway/path leading up to it. The higher we got the greater the prevelance of monkeys, but given the name of the place their presence was mildly less exciting. Perhaps sensing this cooler reception, one of the monkeys stole Charlotte's coconut, to some degree restoring the species' novelty-value (MONKEYS!). At the peak we had to remove our shoes to proceed, clambering over the rocks and drinking in the views / posing for photos / strengthening the callouses on our soles. If only we'd gotten here twenty minutes earlier...

    ...we might have taken our pictures, gotten bored and left. As it turned out, we'd arrived at the absolute perfect moment to capture the views then settle down in the area known as 'sunset point' to experience the precise moment of the day for which it was named. Observing the golden sun sink and the light slowly fade across the gorgeous vista, dusk delicately descending upon the visible cliffs, valleys and villages was hands-down the most beautiful and sensory moment of the trip. It transpired that 'late' had in fact been precisely 'on time' after all, which raises the question; were my comments and concerns over the impact of our late-start petty/exagerrated/fabricated? No, not at all, but it's okay to ask.

    We returned to the 'hotel' grounds and went to the 'restaurant', a covered area with low tables and cushions (in lieu of seats). The whole place had a very 'backpacker' vibe, precisely the breed of slacker reprobates I'd hoped to avoid by packing a suitcase, but invoked some pleasant nostalgia for my times travelling around Europe. Only thing missing was the smell of burning incense, which I voiced rather loudly and a few minutes later one of the staff brought some over.

    Our evening meal was to be put on a tab to be settled by the company that made the booking. That is, the company that had persistently messed-up or changed every element of our itinerary post-purchase without notification or apology. We collectively ordered as much as we could possibly eat/charge. We were then told this tab extended to alcohol, so adopted a similar stratagem.
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  • Day6

    5. Bangalore Reception

    December 12, 2018 in India ⋅ ⛅ 27 °C

    For our day in Bangalore, Nam recommended that we visit Lal Bagh. Translated as 'The Red Garden' in English, it is a 240-acre botanical garden in southern Bengaluru primarily constructed during colonial occupation with a Persian architectural style, formerly home to an exotic zoo, still home to various rare bird species and one of the most popular tourist destinations proving, if proof were needed, that I've finally got a decent connection to Wikipedia.

    As an ambassador of the former colonial power, I enjoyed a typically English breakfast. Corn Flakes (invented by American John Kellogg), Tea (Asia import, presumably not imported in this case) and toast with jam (origin disputed, but likely middle-eastern). Toast is as historically ubiquitous as the bread it's made from, coming about when someone had the whiz idea "well it worked out the first time, let's slice it smaller and do it again."

    Our first task for the day was to switch hotels, en route passing by the stunning parliament building and a smaller, newer government building that our driver told us was called something that sounded like "mini banana soda", which I refuse to look-up as there's no way the real name will be as good.

    We checked into the YMCA, where we heard it'd be fun to stay, and met up with Roger; Sid's friend from work who'd be joining our group and thusly my blog and Facebook friends list for the remainder of the trip. Charlotte and I had met him before, but I had no recollection of him. It took little time to recall why. Roger works for bank; quite possibly the most boring industry one can have the misfortune to be connected to. Whenever anybody in the profession attempts to converse with me, be it concerning their work or otherwise, I lapse into a dull daydream of overwhelming disinterest, emerging only once the excruciating mood-murderer had moved forth to their next victim. This does occasionally make my job rather tricky.

    Roger aboard, we crammed ourselves into the five-seater (our bigger vehicle to accommodate our increased number arriving tomorrow) and headed to Lal Bagh. I'm not sure why it's called the 'Red Garden', my Wi-Fi is gone again, but for an area consisting mainly of topiary, foliage and water features even if absolutely committed to a naming methodology incorporating a primary colour I could think of two better choices right off the top of my head.

    Two-hundred and forty acres large with a glass house based on London's Crystal Palace (Wi-Fi's back!), recent plans to demolish a portion of the site to enable the construction of the new metro line has caused controversy, lead to a contingent of citizens to come out in a series of protests against the loss of greenery and recreation space in the city. Initially well-attended, these demonstrations have attracted dwindling numbers as activists became increasingly frustrated with the logistics of getting to the protest site, public transport links being somewhat lacking.

    The park is exceedingly pretty, features of note including a rocky hill offering views of the Bangalore skyline, a stone bust of Dr Mari Gowda (a horticultural hero by all accounts) and a strangely popular abandoned building which had it attracted the crowds to the same degree when it was whatever it was mightn't have ended up becoming abandoned. There was also a Bonsai garden full of Bonsai trees, which I found slightly odd as I'd always been under the impression that Bonsais were popularised amongst those that lacked the space for a real tree/garden setup. It's like filling a cinema auditorium with 32-inch flatscreens. Or a Tamagotchi zoo.

    Our driver next took us to a craft store he presumably had a measure of business arrangement with to browse the available wears. I was genuinely interested in some of the items on offer, being precisely the sort of thing I was looking for as a souvenirial solution, but they went for the hard-sell approach, so I issued a hard-pass.

    Before heading back to the hotel we stopped off for a late lunch at an Indian restaurant. Acknowledge obviously that every restaurant we eat at here, purely geographically, is an 'Indian' restaurant and most have even been 'Indian' by way of specialist cuisine, but this was the first Indian Indian restaurant we'd visited that was making such an effort to apply an Indian aesthetic to such an overt and stereotypically clichéd extent. Patterns on the ceiling, gold-trimmed wall-hangings, vibrant fixtures and fittings, 'that' music playing (you know the sort) and with an elaborate water feature in the centre, it was as if the remit was to distil down every trite touristic expectation as regards an Indian eatery and check every tick-box when designing this diner, becoming an emblemic distortion as to culture it purports to represent. Much like what the Beefeater chain attempts to do with Britishness, or at least used to before they got rid of their 'beefeater' imagery and replaced it with a cartoon cow, undoing a cute visual pun in favour of a reminder of the cute animal whose life is sacrificed for your chips & peppercorn-sauce accompaniment. #veganuary

    Before heading out for the evening, Charlotte, David and I went out for a wander near the hotel, roughly attempting a route Roger had described to us as having completed the previous day; a basic loop round the surrounding area. Had they not been refurbishing the pavement across 60% of the route, forcing us to walk mostly in the dusty dirt, this walk might have been entirely uneventful. Still might be, depending on your personal perspective on the noteworthiness of slightly scuffing-up one's shoes.

    For the evening Roger and I went fully suited, mine being my tailored ensemble purchased on my last trip in Hôi An (see blog post "Hôi An Then...An then, An then, An then..."). David wore a shirt/trouser combo with velvet jacket; apparently Nam's favourite of his wardrobe options. Charlotte couldn't find the dress she'd planned to wear, possibly because she channelled efforts into Instagramming her circumstance of bring unable to find it instead of looking for it, but eventually chose an alternative ensemble that we considered entirely appropriate for the occasion but that, according to Charlotte's reports of a couple of 'looks' she received during the evening, mightn't have been a pan-reception concurrence.

    Were I being reductive, I might describe the reception as a 'catered photo-shoot'. But, located in an absolutely stunning hotel setting with a stage and high-calibre lighting with a phenomenal range of appetisers, mains and desserts this was far from your average point/click/munch affair.

    Once again, there was a refreshing lack of formality to proceedings; the 'reception' just sort-of occurring whilst everyone invited generally pottered about the place, taking their own snaps or filling their bellies. The happy couple spent, as a loose estimate, 99 9% of their evening on the stage as rotating configurations of family, friends and possibly crashers joined them on-stage to be immortalised forever in photographic form.

    Having gorged on ample Indian food earlier in the day, my main focus here was on desserts. In addition to a lovely coconut creme caramel there was a delicious, creamy, custard-like concoction that tasted rather like rice pudding with the rice removed (an odd omission given the prevalence/popularity of the substance here). I was later told it was basically milk with sugar, but then that's probably what rice pudding is too.

    A little later the wedding cake was cut, adding a further option to the dessert table that I dutifully made a second trip for. An apparent custom that differs from what I've observed in the UK is that when the cake is cut, the bride and groom take slices and feed first each other then some of their family. I'm not sure why this is a thing, there was nobody on hand to explain this to us, but I've got to believe it's more symbolic than them all just being hungry.

    After spending literal hours in front of the intense lights, the bride and groom were eventually able to mingle a little. One of the guests, I'm presuming a relative, had been intermittently singing songs, I'm presuming romantic songs, both for Nam and Sid and to entertain the guests throughout the evening. He had an excellent voice but, not to be outdone, as soon as the microphone was transitioned to karaoke-mode Nam positioned herself to deliver a sweet serenade to her husband of 'How Long Will I Love You?'. As usual, her voice was so good that few stepped-up to follow her. One of the younger guests gave us a performance of 'My Heart Will Go On' ; a song I've heard far more times this week than average for a song 20+ years old. Perhaps it has a particular cultural relevancy here in India that we don't relate to. Perhaps Titanic was subject to a delayed release and the country has only recently experienced the beautiful yet doomed obsession between Jack & Rose / pubescent boys & Kate Winslet's tits.

    I haven't yet mentioned the dress. OMG it was, like, totally fabulous. I wouldn't habitually render much comment on a bride's attire, save for an obligatory vague compliment, but I was genuinely taken with Nam's choice. With the wedding feeling like a deeply Eastern experience, the reception overall had more western overtones, without losing an Indian essence. As such, Nam's selection of a fairly traditional-looking western-style wedding dress with undertoned floral patterning felt like a perfect crest for this cultural clash. Sid looked alright too.
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