Sunday, January 19, 2020

back to tokyo

     Flying in early we hit the rush hour on the metro to Ginza and it seems very familiar: jammed in tight, silent, eyes locked on phones where space permits: but different too: uniformity of black suits and black hair create a monocultural image very different from our dear old lumbering Underground.
     Dumping our bags at the hotel, with six hours to kill we wander the streets of Ginza and find our way to the forecourt of the Imperial Palace. School trips all around. Here a party of white track suited kids run riot; while a boys' school in smart midshipman style uniforms stand stiffly as they listen to their teacher: the class system as strong here as back home. The eastern gardens of the palace are open to the public (though partly cut off as the remnants of the recent enthronement of the new emperor are dismantled). Built within the massive stone walls of the old Edo castle, they are a good introduction to the Japanese love of landscape gardening, miniature visions of wild nature.
     It's testimony to how much we loved our first visit to Japan that we are back so soon. We grab some lunch in a traditional tonkatsu restaurant embedded in a department store; luscious fried pork and giant prawn in breadcrumbs, with lots of accompaniments: the local comfort food.
     Next day, with weather much better than predicted, we visit Asakusa, a very grand palace built at the turn of the 20th century in French Empire style for the crown prince, and now a government guest house, all enormous gilded halls and crystal chandeliers. From there we walked through the Aoyama district, with its huge cemetery: the granite grave markers stand stark in the winter sunlight, rhyming with the narrow square tower blocks of the city beyond. This brings us to the jewel-like Nezu museum, a light and airy modernist building, designed by Kenzo Kuma and completed in 2009 set in a steeply sloping strolling garden featuring those same eight views and a very modern tea house where we had lunch. The museum houses a collection of oriental statues and scroll paintings, the best of them inspirationally spare in technique – a few deft brush strokes and a whole bamboo plant appears. This spareness is reflected in the building and in Japanese interiors generally, which of course has a huge influence on interior design around the world today, but here is in a tradition going way back to the simple timber houses and tatami rooms across the country. Our hotel room at the Millennium Mitsui also reflected this. A compact but perfectly formed room where every detail had been worked out, down to the smallest. (There was also a toilet that opened up and whined every time you went past, like an eager puppy that wants to play, and which had 12 buttons to operate and an A4 size list of instructions!)
     We continued to the National Garden at Shinjuku, Japan's Kew, another beautiful example of the tradition recently feautured in Monty Don's series on Japanese landscape design. By then we had had enough (walking over ten miles in the day) and finished the day with a siesta and a visit to the Belgian beer bar near the hotel that we had found the previous day. Alate middle aged man sat at the bar with a plate of salad and three small glasses of different Belgian beers, which he porceed to sniff and sample like a wine connoisseur. Slowly, slowly, sip after sip, for a full two hours before the salad and the drinks were gone. Not a word to anyone: absolute focus on the task in hand. Then a quick phone call – to the wife saying he'd been held up to at the office? – and he was off.
     The third day was all drizzle and sleet, but we still managed some major walking starting at Ueno Park, where we visited the le Corbusier designed Museum of Western Art. This has a very comprehensive collection from the early Renaissance through to modernists. Then throught he park to the Yanaka district: small streets and houses, many temples, and the main shopping street, Yanaka Ginza, where we had lunch in a local cafe. Then we hopped on the tram that runs through the northern suburbs to Shinjuku, people watching as the locals came and went, mostly on local journeys of a few stops. Old ladies bent double with shopping trolleys; Saturday dads with lively nippers that smiled shyly at us foreigners; track suited youths sharing an instagram video.
     An early morning vignette. A very old security guard, well into his seventies, in hi-vis uniform with a red baton (a common phenomenon here) stands outside the entrance to a car park. It's a job creation kind of job: he just waits until a car emerges from the garage and waves the baton around ineffectually to stop the traffic. A young girl, in a smart school uniform, probably no more than eight and on her own, approaches: a secret smile on her face as she sees the guard. She catches his eye and stops facing him. He smiles and bows very respectfully to her. She bows even more deeply, then is on her way. A little ritual that has perhaps developed over many weeks as she walks to school, a little moment to brighten the day for both of them.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Next stop: koh lanta

After a week it was time to move on - with some reluctance, especially as the weather has been gradually improving. However the night we left it started to rain heavily again and continued right through until breakfast. We had a leisurely drive up via old Takua Pa, well up into the hills above the port, then by back roads through mountainous heavily wooded countryside, and down the other side to Phang Nga, mostly in sunahine, dodging the clouds - very beautiful part of the country.
This is the start of the limestone countryside that stretches from Krabi well up the coast and produces spectacular jagged mountains and islands out into the Andaman Sea. Then continuing on through Krabi eventually to the car ferry to Koh Lanta. This is a jolly affair, brightly painted with landscapes and palm trees but otherwise a purely utilitarian vehicle that wheezes its way across the narrow strait.
In fact there's a second, smaller ferry too, because the island is split in two by another narrow stretch of water.
The Layana is a much grander affair than the Haadson - owned by south Africans, the rooms are arranged in small pavilions around a huge lawn that somehow gives the place a colonial feel. There is a huge pool leading down to the beach and restaurant and bar for sunset views. The beach is much smaller than at the last place, and rather more populated, but still a fantastic place to be.
We spent five days here and it was hard to find fault with anything - the staff friendly and efficient but not at all formal, fantastic food, both Thai and European, comfortable room, beautiful beach, and excellent weather.
We also dropped by some of the beach bars at night for a Chang beer and the inevitable fire juggling show accompanied by Thai reggae. Laid back or what?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sun sea sand and sleep

Could this be the laziest holiday ever? I hope so. A few years back the idea of spending a week at the beach every day would have been anathema. But somehow it becomes more and more attractive, with the bus pass years rapidly approaching.
To be fair, I did spend a week in Bangkok, but this was bookended by weeks at Jomtien in Thailand and Negombo in Sri Lanka.
So a blow by blow account of this holiday won’t make much of a blog. Instead I’ll mention a few highlights and give you a link to the best of the pictures.

New Year’s Eve in Bangkok’s Silom Soi 4. Always good fun but I’m in danger of becoming a cliché!

Going out with the fishermen in Negombo, on a traditional wooden catamaran, entirely wind powered – and these things can move fast! Probably this will be the last generation to use them – motor boats are already appearing on this beach. It was amazing to see the way the boat twisted and moved with the waves, the outrigger having lots of give – a level of sophistication that probably goes back a thousand years or more.

The elephant orphanage at Kandy. Every day the elephants come down to the river to bathe, in family groups that they have built largely themselves – mostly they are young who have lost their parents through illness or poaching. There were over a hundred elephants there, and you get a sense of the different personalities and great variation in appearance – tall and short, skinny and fat, spotty trunks and plain. And a general sense of benign tolerance of the tourists flashing away around them.

Assiduous readers will remember my entry on weird signs that I have seen on my travels. I’m afraid my favourite sign at Wat Arun in Bangkok has been updated, although it’s not much clearer!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

NY? Yes we can - the pictures

You can see an album of pictures from my New York/New England trip here:

NY? Yes we can - final


Clouds drift in from the Atlantic on a keen breeze

I wake up early and peek out of the house to see the mist rising over the lake. It's a gloriously sunny day and the light dapples through the trees and plays over the piles of leaf fall we have brushed to the corners of the deck. Just the odd raucous duck to disturb the peace.
I am falling in love with New England.
But it's now time to dash off again, and I drop Lincoln back at the station. Minutes later, Andrew arrives on a train out of New York and we start the gentle drive up to Provincetown where he also has a weekend place. This is all working like clockwork - I've managed to pack so much into a few days thanks to my friends' generosity.
It's always easy driving in the US and the roads are mostly quiet at this time of the year. We drive along the long sand bar that is Cape Cod passing pine woods and many small communities, although you don't see much until just before Provincetown when suddenly there it is across the last curve of water, with its huge stone Renaissance tower incongruously marking the town like one of those giant map pins in Google Earth.
Marking the Pilgrim Fathers' first landfall, it seems alien in this clapboard environment of little painted houses and picket fences. Andrew takes me for a walk around the town. Very different from his previous visit in high summer - we discover that this is Women's Week - and it certainly feels like it! The town is full of ladies of every size and shape and we are in a distinct minority.
Andrew shows me some of his favorite spots and then we walk out over the breakwater, a long line of rough granite boulders that stretches out to the far beaches on the last twist ot the Cape, which curves back in on itself here with a final flourish, forming a natural harbour. This explains why the place thrived as a fishing community in this remote location. Then it went through the familiar route of attracting artists, becoming a gay resort, then becoming more of a mainstream destination - much like Key West and other picturesque remote sites.
All the time we are here the air is crystal clear; brilliant sun, with fluffy, heavy, self contained little clouds blustering past; and a constant Atlantic wind that cuts right through you. Invigorating, energising even, but I'm glad I brought a few warm things on the trip.
I think that Andrew is enjoying a quiet break from the city. We both potter about, visiting galleries, me doing some photography (hard not to take a good picture in this place). On the Friday we ate in a well known Italian restaurant (also full of the gals!) and on the Saturday we collaborated on a home made dinner in their apartment. Fish of course.
The flat itself, right in the centre of the town and about 3 buildings back on a narrow plot, is spacious, bright and airy and has a spectacular view of the town and the harbour, filled with fishing boats (mostly I imagine for sports nowadays).
Finally I am reaching the end of the trip and I drop Andrew back in Boston, flying out on Sunday evening from Logan Airport.
It's seemed much longer than 10 days - I've managed to pack so much in, although it's actually felt quite relaxed. After a fairly frazzled summer (workwise - the weather was far from frazzling, one of the worst in London that I can recall), it's just what I needed. Thanks chiefly to my many friends who encouraged me and were generous with their time and ideas. It certainly won't be another 7 years until I'm back - in fact I've got the American bug again after a distinct lack of enthusiasm that must have something to do with the George W era. It's no accident that the gap since my last visit almost exactly covers the period from 9/11 to the Presidential election.

Post script:

Grand Central Station

The buzz about the election all the time I was in the US was een amazing. Everyone I met there was a huge Democrat supporter and was desperately hoping for an Obama win. Now that we know he's succeeded, I hope he will lead a generational change in attitude that can be sustained in the coming years despite the enormous problems. There are many powerful forces in the US that will do everything in their power to undermine his efforts. But the fact that the American people have elected someone with an African father and a Muslim name says a lot for American openness and its ability to reinvent itself, and I feel optimisitc.

Monday, November 17, 2008

NY? Yes we can! 7


Fall foliage - early morning view, Chester, CT

And off to Chester (the town not the cat). Rather guilty now that I have taken up the offer of a visit to J+L’s place in Connecticut, because it means Lincoln taking time off to go up there with me. It’s a couple of hours out of NY. I rented a car from the local train station and we head up to this tiny town (it would be a village in the UK) right in the thick of the fall foliage season. A lovely little place of brightly coloured timber houses and old mills in a deep wooded valley. I remember my first visit to New England at this time of year with Ian and it’s every bit as spectacular as my memories. Their little house is very cosy and very real, and I can understand why they love this getaway from the city. It’s got a huge deck, completely covered today with leaf fall, looking out over a pond in the middle of woods, with ducks and beavers. Delightful. Lincoln takes me to a restaurant in the town where they specialize in local farmers’ produce and with a very classy menu. I’m really impressed with the way food has improved in the US, a bit like the ‘slow food’ movement in the UK, perhaps.

NY? Yes we can! 6


The newly restored G U G G E N H E I M

The culture continues, as I descend on the Met. Where do you start in this huge place? I decide you can’t do everything so I focus on taking pictures of statues – Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Renaissance, modern and even post modern (in the shape of a Koons exhibit on the roof) – it’s all here. Standing on the roof, looking out over the park on yet another beautiful day, I decide I’ve got to come back soon. It’s just too good to miss, and plenty more to see.
In the early evening I met up with another long lost friend, Kathleen, and we have a long chat in a bar by Washington Square as the dusk descends. It’s great how you can just pick up with old friends after many years and it seems like you haven’t been away – a bit like my feelings for New York right now. And to see how they are thriving.
Now it’s time for the big debate. L+L have invited A+A and another friend (the guy that knew the hair guy at Billy Elliot) and we have a great time cheering and booing the candidates in the final debate. Obama and McCain really do come over like pantomime hero and villain – Prince Charming and the Baron, Robin Hood and the Sheriff. It’s hard to remember feeling this excitement in politics – the stakes are even higher than the Blair election in 1997.

NY? yes we can! 5


Koons, me and a Central Park skyline

I stayed the night very comfortably in New Jersey and then it was back to Manhattan for a bit of a cultural tour. I had a wander round Chinatown and the Bowery, getting some great pictures of the fire escapes. This area was once way down there at the bottom of the heap, but there are signs of change, just like all over Manhattan. As with Hong Kong when I visited after a similar gap, everything seems to be on the up and up. Reflecting on what I’ve seen so far, there are some areas (like around Times Square) that are barely recognizable compared with my first visit 25 years ago. I suppose if I had been away from London for 7 years I would experience the same thing. Lots more green, no litter, no graffiti, and generally more prosperity – at least at this end of the island. And lots more beautiful people – the derelicts and the obese have given way to the well heeled and the well toned in this wealth and health obsessed age.
I found the New Museum for contemporary arts, a wickedly wilful and contemporary building but with a fairly uninteresting exhibit (as they say here).
Met up again with Joel for lunch (kept him waiting having got confused with the time shift – or just another senior moment?) and he took me to another NY institution, Keen’s Chop House, on W 36 St near Times Square. It has an 18th C atmosphere and claims descent from that time, with more dark oak and hundreds of clay pipes hanging from the ceiling – no doubt it was a terrible fug in here before the smoking ban – and I had a very pleasant steak and of course more lively conversation from my host.
Next up, MOMA, another Rockefeller foundation. It’s on the site of their old town house and has expanded a number of times – the latest providing some spectacular white spaces that will need some filling. There was also an outdoors exhibition of factory built homes, exploring what could be done to provide quick help to victims of disasters such as Katrina (something of a rebuke by implication to the current administration).
More food with Joel (and with Paula and Kenny). This time it’s Italian – Tony’s di Napoli, an old school family all-you-can-eat place where the pasta just keeps coming! Very tasty but I’m starting to feel like I will burst. A third Broadway show now – I took J+P to see Gypsy with Patty LuPone (another NY institution apparently!) She was born to play the lead role in this, belting out Everything’s coming up Rose’s until the roof came off to the inevitable standing ovation. It seems a little old fashioned now but still a great evening and maybe good to get a feeling of Broadway in its heyday.
After all that I managed to keep awake until 2am in a bar, Therapy, with Lincoln and a colleague of his (of ambivalent sexuality!) It’s in Hell’s Kitchen, at W52 St between 8 and 9 Ave, now the latest trendy area, which no doubt I would have been scared to visit all those years ago. Now it’s full of expensively, tastefully designed bars like this. Almost empty though on a Tuesday, and you are aware that the bar culture here is very different from London. No popping in after work for a drink in the week – everyone is down the gym. No-one seems to drink much any more in fact. And so, back for a well deserved sleep – my roomie Chester is getting used to me but I think disapproves of my night on the tiles.

NY? Yes we can! 4


'How ya doin'?' 'Marvellous!'

Another day, another treat with different friends. I met up with Joel, my old childhood pen pal, in the morning for a long walk around Wall Street, across Brooklyn Bridge to Brooklyn Heights and back. Joel is always in good form and feels like the ultimate NY guy. (Running joke: Joel: How ya doin'? Me: Marvellous!)
Though he has never walked across the bridge, so I had one up on him!
I still remember the address he wrote from all those years ago, 1342-43 Street. He has never been back there and I think the memories are not happy ones. But we both still remember when he came over to the UK at the age of 16 and I think it made a real difference to his life. I’m glad we got in touch again about 10 years ago.
Later he drove us through the tunnel to NJ to their home and I met Paula again and their family, Howard Amy and their baby. They dote on her like crazy – but I guess that’s what grandparents are meant to do. They have a huge and very comfortable house on a new retirement estate, where they seem to have a bunch of good neighbours. They threw a party in my honour – to see this strange English guy that no doubt Joel has talked about before, and the house was filled with conversation – everyone talking at once and having a great time.

NY? - yes we can! 3


A Manhattan Sunday brunch - Lincoln, Angelo, Andrew, James

Sunday brunch is a NY institution, and nowhere is apparently better than l’Artésanale over near Andrew’s. I take L+J over to meet Andrew and Angelo and they got on very well, especially as it turned out that James and Angelo share a very similar Italian American upbringing and were soon swapping anecdotes about their families (Angelo being the only one in his family likely to vote for Obama). This café is one of the few where you can get decent cheese in the US: they just don’t ‘get’ cheese somehow – but here they have a cheese larder with that classic delicious smell wafting out.
Then back to Times Square with A+A to see Equus with Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths. Another great treat as I had not been able to get tickets when it was on in London. (Text from Y just before it started: ‘Enjoy Harry Potter’s willy you perv!’)
I never really rated DR in the movies but reports were good, and I was very pleasantly surprised. He put in an amazingly good performance in this intense production and with Griffiths really held the play together. The set was also spectacular, part Stonehenge, part circles of heaven looking down on the boy’s horse-god fantasies. The climax, even though I knew what was coming, was still shocking enough to make you shudder.
Later to the Algonquin for cocktails – another great NY institution.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

back to new york? yes we can 2


Lincoln and James at Kykuit on a glorious autumn day

It’s an early start as Lincoln has arranged a tour of the Rockefeller mansion up at Tarrytown, a pleasant train ride up the Hudson Valley on a brilliantly clear and sunny morning. Kykuit is built on a bluff overlooking a beautiful bend in the river (beautiful because, we are told by the guide, the family bought up the opposite 40 miles of bank and gave it to the nation as a state park, to preserve their view). The house is very tasteful, in French chateau style, built by John D Rockefeller and lived in by three generations of the family before being handed over to the National Trust. It’s cleverly designed inside, and has a homely, intimate feel, despite its size. There’s also a superb modern art collection developed by Nelson Rockefeller. The gardens are extensive and elaborate, making good use of the changing levels and in many different styles. The many Rockefeller descendants still live on the estate in many houses spread over 4000 acres, and can be glimpsed on their private golf course. JDR was a Baptist and devoted his later years to giving away much of his Standard Oil fortune. He and his family created many of the cultural centres around the US, as well as buying up land for national and state parks. On our three hour tour the guide was one of the best I’ve had, giving real insight into the life of the family.
The trip is turning into a Rockefeller homage, as when we get back to Manhattan, Lincoln and I go up to the Top of the Rock(effeler Center), one of the best vantage points on the island, with huge panoramic views uptown over Central Park, and downtown with the Empire State Building centre stage and the rest of the cast clustering round. Of course, the twin towers of the World Trade Center would have been just behind once upon a time, and I’m reminded that I was in a similar vantage point on top of them just a few weeks before Sept 11th, on my last visit here in 2001. The centre was built in the depths of the depression to help stimulate the economy – a bit of altruism by JDR that I’m sure has paid off well in the long term. It’s a great bit of urban planning, the first real precinct in NY, spreading cleverly across three city blocks and centred on a public plaza, where they are already ice skating despite the unseasonal warm weather.
Later I drop into Andrew and Angelo’s apartment downtown. It’s my first visit though I’ve had many reports, and it lives up to its reputation as a meticulously detailed jewel of a flat. The view from the roof is stunning (even though the Empire State is now only peeking from behind a banal building that’s just sprung up) but it’s a great little oasis in the intense urbanism of the mid 30s – and looking out you can see many such little escape valves sprinkled across the roof tops, between the water tanks and lift overruns. Andrew was away but it was good to see Andrew again and chat over a Moroccan tagine – he’s starting to get more time but still very busy in his work.
Later I walk to Times Square, busier and buzzier than ever, and look for the Billy Elliot marquee. Yes, another treat – the previews of the Broadway production have just started and this was one of the spurs for my visit. (Really getting one up on Ian and Yasser!) I’m treating Lincoln and James and they (and the rest of the audience) love it, even though there are a couple of major glitches with the machinery that bring the show to a shuddering halt – and they cut the curtain call number. They have introduced quite a raft of small changes, and one or two substantial restaging in the second half, but it’s still very close to the original, with all the songs and dance numbers, and a brilliant cast (including Hayden Gwynne from the London production. The kids are as fantastic as any cast I have seen (I think I’ve seen 6 London Billys!) and the accents surprisingly authentic to my ear anyway. Then Lincoln springs a surprise – a friend of a friend is doing the hair and wigs and he sneaks us backstage to have a look. Later we meet up with them for a drink – really delightful and welcoming guys and classic gay New York boys. The hair guy is stunning and says he was a Billy Elliot himself, training in dance and no doubt hoping to get up on the stage one day. I’m flagging by the end – it’s hard to believe I’ve only been here 36 hours or so.

back to new york - yes we can! 1

Friday 10 October 2008

After a beautiful afternoon in Central Park, it’s hard to remember why it’s taken me so long to come back to New York. My last visit with Yasser was in August 2001 – the end of a 4 week trip. Since then, I’ve been reluctant to come back – blame it on Bush!
And if there’s anyone to thank for me coming now – apart of course from all my friends – thank Barack Obama and Billy Elliot.
The weather is just about perfect as I wander arund, people watching and taking in the buskers. Everyone is making the most of this Indian summer. (A friend later insists this is an American term dating from the days of the pilgrim fathers – whereas I always thought it came from the Raj.) Lots of people with prams, old ladies in wheelchairs with their latino maids, kids playing ball, people just lounging on the Great Lawn and grabbing the last chance to top up their tan. I walked for miles and sat by the lake: leaves just starting to turn and the sky a spectacular Wedgwood blue. It’s a beautiful park, New York’s jewel in the crown.

I’m staying at Lincoln and James’ apartment at 88th and Lexington, just in from the Guggenheim. Really great location and so kind of them to let me stay. It’s a comfortable place and good for the subway on the main uptown/downtown lines. The first evening they take me to a neighbourhood Italian restaurant, Spigolo on 2nd Avenue, where, sitting outside, it feels like a balmy Mediterranean night, which the food suits perfectly. We have a long chat about NY and the election. Obama mania is everywhere – posters, canvassers on the streets, and he’s on the cover of every magazine. By midnight I’m ready to collapse having been up since 2am EST, and bed down in their study with my roomie, Chester – a blind ex-stray cat long haired, very skinny under the longest hair, and with a well established routine that probably means I’m getting in the way – ut he’s friendly enough.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

first eurostar from st pancras

This is our Eurostar pulling away,
Here at St Pancras on opening day,
Cameras flash, and visitors cheer,
And Brussels has never quite seemed so near.
Gathering speed, it’s out of the shed:
The sunlight is slanting on the rails ahead.
Deep under London’s hustle and grime,
Stratford already and she’s on time.
Pushing 200 and starting to fly –
Essex marshes go shimmering by.
Free champagne in the buffet queue,
Taking it easy, enjoying the view.
Dartford and Ashford then deep into Kent,
Effortlessly pulling with no relent.

And suddenly plunging into the Tunnel
Trips no longer excite you? Well surely this one’ll!
People on business or out on day trips
Some anoraked trainspotters, some that are hip,
Oldsters and youngsters and middle aged chappies
All types the passengers, all of them happy.
People from London and people from Leeds
Down in the darkness at breakneck speeds
Glad to be travelling on the first train
From St Pancras to Brussels, and then back again.

Out into Picardy, slicing through France
Everyone gripped by this railway romance.
Over the border and Brussels in sight
Nearly at Midi – she’s doing all right.
Anticipation of friends they’ll be meeting
Slide into the platform, and warm are the greetings.

Sincere aplogies to WH Auden fans - here's the wonderful original: