Week 346 – a week in Wales

It was a quiet start to the week as Lizzie and Paul were gearing up to their first two-day ‘holiday’ with Emily. Tuesday’s highlight was a successful lunch out at a local brasserie – tasty burgers washed down with prosecco – all enjoyed while Emily slept peacefully in the pram.

On Wednesday we drove to Snowdonia, a couple of hours down the road to the west of Leek. The weather got darker and wetter the further we ventured into Wales, jagged black quarried crags rising on one side, choppy grey seas full of wind turbines on the other.

Our destination was Llyn Idwal, a small lake in the shadow of the Glyder hills. We ate our picnic in the car, listening to a battery of raindrops, in the hopes that the clouds might lift, but they didn’t, so we donned full waterproofs (Emily zipped up snugly inside Lizzie’s – although we needed to use a plastic bag to cover a gap!) and set off up the puddly stone path.

Despite the weather, we weren’t alone – there were plenty of other stubborn ramblers determined to ‘have fun’ battling the elements, including a large party of primary school children, who seemed completely unbothered about getting wet. The boys ended up wading into the lake fully clothed!

The squally showers came and went. The brooks were distant ribbons of white that became noisy frothing torrents to be crossed gingerly on slippery stepping stones. The tops of the sheer silvery cliffs were occasionally visible, the clouds rolling over us, bank upon bank, layer upon layer. It was quite exciting! The forecasted easing of the weather didn’t transpire until our return to the valley, where happily there was a stall selling hot tea and home-made cake.

We drove over the moorlands (passing a great number of vintage cars – it was a rally day!) and down a bleak steep-sided valley pass with the Glyders rising on one side and the Snowdon range on the other. Paul was staying in an isolated climber’s hut at the foot of a boulder strewn escarpment (see photo!). Lizzie and I opted for a comfortable B&B in the nearby village of Llanberis.

We went to a local Indian restaurant for supper. The owner was stressed – he’d no staff on duty as they were all recovering from the Eid partying the previous day – and the place was packed with hungry hikers/climbers. But he was friendly despite his brusque business and the food was excellent. Emily stayed quiet, as long as she was on someone’s shoulder being jigged about (we took it in turns to eat!).

The town high street was very Welsh – with lots of flags and a slightly hostile feel (tourists/the English are only just tolerated!).

By the town’s slate quarry lake is a sculpture of the sword in the stone (I had no idea that the Arthurian legend had it’s roots in Llanberis!). I also liked this charming mural featuring the Welsh dragon, the train up Snowdon, daffodils, and the mountain rescue helicopter!

We were surprised to wake up on Thursday to sunshine! From our ‘lake view’ balconies we could admire the piles of sparkling shale. It started raining again soon enough, but we were cosy enjoying our full English breakfasts, prepared by our jolly Liverpudlian host, Bob, who proudly (and endearingly) told us stories of his daughters and grand-kids.

Paul and Lizzie’s aim was for us all to ascend Snowdon (the highest mountain in England/Wales) that day, but forecasts of thunder put paid to that.

Instead we drove up through the pass again and down to Llyn Gwynant and traced a rarely-used route up and along a lower ridge of hills to the south of Snowdon with views across to the (cloud-covered) higher slopes.

We got drenched as we kitted up, but as soon as we started walking (in thermals, macs, anoraks and waterproof trousers) the sun appeared, and it got hotter and clearer hour by hour (we could have managed Snowdon after all!).

An initial stretch of road-walking took us alongside the lake. Every stone and tree-trunk was covered with furry green moss. The purple fox-gloves glistened with raindrops, and the meadows were lush green and gold.

Wisps of cloud lingered on the tops for a while, but by early afternoon they had disappeared. Everything was damp and sparkling in the sunlight. It was also very moist underfoot!

The uneven stone paths up the sheep-pastured and mossy wooded hillside were trickling brooks, and when we got to the top (a wide, bumpy plateau) we were wading through bogs.

Our feet were sodden, which was fine, but there was the extra jeopardy of possibly losing a shoe on every step through the peaty sludge.

Paul carried Emily in the sling, and she slept virtually all day (we were walking for more than 7 hours!), waking cheerily when we stopped for a snack and a milk feed, then dropping off instantly once we set off again.

It was hard to make out any sort of path (we didn’t meet a soul) but the line on the map followed a fence-line, so we didn’t get lost! We did have to make big detours round the deepest patches of marsh, black waters tufted with bog cotton.

Our route took us along the ridge as far as Llyn Endo, a pretty wind-ridged tarn twinkling under the white high-builded clouds and confident sun.

We descended a shallow marshy dell, leaping over a number of furious white-frothed rills snaking down from the high plateau. The views across to the (now 100% visible) Snowdon range were stunning.

Patches of brilliant pink/purple rhododendrons added pretty colour (although they shouldn’t have been there – they are out of control).

We clambered through tumble-down stone sheepfolds, and across great flat slabs of rock, startling big black beetles and furry caterpillars.

Even when we had returned to farmland on the lower slopes, the path-finding remained challenging. Our final stretch involved fording calf-high rivers (not my favourite thing!) but we did stumble across a lovely patch of sundew.

The low golden early evening light was stunning as we strolled down a comfortable stony woodland-fringed track towards the lake.

Paul had some beers stashed in his van, which hit the spot while Emily fed and we attempted to dry out our stockinged feet in the last of the sun’s warmth.

We drove over to Betwys y Coed to grab freshly fried fish and chips – so tasty – which we ate sitting on a bench in clouds of midges by a shadowy river.

The skies were dramatic as we drove back to Llanberis, deep grey swathes of cloud skimming the Snowdon peaks. The low sun shone straight into our eyes as we descended the twisty pass to the valley floor, and the sky was turning bronze as we pulled in to the B&B. While Lizzie took Emily in for a feed, I wandered down to the lake to watch an amazing coppery pink sunset over the mountains.

The next morning everything was a cool grey once again. Lizzie and I had to drive almost the the entire length of Wales – North to South – to get to mum’s place in Presteigne. The roads are narrow and there were plenty of farm machines about, so it wasn’t a fast drive, but it was a pretty one – rolling farmland, desolate moors, rushing rivers and distant mountains. But soon we could barely see where we were going through the driving rain!

We arrived at mum’s in the early afternoon and were welcomed with warming bowls of soup and local cheeses. Mum even put the heating on – it certainly wasn’t feeling like almost midsummer!

Luckily the rain abated the following day, and we went to visit ‘The Rodd’, a local rambling C17th mansion, which had been occupied by the Australian artist Sidney Nolan in the later years of his life.

The Sidney Nolan Trust now runs a small gallery there, devoted to his work, and keeps the house (now unoccupied) from falling down.

Currently on display are a selection of Nolan’s late portraits (disturbing, thickly-oil-paint-encrusted Bacon-like visages), some large energetic flower paintings (made using enamel spray paints) and a lovely icon-like series of monochrome ‘ancient heads’ which were ‘spray painted on linen that has been primed with acrylic titanium white which gives the canvas a ‘shiny’ effect’.

We were also invited to explore the ground floor of the house. It was pretty empty but there were a few interesting old details, such as the charming tiles depicting traditional English pastimes, and some spectacular carved wooden fireplaces.

The kitchen was a real mishmash of old and new – there were the remains of the massive old cooking hearth and a huge porcelain sink, old crockery and wooden drying racks, but also a washing machine (which I didn’t choose to photograph!).

The house has extensive grounds, which are wooded or leased out to local farmers. We didn’t have long to take these in, but did enjoy wandering through a gorgeous field of buttercups.

Marion and Chris had us all over for supper – shepherds pie and crumble – delicious! It was lovely to catch up and view the latest garden and model railway developments.

The wisteria arbour was looking particularly magical in the last of the day’s light.

On Sunday, mum, Lizzie and I visited Hergest Croft Gardens. Originally landscaped in the late 1800s, they have been maintained and developed by four generations of the Banks family – all of them bankers and horticulturists – who still own the estate today (although during WW2 the place had been requisitioned and used as a school).

There are many fascinating trees sourced from all over the world, which are rarely seen outside official botanical gardens in the UK. One of mum’s favourites is the handkerchief tree (pictured – the floppy white ‘blossoms’ are in fact seed-bracts).

I enjoyed the many colours of rhododendron – pink, purple, white and red, even yellow. Another stunning and unusual flower was the Himalayan poppy – which came in subtle shades of blue and mauve.

We managed to get Emily interested in some daisies!

There was an avenue of lime trees (which featured this alien-faced one!)…

…and a Chinese tree (I don’t remember the name) festooned with super-long dead-straight vertical streamers of hard little green flowers.

We made use of the traditional tea-rooms (scones and cream and Victoria sponge), sitting on an elegant wooden bench in the almost warm sunshine, overlooking a flat lawn (once tennis courts), across the haha to the sheep fields beyond. It was all very civilized!

To the left of the lawn were two different types of beech tree that I’d never seen before. One was a weeping beech, the other a split-leafed beech. Emily loved the sunlight filtering through the leaves.

Week 345 – hedges snowlike strewn

On Monday morning I went to the National Portrait Gallery with Sonya, Tobias and Effra, to see an exhibition of recent work by photographer Martin Parr. I’ve always loved his wry social commentary, and his ability to capture the unwitting honest moment in the chaos of a crowd. He’s fascinated by class and national identity – unpicking how we perceive ourselves and others, the rituals and tastes that divide us – always in a gently humane and humorous way.

Each room in the exhibition was devoted to a themed body of work. A spinning mirrorball sent rainbow specks of light round a gallery devoted to his ongoing series of photos of dancers. There were girls letting loose on a hen night, a scary punk mosh pit, kilts flying in a ceilidh, and the social dancers pictured (this man’s giggle caught my eye – and the glum couple nearby!).

There were portraits – of the great and good (less arresting, as they knew how to pose), and interesting non-celebrities. My favourite one was this man proudly showing off his incredible leek!

Parr has recently made a series of idents for the BBC. They feature community groups – from dog walkers, to mountain rescue teams, to jive dancers, to wheelchair basketball teams. Pictured are a group of bog snorkellers!

Parr’s images are often most successful when they blend humour and uncomfortableness. His photographs of ex-pats in Africa were particularly telling – funny and chilling and awful.

After the Brexit referendum, Parr travelled around the UK, visiting the areas with the highest proportion of ‘leave’ voters. He observed people at country shows, at hunt meets, in traditional fishing/farming/manufacturing facilities that will collapse without EU funding. He observed festivals and street parties celebrated by immigrant communities living in these areas.

It was all very dispiriting, but this section did feature the most hilarious image of all (see above), taken at the Chelsea Flower Show.

The final section was devoted to the ruling elites. Here the privilege continues, unchanged – arcane dress-ups and ceremonies and a strict social order which perpetuates – quite unconnected to the struggles of the general populace. This refectory scene from Christ’s Hospital School looked like a still from Harry Potter!

There was a brief video interview with Parr. He came across as such a lovely, intelligent, thoughtful chap. He said that his favourite images were often the least sensational, such as this one of a couple of Muslim girls running a traditional British fish and chip shop.

Before Sonya and I parted ways, we popped down to Trafalgar Square to see the the Fourth Plinth. The current artwork, by Michael Rakowitz, is a commanding presence. It is a recreation of the Lamassu (winged bull) – one of the thousands of ancient art pieces that were destroyed in the Iraq war. It is made entirely of recycled date cans.

I walked over to the National Film Theatre, to catch an afternoon showing of Kubrick’s 1964 political satire ‘Dr Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)’. It’s strong stuff, and the humour still bites. It’s about what happens when the wrong person (a crazy military renegade) hits the nuclear button. The powers that be flounder around helplessly trying to prevent the impending apocalypse. Peter Sellers is impressive in three different roles – most memorably, as the Nazi psychopath scientist, Dr Strangelove. Ken Adam’s dramatic Bond-style sets (especially the ‘big map’) looked marvellous on the large screen. A real treat!

There was more top-class London culture to follow! I’d scored a standing ticket for the evening’s performance of Puccini’s crowd-pleaser ‘Tosca’ at the Royal Opera House. Bryn Terfel starred as the monstrous villain Scarpa, Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais took the titular role, and Italian tenor Vittorio Grigòlo played the lovestruck Mario. Jonathan Kent’s staging was understated, but particularly effective in the first scene. Terfel was alone, plotting his evil in the basement chapel, whilst above him a church service – all shining children and robed priests – was taking place. Grigòlo had the sweetest voice – his romantic arias were utterly gorgeous. Opolais came into her own in the tragic scenes. But it was a shame when she bumped Terfel off – the energy levels on stage took a sudden dive!

On Tuesday I caught the train up to the Midlands. The late May countryside was so green, and the hawthorn blossom so white and frothy – it brought to mind the line ‘hedges snowlike strewn’ (from Larkin’s ‘Cut Grass’).

I met my (almost-3-month-old) niece Emily! She smiles and cries and loves to curl up on a warm lap, and seems to be ravenous most of the time! She also barely sleeps during the day (just like Maisie at that age).

Lizzie and I went for a stroll, bumping the pram over Leek’s cobbled streets, and came across this medieval (Angle-Scandinavian) cross shaft in the churchyard of St Edwards. After supper (at 8pm – I love the long midsummer light!) we drove up to the Roaches to watch the sun set, and enjoy a beer in the sweet-scented crepuscular gloom.

The weather was dismal on Wednesday, but Lizzie and I got stuff done. We went through cupboards and wardrobes and filled 8 large bags with clothes for recycling or binning (I remember some of the clothes from Lizzie’s university days!!).

We went for a damp afternoon walk around the local reservoir, the cloud so low above our heads you could almost touch it! From a little hide we watched lapwings and terns darting over the water. The bushes were twittering with tits and finches, and evening blackbirds trilled their melodious song. The lush meadows were vibrant with rain-flecked flowers – yellow buttercups, purple clovers and brackish grasses, blue dots of speedwell, ragged pink campion etc.

On Thursday we went to ‘Boob Club’, Lizzie’s local mum social group, which was held in a room above the Fire Station (a window overlooked the garage – but there was no action while we were there!). The babies were all very cute, curious and wide-eyed and dribbly, but seeing them didn’t make me broody – it was a relief to have moved on from that stage, and to be able to talk about subjects other than hours slept and feeding routines!

On Friday Lizzie, Emily and I went to Manchester for the day. We caught the train (Emily’s first train ride – and it was also her first venture to the big city!). We met Anna B at the Manchester Art Gallery, hung out in the café, and visited a couple of exhibitions.

The first was a showcase of C20th Scandinavian design – furnishings, furniture, textiles, metalwork, glass and ceramics. I could happily have lived with any or all of them! Some were folksy (such as Birger Kaipiaien’s gorgeous wall plate – above)…

… others were seductively-shaped (such as this pregnant silver pitcher by Georg Jensen). A few achieved unusual effects with familiar materials – I particularly loved this porcelain/stoneware dish by Hanna Hyving, which conjured up an icy blue water-hole in a frozen lake…

…and Lena Bergström’s amazing blown and cut glass planet series.

The second exhibition was completely different. To coincide with the release of Mike Leigh’s new film about the 1819 Peterloo massacre, every gallery and museum in Manchester is currently running events about mass protest and civil unrest.

In ‘Get together and get things done’, the Manchester Gallery had brought together historical images of all sorts of different crowds. There were Hogarth’s politically charged cautionary tales, full of terrifying debauchery, early C20th photographs of suffragette protests, more recent images of activists fighting for women’s rights in India, and 1980s Poll Tax rioters.

There were happier crowds too – I liked a vibrant painting of an 1863 London street party celebrating the marriage of the Prince and Princess of Wales, and a curious early C20th photo of the ‘largest ever gramophone concert held’ in a park in London (there was the picture of the crowd, alongside a tiny image of the gramophone, sitting in solitary splendour on a stage!).

Most striking were the political protest posters – there was the iconic 1980 ‘Solidarity’ poster, and, my favourite, an anti-right-to-buy poster designed for a rally held by the Tower Hamlets Federation of Tenants (this one also gave the name – and the typeface – to the whole exhibition!). Another interesting feature of the exhibition were the feedback cards, which visitors could fill out and add to the displays, propping them up on a shelf that ran all the way round the gallery (see above). There were a surprising number of thoughtful comments!

On our way back to the station, the city was hitting peak Manchester. There was a Spice Girls gig on that night, and the streets were awash with excitable, already drunk fans (it was 5pm on a Friday) dressed as Baby or Scary, or sporting Posh and Ginger t-shirts (my favourite t-shirt simply said ‘zig-a-zig-ah!’). A high homeless man was lying in the road, refusing to move for the taxis trying to get past, and racially abusing the drivers when they started remonstrating with him.

We had a quiet day on Saturday. In the afternoon I wheeled Emily around town. We explored Leek’s municipal park which is set on an alarmingly steep slope (it was quite a workout with the pram!) but has a bandstand, a large rhododendron and yellow flag-fringed pond, a skate park, a playground, and lots of tennis courts. Emily slept through all the excitement!

In the late afternoon Paul, Lizzie, Emily and I went for a walk along the lane that skirts the bottom of the Roaches, and up along the ridge path.

The light was diffuse and grey, but it was clear, and we could see for miles, as far as Snowdonia, and the Long Mynd. The air was fragrant with the scent of the wild flowers, and the gorse-hedged fields were full of bright white new lambs.

There were also some heavily fringed chestnut Highland cows! I wonder how they can see where they are going?!

Our walk took us through a large fire-scorched area – burned in August last year (shortly before Tommy’s and my last visit, at which point the whole area was still closed). The winds had whipped up the last sparks of a poorly-controlled (illegal) campfire. There were some hopeful signs of new growth.

We sat down for a rest in the shadow of the crags, and the sun briefly emerged, making the colours ping!

On Sunday, Lizzie drove Emily and I to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The route we followed was beautiful, over high cloud-swept plateaus, along wind-ridged reservoirs, across the dour scrubby bleakness of the Dark Peak.

I’ve wanted to visit the sculpture park for a long time, and my expectations were high – perhaps too high! The day got off to a disappointing start when I found out that the piece that I’d been most excited about seeing (Roger Hiorn’s ‘Seizure’) had been closed indefinitely!

And I was a bit over the Henry Moores as I’d recently seen lots in Japan (although it was quite cute seeing the sheep huddling up to them!).

Things improved once we stepped inside the Chapel. Korean artist Kimsooja’s installation was simple but effective. She had put in a mirrored floor and coated the windows in refractive film. Looking down into the depths of the mirror was disorientating – the height of the windows beneath you suddenly seemed quite dizzying, and walking up the shiny mirrored steps was challenging! The rainbow light bouncing off the glass added to the sense of unreality, as did the soundtrack of breathing and chanting.

There were a number of sculptures by British artist David Nash (his ’Seventy-One Steps’ we experienced in the most visceral fashion, as we bumped the pram up every one of them!).

My favourite of his was ‘Black Mound’, a gathering of charred stumps (I made a child cry by reminding her that the label said that they were not be climbed on!). Nearby was (an apparently) guerilla artwork – a small blue owl paste-up in the knot of a tree!

Lizzie and I were keen to find the Andy Goldsworthy pieces, which were situated at the far end of the site, at the end of an extremely tree-rooty, rocky path (we almost broke the pram in the process!). We were glad we made the effort!

Both were dry stone wall structures. The first, ‘Hanging Trees’, was a series of three rectangular enclosures, set in a boundary wall. Encapsulated in each was a rotting tree-trunk, its limbs piercing/supported by the stone walls. The second piece, ‘Outclosure’, was a high-walled round enclosure in a round wood. There was no opening – you could only just see (the wild weedy patch) inside if you peeked through a chink at the top.

A gallery at the far end of the park had been devoted to an exhibition curated by artist Yinka Shonibare. Entitled ‘Criminal Ornamentation’, Shonibare had chosen pieces from the Arts Council Collection to explore ‘the cultural and social dimensions of the use of pattern in art’.

I’m not sure how well all the pieces worked together to tell a story, but I enjoyed Shonibare’s own wax relief collage, a couple of classic Bridget Rileys, the excellent timorousbeasties London wallpaper (quaint nostalgia and scary modern intertwined), and Andy Holden’s oddly titled ‘Totem for Thingy Time’ (the crazy pastel ice cream mountain)!

Our (thankfully easier) way back down the hill took us past some monumental old oak trees, and past Bruce Beasley’s subtly shaded pile of bronze geometrical blocks (‘Advocate IV’).

We came across Lucy and Jorge Orta’s ‘Gazing ball’ (with severed bronze heart) by the lake, and I was rather taken by Mark di Suvero’s ‘The Cave’.

It looked like something from a shipping yard – chunks of rivetted steel and rusty iron (he often utilized found objects). The kinetic element of it – the curved rusty form dangling freely – vividly expressed great strength and tension.

The visit ended on a high with James Turrell’s ‘Deer Shelter Skyspace’. Turrell’s immersive ‘Skyspaces’ are tall, white, submerged chapel-like rooms, which frame a square of sky. Inside, you can lie back and look up and contemplate the heavens as the light changes, the weather passes, the birds flit by (we mainly saw distant wind-surfing swallows). Even Emily found it calming!

This Yorkshire Sculpture Park Skyspace is based in a C18th underground structure which was originally built to shelter the Bretton Hall Estate’s deer herd in the winter!

Week 344 – Barbican bound

On Monday night I took part in Jeremy’s gamelan gig at La Mama Theatre. The concert was part of the theatre’s regular series of experimental music nights. Our instruments were set up in front of an old-fashioned puppet theatre booth, but sadly, no puppets peeked out while we were playing!

The first half of the gig was devoted to three gamelan-themed solo performances. Jeremy performed a free-range reong/gender/gong improvisation, exploring the sonic properties of different intervals. Jono took us on a Vangelis-tinged modular synth journey, unrecognisable samples of ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’ woven together in a gamelan-informed structure – it was mesmerizing and stopped too soon! Adam continued his fascinating project translating Indonesian percussion techniques to kit drums, combining hand and stick strokes. He focussed in on repetitive, intricate subtly shifting loops, sensitive to the musical tones and harmonies being created. It reminded me of Seb Rochford’s work – a high compliment indeed!

I didn’t acquit myself particularly well when it came to our group performances in the second half, which was a shame, as Jeremy’s brief etudes – pitting patterns of 4 against 5 against 6, taking Rejang Dewa off into sparkling new harmonic directions, throwing gong and kethuk cross-rhythms against a high rippling 7-bar kantilan ostinato – were very effective. My favourite was his simple canon featuring two pairs of differently-tuned gangsa, which I had performed before. The piece creates such a stillness as the clashing harmonics shimmer. You could hear the audience catch their breath.

Neil returned home from Europe on Tuesday after a roller-coaster of a trip, which, amongst other things, included delivering 5 completely different talks (one to an audience of 2000!) in Sweden, Denmark, London and Berlin.

On Friday I flew to the UK. I arrived early on Saturday morning, and after a leisurely breakfast with Andy and Di in their birdsong-filled garden, headed into town. I’d booked into an afternoon architectural tour of the Barbican Centre.

The place was unusually buzzy – the surprisingly warm weather (20 degrees – later I spotted a sun-burnt lad on the train!) had drawn in a crowd of 20-somethings, who lounged untidily on the brown tiles of the piazza drinking garish spritzers.

Inside there were yet more of them, queuing to get into the gallery’s new Artificial Intelligence exhibition (which Neil had visited and not been particularly impressed by!). The colourful drinks had been mixed by a couple of robot cocktail-makers (see picture). It was fun to watch them in action – their movements were disturbingly human!

The tour was led by a young art student, who was well informed and engaging. There was no behind-the-scenes access (we didn’t get to go inside any of the flats) but the stuff she told us was fascinating. She explained the history of the site – it used to a wild area of social misfits, abutting, as it did, the original walls of the City of London. Later it became the entertainment district and the centre of London’s rag trade, but the WW2 fire-bombing put paid to that.

Conceived as a landmark housing project (built to score the City of London borough the right sort of voters, when the local government act came in), the Barbican went through 5 masterplans (each one endlessly debated by conflicting committees), and the central arts centre was an afterthought. There was no space for it (the surrounding towers were already under construction) so they had to dig down very deep (so deep that they hit the level of the tube line below – the tube rails were put on rubber to stop the rumble disrupting concert hall performances!). The famous structural engineer Ove Arup devised a 3 metre thick curved concrete underground retaining wall to stop the adjacent towers from caving in – and it’s still working!

The council-owned housing was aimed at professional workers – creatives, teachers, nurses etc. There were many different types of flats (over 100 different designs within the complex!) – high glass-walled studios for young single professionals, generously balconied 3-bed tower-dwellings for expanding families, brick town-houses with roof gardens for retirees. The idea was that you could live in the development for your entire life, simply moving from building to building as necessary. But this never transpired, as Maggie Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’ act came in only two years after construction finished. People snapped them up at the favourable council-controlled rates, and now they sell for millions.

The Barbican, designed by architects Chamberlain, Powell and Bon, tends to be celebrated as a brutalist structure, but our guide revealed that the buildings express far more than the brutal blocky honesty of concrete. There are plenty of nods to Le Corbusier of course, but there are also details from the medieval ‘barbican’ itself (a cylindrical stone bastion, with arrow-slits and crenellations), Italian-style paved piazzas and wooden shutters and Roman archways.

The exteriors were to be clad in rough white marble tiles (above is a picture of a test wall – the various finishes that the architects were considering were left to weather for a year before construction – and this ‘engineers wall’ is still preserved in a back corner of the underground car park!), but this was deemed too costly and the concrete was left exposed. However, the architects still wanted something distinctive, so they employed hundreds of labourers (whose health greatly suffered later) to attack (by hand) the concrete surfaces with electric drills, pitting them and pocking them so that they looked like ancient rock. The toxic dust took, apparently, over 10 years to clear.

Kaori came to meet me in the Barbican cafe for tea, and we caught up and shared Japan stories. We had so much to talk about that I only just made it into the Barbican Theatre in time for the evening’s performance of (TS Eliot’s) ’Four Quartets’ by New York choreographer Pam Tanowitz. Tanowitz had devised a dance piece which deftly expressed the essence (time – death – science vs religion – the eternal moments that create meaning in life) of Eliot’s famous 1943 poem.

The poem was treated as music – it was recited (beautifully) by actress Kathleen Chalfant, with plangent and sparse textural accompaniment from a quartet of 2 violins, cello and harp. The dancers’ movements were intricate, fluid, and unpredictable – they were questioning, yearning, connecting and not connecting, getting stuck in feedback loops. The dance echoed and amplified the words of the poem, yet never overwhelmed it. It was all really beautiful – but just a little too philosophical and subtle for me in my advanced jet-lagged state! By the end I was feeling rather dizzy looking down from my seat in the gods!

On Sunday, after a bright start, the weather quickly deteriorated. I had arranged to join friends for a walk in Richmond Park. There was a rugby match on in Twickenham, and the train was full of adults in dress-up – there were many Marvel super-heroes, a crew of identically clad sailors, some Irish leprechauns, and (most alarmingly) a guy in a convincing Clockwork Orange get-up. Luckily we escaped them all in the park!

Sonya, Tobias and Effra, Anne P, Nye and I enjoyed a blustery al fresco lunch in the Pembroke Lodge cafe (doing our best to dodge the attentions and poo of the marauding crows). Then most of us (except Effra – aged 2 – who still gets to ride on Tobias’s chest!) hiked across Richmond Park and through the woods of Wimbledon Common, and past the All England Lawn Tennis (and Croquet – see picture!) Club, ending up in Earlsfield, where Andy and Di had prepared us a delicious supper.

There was roast lamb, and baked trout, and two glorious tarts (pear frangipani and tarte tatin) baked by their lovely neighbour Gabi. Dad was invited, as was Andy’s cousin, who had sung with Dad in the 1970s – they hadn’t met since, but found they had plenty of musical reminiscences to share (who was the meanest conductor? etc.!).

Week 343 – 7 days at school

On Monday Maisie’s class did a little presentation at the school assembly. The class performances are generally rather hackneyed self-affirmation sessions, but Maisie’s teacher had come up with a quiz about the school’s history. I learnt some stuff, such as just after the turn of the C20th (it’s quite an old school) they had 70 kids per class, with a total of over 1,200 students in all! The school is currently half that size.

I managed to carve out a few hours for fun stuff during the weekdays, fitting in a couple of films and a run down to Brighton and back through Elsternwick Park (on a gorgeous still warm morning – we’ve been lucky with the weather this week!).

The first film was sweet rom-com ‘Top End Wedding’, by indigenous Australian director/writer Wayne Blair and writer/lead actress Miranda Tapsell. The story tapped into Tapsell’s indigenous roots on the Tiwi islands (situated just north of Darwin). There were plenty of the usual clichés but there was also a real sense of place and culture, and, of course, some stunning NT scenery. A recommended easy watch! [Note: the photo below was taken by Maisie].

The second movie was chillingly believable but hopeful socio-realist drama ‘Little Woods’, by first time US director Nia DaCosta. Set in North Dakota, in a fractured fracking boom-town near the Canadian border, it was about two sisters on the margins, the irresponsible one living in a van in a car park with her small son, and the responsible one (a beautiful performance by actress Tessa Thompson), home-carer for their terminally ill mother and humane dealer of prescription drugs (which she smuggles over the border). The mother dies, the house is foreclosed, the responsible one gets caught, the irresponsible one gets pregnant again and can’t afford an abortion. But somehow, together they make it through.

On Saturday we were up early and heading to school for the normal time. It was election day, and the school was a polling station (although we weren’t there to vote – I’d dodged the queues at an early voting centre). The place was buzzing with election campaigners, the sausage sizzle (manned by the headmistress, no less!) was in full swing, and the lines of voters were already lengthy.

We were there for a working bee – at Tommy’s insistence! He’d been excited about it all week. He and I took on the task of litter-picking the entire football oval (a very large expanse of grass) while Maisie ran off to play with her friends. He nobly carried the rubbish bag for a while, but was soon moaning and asking when we could stop!

We then had to race up to Thornbury for a gamelan rehearsal, and on our way back through town we popped into the Buddha’s Day Festival (one of the annual Federation Square events which we seem to always end up going to). Tommy was not impressed with the activities and performances (it was an extremely frustrating day for him!) but Maisie had fun, colouring in, trying some deep-fried tofu, and learning some Javanese dance moves. Luckily, a bubble-blowing performer ended the afternoon on a high!

I didn’t have the energy to attempt much on Sunday. The kids were up at 5am, and Tommy excelled himself with an hour-long tantrum between 6am and 7am! We headed over to the school yet again(!) for some basketball practise. We went over to Rowena’s for lunch, and she very kindly offered to mind the kids for a couple of hours, so I was able to join an afternoon gathering that Stacey had arranged for the mums in Maisie’s class (it was Mothers Day here a week ago). We were all rather shell-shocked by the election results (which we kept coming back to, no matter how much we tried to talk of other things).

I took Maisie and Tommy out to our local pizzeria for tea. They were good company for a couple of hours! They drank their juices through real bits of straw (I didn’t know that was a thing!). We were looking out of the window, and who should walk by, but Maisie’s old kindergarten friend Charlotte (and family), who moved to the UK 7 months ago. The family were back for a short visit. They shared stories of how much London (particularly the working environment) has changed since they last lived there.

Week 342 – Japan in Melbourne

A week spent adjusting back to the exhausting everyday routines. There was some excitement on Monday, I went over to Thornbury to rehearse some brand new gamelan compositions with a group of Jeremy’s top players, which we will perform at a renowned local independent venue (the La Mama theatre) in a couple of weeks time.

Maisie has recently become hooked by Harry Potter (see photo above!). She finished the first novel this week, and I bought her the second. She was also the star player in Friday’s basketball match. She got 3 goals (of the Sparkler’s total of 4) – the first she’s ever scored in a match. They still lost though (I’m glad – the competitive nature of some of the players and mums in the more skilled teams is terrifying!).

It was Neil’s birthday on Friday. He was in London, spending the evening at the Royal Opera House! We were making cards and singing him happy birthday in our kitchen!

The kids are crazy at the moment, up super early, fighting tooth-and-nail (they are strong now – it can be alarming!). So I didn’t relish a long weekend alone with them. We got through Saturday by taking the bikes down to the seafront (where they refused to go for a proper cycle – they are also very tired!) and dropping into various playgrounds, including the Veg Out garden, where they can both still spend happy hours digging holes in the sandpit.

We whiled away the afternoon at the school playground with Row and her kids. Tommy devoted 2 hours (that’s no exaggeration) to practising throwing basketballs into the net (he was landing five shots in a row by the end). Maisie quickly lost interest in basketball practice, and played with whatever kids were available.

On Sunday we went into town to update the children’s wardrobes (I’m feeling embarrassed about Tommy’s too-short trousers, and Maisie’s underwear is falling to bits!). Outside Target we came across these working antique ‘jockey scales’ from Flemington Racecourse. Between them the kids weigh 50 kilos!

We also spotted some pikachu gachapon in the mall (the kids found it easy to persuade me to part with a couple of 2 dollar coins to cram in the slots!), and kept things Japanese with a sushi lunch, followed by melon buns from the Japanese-inspired Chinese bakery. We even had a look at the funky t-shirts in Japanese store Graniph.

Tommy wanted to see some Japanese art too. We didn’t quite manage that, but kept the theme Asian, with a visit to the NGV to see a new exhibition of pieces from the White Rabbit Collection (a Sydney-based gallery, which has the largest private holding of contemporary Chinese art in the world).

Although I’ve visited the Sydney gallery, I hadn’t seen any of the works from this show before. Shi Yong’s nonsensical neon poem ‘A Bunch of Happy Fantasies’ (apparently unfathomable to Chinese readers, not just me!) was attractive, as was Sun Xun’s wall-length paper mural representation of the ‘Republic of Jing Bang’ – a fictional country exploring ideas of nationhood, social harmony, propaganda and utopian ideals.

The kids were very taken with Zhang Peili’s simple video piece ‘Happiness’, which coupled scenes from a stirring 1975 drama (showing characters urgently declaiming – about nothing particularly important) with images of a terrified-looking political rally crowd grinning and applauding for their lives. They were also fascinated by a slightly unnerving piece which showed a sculptor making a very life-like full-sized clay human figure, and then ‘breathing life’ into it. And by this pile of 5000 individually made clay leaves (Ai Weiwei inspired, perhaps!).

I liked Liu Wei’s ‘Density 1-6’, a series of large sculptures constructed of the inside pages of books, glued together, compressed and cut into(internally framed) geometrical shapes, the edges of the pages still visible. It wasn’t immediately obvious what they were made of (from afar they looked like pale stone), but when you realised, it was rather chilling.

The largest piece was ‘The Ship of Time’ by Zhu Jinshi, a massive suspended ‘tube’ made of sheets of rice paper draped over bamboo poles, which visitors could walk through. It was pleasant inside, it felt like being in a gently glowing cocoon. The inspiration was a Daoist parable ‘If you can empty your own boat, crossing the river of the world, no-one will oppose you, No-one will seek to harm you’.

We ended the day with a Skype chat with mum and Lizzie and baby Emily, who is now very much awake and making her presence felt (lots of intense staring and snuffly grunts!).

Week 341 – Hakone and home

On Monday we had a full day in Hakone. The area is known not only for its hot springs and Mt Fuji views, but also for its variety of transport options. These include the second steepest mountain railway in the world, several cable cars, a comprehensive bus service, a theme-park-worthy pirate steamship, and a funicular. You can do a circuit that takes in them all – and that is what everyone does. You join a shuffling queue, cram into a small carriage, queue again, cram again. On a public holiday, the queuing element is spectacular!

We started with a bus which climbed up out of our valley, and plunged into the next one where there was a small lake, Lake Ashi (which never freezes, as it is fed by hot springs). On a clear day, Mount Fuji rises majestically on the far horizon, but it wasn’t a clear day. The clouds were low and we were drizzled on most of the time (but we were lucky – the following day the rain was monsoonal, and we couldn’t have attempted the trip at all!).

A huge and garish ‘pirate ship’ (complete with plaster crew), took us across the lake. The light was low, but we could see smears of pinky white cherry blossom across the Spring-green forested slopes.

It was nice to have the deck to ourselves – the rain kept the hoards inside!

Once we’d alighted from the ship we were funnelled straight onto the first ‘ropeway’ (cable car). We stepped on board the moving car and rumbled up into the sky, and could just about see the nearby tree-tops, but little else, as we climbed up the mountainside.

Signs warned us of poisonous volcanic emissions, and as we ascended, the smell of sulphur in the air became palpable!

We exited the cable car at Owakudani, a scarred and desolate escarpment, pocked with yellow-rimmed holes blasting sulphuric clouds of steam that merged into the low drifts of raincloud. It was very atmospheric!

I learnt the following from the information panel: ‘Owakudani is an explosion crater created by a phreatic eruption that took place about 3000 years ago. The crater still discharges fumarolic gas containing poisonous hydrogen sulfide and sulphur dioxide.’ There are still frequent landslides, so the local government carries out ongoing maintenance in the area – terracing and reinforcing the hillside with large boulders.

Once they are done with gawping at the ferocious landscape and inhaling the pungent fumes, visitors are urged to buy and eat ‘black eggs’, freshly cooked in the local sulphurous volcanically-heated waters.

The eggs were rather beautiful – I thought they looked like little galaxies. Inside their shell they were the normal colour and texture (which was a relief!), and the flavour was extra eggy!

The eggs also worked as excellent hand-warmers, it really was very cold up there.

We enjoyed the various black-egg-themed things on display – the welcoming sculpture and the benches, there was even a black egg ‘Hello Kitty’ figurine!

A second ropeway took us across the crater, and down into a farther tree-lined valley. An enthusiastic young guy with a huge camera was keen to share tips with me, but I’m not sure the greatest photographer could have excelled in the gloomy conditions – he was having to rely on selfies!

The final cable car station was situated half-way down the slope, and a lengthy funicular (its route taking in several interim stops) took us to the bottom.

Then we rode for four minutes on the little mountain railway (more about this later) to Chokoku-no-mori, site of the Hakone Open-Air Museum. Opened in 1969, it was the first open air museum established in Japan, and as well as 120 or so outdoor sculptures (by international artists), it houses a large collection of works by Picasso.

Thankfully the rain had eased, and it was a little brighter at the lower altitude, so we were able to spend a leisurely afternoon exploring the pretty gardens full of inelegantly-sited modern sculptures.

The first one was underground. ‘My sky hole’ (Bukichi Inoue, 1979) invited visitors to descend into the earth via a spiral staircase and squeeze through a claustrophobic wiggly rubber-lined corridor, illuminated only by the light coming through a couple of tiny pinprick holes in the ceiling. It was an unsettling and effective piece! Nearby was Takao Tsuchida’s bronze evocation of the wind (above), and Francoise Xavier & Claude Lalanne’s ever-weeping woman (below).

 

There were two fun large-scale sculptures that doubled as children’s play areas. One was ‘Curved Space’ (by US sculptor Peter Jon Pearce) a climbing frame in the form of a crystalline network of metal and perspex pods…

…the other was ‘Woods of Net’ (by the Japanese practice Tezuka Architects), a gigantic wooden bee-hive housing a giant colourful crocheted hammock.

We enjoyed the carp pond (there were some monstrously well-fed specimens in residence!), and admired our reflections in a great mirrored sphere floating in space.

Cherry blossom season was still in full swing in Hakone, and the azaleas were just beginning to bloom. They brought some welcome colour to the flat grey day (the sculptures certainly didn’t – most of them were dark bronze, grey-white stone or silver-grey metal).

There was a lawn full of the usual reclining Henry Moore bronze figures, and an Anthony Gormley cast of himself that looked like it had just crash-landed on the grass.

I liked the writhing movement of Martin Matschinsky/Brigitte Meier-Denninghoff’s 1980 work ‘Sturm’…

…and Carl Milles populist but striking ‘Hand of God’.

There was one really exhilarating piece – Gabriel Loire’s 1974 ‘Symphonic sculpture’ – a stunning several-storied stained glass tower.

A central spiral staircase took you up to the roof and back down. We climbed and descended as slowly as we could (difficult with the crowds), as it took us a while to acclimatize to the dazzling colours and start picking out individual scenes, figures, animals and birds.

The imagery was a mix of sacred and secular, ancient and modern. This moonlit couple could have been Mary and Joseph…

…here’s an armoured knight on horseback.

Here’s a dreamy trumpeter.

And a man riding a chicken.

And a patient fisherman. I even spotted a car!

There was a special gallery housing the Picasso works. On display were a number of his late ceramics (still so vibrant and pulsing with energy), some lovely photos of him at work in his studio in the 1960s, and a selection of prints spanning his entire career. Good stuff!

We returned to the station for our final ride of the day on the Hakone Tozan railway (the only mountain railway in Japan). During the 40 minute journey, the train descended from 541 metres to 96 metres above sea-level. The narrow single-gauge tracks clings to the steep hillside, wiggling around each curve. Halfway up is a series of three switchbacks. A recorded voiceover reassured us with talk about the train’s ultra-sophisticated three-level braking system!

We were chilled through by the time we made it back to the hotel, and ready for another steamy session in the onsen. We decided to be lazy and went down to dinner still in our robes. We were served the Day 2 menu, which was tasty, but not in the same class as the previous day’s (although the – different set of – dishes it was served on were just as pretty).

Highlights of this meal were the ‘bamboo shoot hotpot with shrimp fritters and tofu skin’, the ‘local fish’ sashimi and grilled ‘King mackerel’ with Teriyaki sauce and a mutant kidney bean. And I washed it all down with a generous bottle of drily fragrant (cold) local sake.

We rounded off our last evening with two hours of karaoke! Both of us had been reluctant to try it, but felt that we had to have a go (there were private bookable karaoke rooms in the hotel – so there was no excuse!). And once we launched in, the time whizzed by!

It was interesting to discover how well (or not) we knew the classics! We were surprised to struggle with ‘Crazy in Love’ and ‘True Colours’, when we were all over ‘I wanna dance with somebody’ and ‘Heaven is a place on earth’. The 1980s proved the most fruitful ground – Row had to solo on the more recent tracks (I made a poor attempt at the Lady Gaga part in ‘Shallow’). The songs I most enjoyed singing were JT’s ‘Sexy back’ and Ben Folds’ miserabilist anthem ‘Brick’.

We got up early on Tuesday to make the most of our last few hours in Japan. Before breakfast, the larger (men’s) onsen was available to women. We were in there at 7am! Part of it was completely open to the elements. And it happened to be pouring with rain, so you could enjoy needle-sharp cold droplets on your head while the rest of your body melted away in the 40 degree waters.

We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast – the buffet offered a great variety of Japanese, Chinese and Western delights. Cold udon? Tick! Pasta in tomato sauce? Tick! Chocolate cake? Tick!

The rain was so heavy that we opted to take the hotel’s shuttle bus back to the station, where we rode the ‘Romance Car’ once again. And there was no let-up in the weather until we hit the outskirts of Tokyo.

We’d left ourselves a couple of hours in Tokyo for some last-minute shopping. We’d planned to store our luggage in a locker, but every single locker in Shinjuku station was full! So we just settled for a tour of the closest department store, which, it turned out, had lots of fun stuff – Japanese train-themed merchandise, origami books, beautiful ceramics and delicate sparkly jewellery.

In the late afternoon we caught the express train back to Narita airport. We passed lots of newly flooded rice paddies, the tiny green new shoots just visible above the water.

We’d saved up lots of 100 yen pieces for the airport gachapon (capsule toy vending machines). There were so many cute toys to be had! I was glad to have the excuse of buying them for the kids (I only kept one myself!). There were yet more shopping opportunities in the airport. By the time we finally checked in, we were all shopped out and ready for a rest. But it was an uncomfortable flight, with some dramatic (albeit brief) turbulence. I whiled away the night hours with a whole series of ‘RuPaul’s drag race’, a surprisingly sweet reality show with fabulous costumes and make-up.

Row and I arrived home on Wednesday morning. The rest of the week was a whirl of work and child-wrangling, incorporating a fierce basketball match, a new washing machine, lots of late night blog writing and a jolly afternoon house-warming party at Lizzie K’s, fuelled by white mulled sangria! Neil got on a plane to Sweden on Sunday morning. He will be away for a couple of weeks, then 2 days after his return I will head to the UK!

Week 340 – Tokyo thrills

Monday was the last day of the school holidays. I took Maisie and Tommy to the cinema to watch the new animation ‘The Missing Link’ – it was the first full-length film we’d all been to see together. Despite both kids asking to leave whenever it got scary, we managed to make it all the way to the end! The story concerned an arrogant but kind-hearted Victorian explorer, fascinated by mythical creatures, who was approached by an educated and lonely Canadian Sasquatch, set on tracing his distant Nepali relatives, the Yetis. Cue a mad-cap dash across the world, pursued by evil bounty-hunters. It was fun and the kids enjoyed explaining the plot to Neil afterwards!

Early on Tuesday morning Rowena and I caught a plane to Japan! It was a comfortable Qantas flight, I watched a crappy Anna Kendrick movie (a long-haul staple for me), and the strangely worthy ‘Vox Lux’ (which featured an impressively savage performance from Natalie Portman).

We arrived in Tokyo in the evening and caught the express train into town. Even at 9pm we were whizzing past platforms of queuing grey salarymen (and they were virtually all men – the women appear to work mainly in retail and hospitality).

Our hotel was in Shinjuku. We congratulated ourselves on finding our way out of the labyrinthine maze of underground corridors but we were equally at sea overground (despite the hotel claiming to be only 10 minutes walk away!). Every stacked building flashed with a glowing six-storey billboard, there were no street signs, and throngs of evening socialisers to push through, but we eventually worked out where to go, and checked in to our small (but not unbearably small), tired but clean 1970s hotel room, and crashed out.

We awoke to an overcast, warm and muggy day. The breakfast buffet was pleasantly healthy – we started every day in Tokyo with grilled fish and pickles, lettuce and bean salad, miso soup, French toast and fried sandwiches(!).

We went for a wander around Shinjuku, stopping by the quiet Shinto Hanazono Shrine, all freshly painted red and gold. A little side temple featured a giant wooden phallus. The grounds were full of cherry trees, empty of flowers, apart from one gnarled old specimen still sporting a few pink pompoms. Rowena had never seen cherry blossom before and was captivated. She made it her mission to document all the cherry blossom we spotted that holiday (which turned out to be an epic project!).

As we explored the grounds, we watched locals pop by for a quick prayer. They would ladle water over their hands in the water trough, walk up the temple steps, throw some coins into the offering box, ring the bell and bow several times before heading on their way. There were also racks hung with prayers written on wooden tablets, and messages written on strips of paper that were tied onto horizontal poles. It seemed a very civilised and straightforward way to incorporate prayer into one’s day!

Everywhere the streets and tunnels were decorated with murals, posters, stickers and sculptures. The policemen bees above were on a building site hoarding. The Shinjuku streets weren’t beautiful by day – they needed darkness and electric light to come alive!

We descended into a subterranean shopping mall and found a supermarket, which engaged us for quite some time. Most intriguing was the variety of fresh fish, the appetising array of fresh fried snacks, the aisle full of miso pastes, and the individually plastic-wrapped fruits (the amount of packaging in general continually horrified us).

The subway tunnels were like an art gallery, lined with lovely posters and artworks. We spotted these posters advertising the 2020 Olympics (and later stocked up on memorabilia – figurines and t-shirts).

We caught the metro to Ueno Park, and when we emerged at street level it was pouring with rain. Everyone was armed with umbrellas (mainly clear plastic ones), even the school kids. We avoided the worst of the rain by ducking into a cute bakery and feasting on melon buns (the turtle), chocolate-filled buns (the penguin and koala) and prawn and egg sandwiches (the pandas)!

Happily the shower was brief and we were able to go for a dry stroll in Ueno Park. The park is full of temples and museums, and there were pink, white and purple azaleas and peonies in flower, and a few late cherry blossoms. The first temple we visited, Bentendo, was sited in the middle of a pond (coppery brown with dried winter stalks, and lined with ranks of swan pedalos waiting patiently for the summer season).

Each temple we visited had a symbol – this one was the biwa (the chosen instrument of Benten, goddess of music, eloquence, poetry and education). There was a large biwa in front of a great bank of paper lanterns, and the prayer tablets were in the same shape.

There were various beautifully inscribed hunks of rock and a walled garden full of stunningly manicured trees (in the whole of Tokyo, we rarely saw a ‘naturally’ growing tree – all of them had been so closely pruned and shaped – any branches that point down are trimmed off, bindings force the growing wood into strange, twisted, asymmetrical shapes).

The hand-washing trough featured a water-spurting dragon on a mossy mound (it was one of the most ornate that we saw). Despite the weather, stall-holders were getting ready for an outdoor festival, some were already grilling up long tendrils of octopus and squid, which the afternoon school kids were scoffing down.

Next we visited the cherry blossom shrine, Kiyomizu Kannondo. A pine tree in front of it had been bound and trained into a circular shape, through which you could view the pathway to the lake temple below. Inside on the walls and ceilings (and in the form of much-stroked fragile-looking wooden devotional figures) were images of fierce gods.

I was also taken by the tall and wonderfully ornate lanterns that marked the perimeter of the temple.

An avenue dense with little red torii gates took us down to the tucked-away Gojo shrine, which was guarded by stone dogs and cute little marble owls.

It was a calm, tranquil spot, a lovely place for contemplation, hidden enough not to be found by most of the tourists! We admired the woodwork of the little tiled-roof pavilions – no nails, everything cut precisely and slotted in.

Nearby was the first Buddhist shrine that we had seen. A large stone-carved buddha stood in a little pavilion, alongside a small moss-covered stupa surrounded by beds of blousy pink, purple, white and yellow peonies.

The Toshogu shrine was the last of the day, and by far the most opulent. The approach was via a wide stone-paved pathway lined with sentry-like stone lanterns (presented as tributes to feudal lords).

The great golden temple doors caught the eye at first, but it was the artistry of the intricate wooden relief carvings that astonished. Each panel featured different vegetation and birds and frogs and fish.

A small modern stone altar was festooned with thousands of brilliantly coloured paper cranes (1000 in each garland).

Everywhere there were crows. Some would eyeball you from a low tree branch, others flapped lazily overhead, cawing loudly. This one was gathering twigs for a nest.

At the far end of Ueno Park the narrow tarmac paths opened out into a vast open square with big, shallow European-style decorative ponds. Beyond this was the Tokyo National Museum.

It’s a large site with a host of mismatched buildings – some Asian, some European in style, others an uneven blend of the two.

We started at the elegant modernist Gallery of Hōryū-ji Treasures (designed by Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi). The crisp spare lines of glass, concrete and steel were set off a treat by a huge cherry tree and a storm of petals which settled in the shallow pool at the foot of the building, creating a welcoming carpet of pink.

The Hōryūji Treasures date from the 7th and 8th centuries. Of the many beautiful things on display, we were particularly taken with a massive metal openwork Buddhist banner (see the one panel – of many – photographed), and a room full of small 7th and 8th century buddhas, once used in household shrines.

Behind the museum buildings was a small landscaped garden dotted with antique teahouses (sourced from all over Japan). Some were plain, thatch and woven bamboo and rush screens, others were elaborate dark-wood-framed constructions with thick handmade glass windows. Everywhere there was the delicate splash of water dripping from bamboo pipes into ancient rough-hewn stone troughs.

We visited the Japanese gallery where they’d curated a ‘greatest hits’ exhibition of Japanese art from 1000 BC to the present day. Wow, there were so many wonderful things to see! I will have to restrict myself to describing a few favourites here!

This terracotta tomb ornament is from the 6th Century.

This is a 13th century Kei Gong, in the form of a lotus.

This was an entry to a C13th poetry competition, the calligraphy by renowned poet Fujiwara no Teika.

There was a room devoted to the tea ceremony. The display is changed every season, to feature utensils and artworks appropriate to that time of year. We were there in ‘early summer’, a time for ‘earthy Japanese ceramics with a feeling of warmth, as well as refreshing blue-and-white porcelain from China’. I particularly liked this C17th bowl in the shape of a cracked Japanese peppercorn.

There was plenty of armour and weaponry on display, which didn’t interest me so much. The swords were so sacred/revered that you weren’t even allowed to photograph them! I did like this crazy C18th helmet (in the shape of a Buddhist ruyi scepter) and a pair of ornamental bronze stirrups with a sparkling inlay of mother-of-pearl shell fragments.

A lovely C17th screen plastered with pictures of female poets reminded me of Maisie (it was all the hair!). There was a room full of artefacts that had recently been decreed as ‘National Treasures’. We weren’t allowed to take any photos, which was a shame as many of them were stunning (and I doubt we’ll ever see them again!). There was a lovely ancient herd of life-sized terracotta geese, and an incredible series of C19th copper/silver/bronze eagle sculptures, so alert and alive, eyes aglint, every feather detailed and lying against their bodies just so.

Later rooms featured Kabuki, Noh and Bugako costumes (this little figure is Ryo’o), and finely embroidered kimono.

And last, but not least, was a small selection of C18th/C19th Ukiyo-e by Hiroshige, Hokusai and their predecessors, and a few tiny netsuke, both old and brand new. Above is a print by Suzuki Haronobu who contributed to the invention of vibrant, multicolour woodblock prints…

…and one by Torji Kiyonaga, of the ‘Boy’s Festival’.

And here is a classic image by Hiroshige.

And a few C19th boxwood netsuke.

At 5pm we were politely ushered out of the gallery, and our exit route took us past the biggest Gingko tree I’ve ever seen – I had no idea they could grow so large!

Other interesting sights on our walk back to the station included this huge rather forlorn whale, crashed out in front of the Science Museum.

We also passed by the Le Corbusier-designed Museum of Western Art, and a funky 1960s concert hall (designed by Japanese architect Kunio Maekawa) which was being renovated.

We travelled home to Shinjuku on the subway, and had to gather our wits together to make our way out of the maze of tunnels once again! I enjoyed a series of Toei (metro)-produced information posters entitled ‘The Unknown Special Carriage’ – I had to record them all for Tommy!

It was almost dark when we emerged into the swirling Shinjuku crowds, every storey of every building was glowing and flashing and the rain made the pavements sparkle. We grabbed quick bowls of noodles and went on a night safari, starting with the lofty main thoroughfares, then burrowing into the seedier backstreets.

There were long queues (of tourists) for the robot restaurant (robots and sexy girls didn’t appeal to us!), and some questionable-looking ‘transformation parlours’.

We spotted gaggles of dodgy-looking men hanging out on dark corners, and tired-looking over-made-up women in tottering heels popping in to the all-night chemists.

We didn’t hang out in the red-light district for too long. Even a pudding shop that specialised in loaves of white bread stuffed with Häagen Dazs didn’t detain us!

We were glad to get back to our quiet room for cups of tea and speedy Wi-fi (that was something that Japan always got right!).

It was bright when we awoke on Thursday, but by the time we’d eaten our grilled fish and salad breakfast the clouds had descended once again. We headed over to the modern monied district of Roppongi Hills, and caught a speedy lift (our ears went pop!) up to the 52nd floor of the Mori Tower, where there is a contemporary art gallery.

The show was entitled ‘Roppongi Crossing 2019: Connexions’ and it gathered together works by a number of contemporary Japanese artists addressing what it means to live in the C21st. There were lots of striking and thoughtful pieces and we ended up spending a couple of hours there.

In the first room was Iikawa Takehiro’s huge pink cat ‘Mr Kobayashi’ – the idea was that he was so massive and awkwardly positioned that you could never photograph him in his entirety.

The second room featured an elegant video of two life-like robots interacting (their language was dolphin noises!) and a fabulous car/wardrobe bricolage (by artist Aono Fumiaki) – the craftsmanship in this piece was phenomenal (the picture doesn’t do it justice, there was so much detail on the other side).

Hayashi Chiho contributed a quirky installation/video about her imaginary marriage with a salaryman robot, and Sato Masaharu was represented by a simple, but surprisingly effective, film of abandoned cellphones ringing, unanswered.

Isoya Hirofumi made great honey-filled glass amphora lanterns, and artist collective Mé had taken a snapshot of the sea and recreated that momentary landscape, life-sized, in black resin.

Dokuyama Bontaro contributed two very different works. One was a fascinating selection of interviews with elderly Taiwanese people recalling their childhoods under Japanese rule (and recalling, incredibly accurately, the propaganda songs they sang at school!), another was about the 2011 Japanese tsunami/nuclear disaster. Communities ripped apart by that tragedy made masks representing their former lives.

Lighter in spirit was Takekawa Nobuaki’s epic ceramics project ‘Cat Olympics: Opening Ceremony’, and collective Anrealage’s liquid crystal dresses (which came to life under flashlight – we thought we were being asked not to photograph them, but in fact the opposite was true!).

On our way out of the exhibition we were ushered into a darkened room which was occupied by a huge luminous (Australian) green ant, created by Aussie/Japanese artists Ken and Julia Yonetani.

On the floor below the gallery was a 360° viewing gallery (which was also devoted to a behind-the-scenes Pixar exhibition, which we barely glanced at – although I did like the big Monsters Inc models).

There was no sign of Mount Fuji (the clouds were too low), but there were good views of the Tokyo tower, and of the chaotic topography of the city, all snaking highways and railways, clumps of high-rises, great park blocks of green, an uneven carpet of low-roofed apartments and houses crammed every which way.

We paused for a drink (it was the most expensive cup of tea I’ve ever bought) in a snooty bar with a glorious panorama – it was worth it for the view!

At the base of the tower was one of Louise Bourgeois’ spiders. They do get about!

We hopped on a busy train (everyone utterly engrossed in their phones – apparently it is rude to talk on the train, everyone treats it as their quiet time!) and headed over to Iidabashi, to visit the C17th Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens.

Despite being situated in a busy suburb (with a huge stadium/rollercoaster abutting the grounds), the gardens were wonderfully tranquil. And after a short while, the sun even came out!

Every tree had been shaped to be aesthetically pleasing. The maples wore it lightly (and as it was spring, their keys brought a shot of pink to the pale green patchwork of star-shaped leaves).

The pines were crazily twisted and wizened and unevenly balanced, and propped up with poles to stop them toppling over.

There was a plum orchard (seaweed-wrapped rice balls with sour pickled plum inside were one of my favourite snacks!) and a wisteria arbour…

…an island with a half-hidden red temple, a carefully constructed ‘natural-looking’ woodland and a water-lily pond crossed by two narrow stone bridges, each of which was constructed of only three pieces of carefully morticed stone.

Long-necked turtles basked in the misty low late-afternoon rays of sun, and bees enjoyed an abundance of nectar in the great floppy rain-dusted magenta peonies.

An ancient ‘moon bridge’ cast a perfect semicircle reflection, the archway and its reflection making the perfect round of a full moon.

We lingered as long as we could before the quiet closing chimes started ramping up! We walked past a busy soccer pitch and a number of blank government offices, and up a footbridge that took us across a canal and a huge road junction and beneath a railway.

We descended into a well-heeled post-work restaurant area, and found a pretty little lane lined with tiny cafés. Most had no windows – they were simply a darkened doorway hung with fabric, through which was visible a narrow stool-lined bar overlooking a tiny kitchen area.

We’d heard that tourists weren’t always welcome in these tiny places, and many of them had menus with no English and no pictures of the food, so we took the hint!

We ventured into one that had welcoming-looking windows, and a few pictures on the menu (but no English). And the staff (who couldn’t understand our English or Chinese) were very friendly and accommodating. We ended up ordering all the dishes that were in the pictures, which, happily was just the right amount of food! And it appeared that the locals were ordering the same dishes too!

Their specialty was salty snacks to consume with beer – we enjoyed various deep-fried skewers (fish, curry rice-ball, even spam!), some beautiful sashimi, and a melt-in-the-mouth block of fresh tofu flavoured with a sprinkling of finely-chopped spicy beef mince.

It was a surprise when everyone around us started smoking – it’s still a very popular past-time round here, and people love to do it while they eat!

We browsed the shops (open always till 8pm, sometimes later) after our early evening meal, stopping to smell different teas and admire displays of pastel-hued mochi cakes (pink, pale green, yellow and white). We tried a green one – a tiny thing, individually wrapped in plastic and pretty paper. It was very powdery, and didn’t really taste of anything at all! The cheap ones in 7-11 were much nicer!

We peeked inside a games arcade, full of disappointed souls failing to claw up large cute soft toys. It’s a wonder anyone bothers trying! I snapped another couple of fun information posters during our journey back to Shinjuku.

On Friday we went to look for the ‘Eye of Shinjuku’ – a lovely station artwork that was very hard to locate (we had almost given up hope when we finally stumbled across it!).

We crossed to the western, CBD side of Shinjuku and walked along a grand high-ceilinged underpass (this was unusual – most tunnels were pretty claustrophobic!) to the Metropolitan Government building, an imposing pair of grey stone-clad towers with viewing platforms in both wings. Again, Mt Fuji was not visible, but the cityscape was impressive.

We walked through a dowdy suburban park (mucky sandpits, a non-functioning waterfall) to another sleek high-rise, the Opera City Tower. Neil had managed to find us a free lunch-time concert to go to in the building’s acoustically-perfect concert hall.

It was an organ recital, performed by a visiting Spanish (not sure of the details as they were all in Japanese!) organist. She presented a lovely varied programme – covering baroque, romantic and contemporary, European and Asian – and the 3,826 pipe organ sounded glorious! We weren’t allowed to take any photos but I managed to sneak in one undetected (hence the far from perfect composition!).

The hall, all polished oak, was beautiful (being pyramid shape, it also felt vaguely masonic!), and the audience, mainly elderly and Japanese, was reverential.

In the afternoon we travelled across town, to the Docklands area, for a very different cultural experience. We weren’t expecting the last leg of our journey to be via monorail – and a rollercoaster of a one at that – it was cool whizzing above roof-level, over bridges, past a giant robot, a colourful ferris wheel and a huge maritime museum in the shape of a ship. Otherwise, the scenery was reminiscent of new Docklands developments anywhere in the capitalist world!

We were heading to one of Japan’s current most intragrammable attractions – a digital art exhibition entitled ‘Borderless’, put together by art collective teamLab. They call themselves ‘an interdisciplinary group of ultra-technologists, whose collaborative practice seeks to navigate the confluence of art, science, technology, design and the natural world’.

It wasn’t a subtle show (although there was nuance, if you could find a quiet corner and stay still and watch the images gradually morphing, which we occasionally managed to do). Most of it relied on floor-to-ceiling immersive projections. The first room was full of spinning red, pink and yellow flowers, the next featured a waterfall – all shiny white streaks; a long corridor was filled with swaying bamboo and darting fireflies. We watched this for a while and a fantastical procession of frogs and rabbits with staffs and palanquins slowly wended their way through the bamboo forest.

A particularly dark room hung with layers of gauze screens captured ghostly ranks of traditional Japanese musicians and dancers. As you approached each one, his instrumental line would rise above the general chorus. It was a lovely touch, and the effect of watching the slow rhythmic movements of the whole-room orchestra, was quite mesmeric. We spent a long time there, and gradually they men began to transform into rabbits and toads!

Next up was a dazzling LED maze. The LEDs were encased in clear plastic rods suspended from the ceiling, and rainbow colours would flicker through the grid in 3-dimensional patterns – lightning or rain, or waves, or fireworks. Never underestimate the power of sparkly lights – we found it hard to drag ourselves away from that room!

There was also a gallery of endlessly crashing waves (like a ukiyo-e painting come to life), and a steeply contoured space where you waded through a forest of knee-high springy lily-pads, onto which were projected blue-white water currents, floating petals and orange-bright carp.

A highlight was the ‘Forest of Lamps’ (which felt like a Yayoi Kusama rip-off!). Hundreds of identical Venetian glass lamps were suspended at different heights in a mirrored room. They cycled through subtle colour-ways (influenced by the season – we had pink cherry blossom and yellow kerria flowers), reacting to peoples proximity and movements.

On the top floor of the gallery, teamLAB had given up the pretence that this was all ‘art’!

There was a big ‘space’ trampoline, where bouncing volunteers triggered the formation of a black hole…

… a play area full of gigantic rainbow-hued luminous balloons, and various LED-encrusted pieces of jungle gym equipment. We were a bit too weary by this point to join in, but everyone else was having a go – young and old!

The teamLAB show was sited in a rather run-down shopping centre, called ‘VenusFort’ (all the shops were aimed at women!). It was pleasantly empty, and we went wild in the 100 yen shop!

Our route also forced us to traverse a huge Toyota showroom. We admired their futuristic vehicles, tried sitting in all their latest models, and had a go on a racing car simulator (a proper fairground-style attraction – we were strapped into our seats and the floor disappeared, and we lurched around while watching videos of all-terrain racing!).

We made it back to Shinjuku pretty late. The restaurant that looked the friendliest was a tiny little Thai place, and they served us some very tasty Tom Yam soup and Pad Thai noodles.

On Saturday we headed over to Harajuku. We were hoping to spot all the Cosplay girls and boys hanging out, but we never found them (although we did locate the places where they shopped!).

We went first to the Meiji Jingu Shrine. It was the weekend, and there were great crowds of tourists passing under the huge stripped tree-trunk torii gate at the entrance, and perambulating down the long drive, but the atmosphere was still surprisingly serene.

We passed the huge banks of tributary sake barrels and French wine casks (from well-known vineyards!), and under another epic torii gate before reaching the shrine itself, which was fairly understated, and not particularly large.

A bridal procession was making its way into the central courtyard as we arrived, and inside the temple another (unrelated) special event was just starting.

The shrine, which was constructed in 1920, is nearing its centenary, and is hosting a series of special commemorative events – and we had been lucky enough to stumble upon one of them!

There was a band of fabulously-clad gagaku musicians, playing hichiriki (oboe), ryūteki (traverse flute), and sho (mouth organ). They were flanked by two great ornately framed da-daiko drums, and a pair of bronze shōko gongs. The winds played meandering dove-tailing melodies, floating, haunting, harsh and poetic.

On a small raised stage in front of them, four male dancers performed a slow-moving and stately dance, their faces impassive, their glorious costumes billowing.

And what costumes – wow, they were stunningly beautiful – all jewel-bright silks and brocades, with flower embroidery, checks and stripes, gilt and pom-poms. And even with all of that going on, the square-sleeved voluminous outfits were still dignified and supremely elegant. The first set of outfits was primarily brilliant orange, with touches of cream and magenta, the second set was an emerald green with flashes of cream and orange.

The performance lasted an hour or so, and it cast quite a spell. We had been entranced by the stillness, and weren’t ready for their swift and economical pack-up – everything was tidied away in under 15 minutes!

Not quite ready to engage with the Harajuku crowds once again, we popped into the shrine gardens, where, occasionally, we could see no other people at all, and were able to tune out the rush of traffic and trains and hear only hear birdsong and splashing water!

The planting here was more ‘natural’, the trees less controlled (although there were some lovely little potted bonsai).

We were too early for the irises, but there were plenty of azaleas, and a few little colourful orchids.

The garden is irrigated by a natural well, the waters of which rose up crystal clear through a bed of smooth grey slate pebbles.

Back in the street bustle, we passed busy fish-ball cafés (teams of chefs swiftly spinning the patties round in half-sphere moulds to make perfectly round snacks).

We found a 6-level mall full of tiny boutiques aimed at hip 20-somethings. There were clothes in every style – from pink kawai-cute baby-doll, to goth and punk, Disney kitsch, ‘90s grunge and ‘80s hip-hop.

There were pre-loved pieces (vintage sports clothes re-cut and combined), and stylish, unusually-shaped blouses and skirts in unusual prints and fabrics (I would have loved to have invested in a new, funky work wardrobe – but prices started at $150 and went upwards!).

There were beauty treatments (so many skin-whitening creams and cosmetics) and sparkly eye-shadows and nail varnishes in every shade imaginable, and lots of fun jewellery (there was a whole space-themed range – I had to buy Maisie a few things!).

The cosplay girls were lining up to go to their favourite shops – all dressed to the nines in their big net petticoats and lacy socks, hair in pastel colours. But there were big signs saying ‘no photographs’ which we respected! We rode up and down a particularly spectacular mirrored department store escalator!

Behind the main thoroughfares, each backstreet was devoted to a particular item – we ended up exploring trainer street, and stopped at a little cafe for a late lunch. The couple sitting next to us were very friendly and gave us their menu recommendations – and we were grateful, as that dish of thick udon noodles with pale pink cod roe, turned out to be my favourite meal in Japan!

We spent the rest of the afternoon shopping for presents. Row took me to a couple of shops on the smart, tree-lined avenue of Omotesando, including the tourist-tastic ‘Oriental bazaar’ (which reminded me a little of Neal Street East).

We strolled down Cat Street, which was a mix of trendy western brands, cool Japanese printed t-shirt outlets, and cute lolly and soft toy shops (we found handmade rock candy, with minute pictures of different types of vehicles in the middle). The shops were stacked on top of each other in layers (this is common – there are many restaurant buildings like this too). I was struck by one which had a bike shop on the top storey!

It was a relief when the shops shut and we could stumble back to our hotel beds! Our route home took us through an Alice-in-Wonderland-themed station. There was an intricate mosaic of the mad hatter’s tea party, and a rather fun white-rabbit stained glass window.

On Sunday the skies were clear and blue. Everything was transformed. Even the chaotic streets of Shinjuku felt welcoming!

We spent the best chunk of the day on a train – riding the ‘romance car’ from Tokyo to Hakone, a cluster of villages in the foot-hills of Mount Fuji, famed for their hot springs and views.

We finally got our glimpse (and it was only a glimpse – from a speeding train!) of Mount Fuji, majestically crowned with snow after a long winter.

I also spotted my first bullet train, and a benign blue stretch of the Pacific Ocean.

The last few days of our trip coincided with ‘Golden Week’ – a week containing 4 Japanese national holidays. Hakone is a popular vacation destination, and our train was packed with extended Japanese family groups. The 1.5 hour journey seemed brief to us, but clearly not to the locals, who came fully prepared with snacks, packed lunches, beers, toys, games and quiz books.

Any expectations of a quiet country town were quickly dispelled when we had to queue to exit the station, and wade through dense tourist-shop-pottering crowds to make it along the main street to our hotel.

Fortunately it was quieter in the back streets. Our hotel was situated on the banks of a rushing river, which had been beautifully landscaped with a stepped series of scalloped boulder-edged weirs. A bright white crane stood silently in the shallows waiting for unwary fish.

We were too early to check in to our hotel, but they took our luggage (a tiny lady struggled with our heavy cases, and laughed us away when we tried to help her!), and showed us the free coffee machine in the lounge (a bean-to-cup machine no less – it was the first, and only, good coffee I drank in Japan!).

It was clear that the hotel was designed for Japanese guests (we saw very few other westerners there), as some of the door-frames were barely tall enough for Row and I to fit through!

We went for a wander along the narrow roads that climbed steeply from the valley floor. A number of the bridges were decorated with koi nobori (fish banners) decorated by local school children to celebrate Children’s Day (which fell at the end of Golden Week).

There were buildings perched on the tiniest and most awkward of plots!

Old wooden cottages jostled for space along the roadside, tiny verandas laden with pretty ceramic pots full of carefully tended flowering shrubs and bonsai.

We visited a couple of Zen temples, with mossy stone graveyards terraced up the hillsides. There were some beautifully carved headstones, and amongst the flower tributes were a few favourite mugs, and even an (unopened) can of beer.

The Sounji temple was decorated with a number of wooden and stone carvings of mythical lions…

…and the drainpipes were a chain of upended bronze bells (like little flowerpots) flowing into an elegant circular iron trough.

They were erecting a new entrance gate at the Shogenji temple – an exact replica of the original, built using the traditional materials and methods.

These two serene buddhist figures were carved on a gravestone.

We found our way into a small dappled patch of woodland, beneath our feet was a writhing (and slippery) mass of tree-roots, and many fallen leaves (it was odd – there were leaves everywhere, it felt more like autumn than spring).

The old primary school, perched on a high bank overlooking the (not particularly pretty) town, had been converted into a posh restaurant, with a perfectly-designed little garden.

We were constantly amazed how the Japanese could create a tranquil green space in the tiniest of spaces – sometimes less than a metre square!

On our way back down the hill, we came across a small shrine honouring dogs.

Our hotel room was much larger (and more luxurious) than we had expected. There was a little luggage/cupboard foyer with the ultimate toilet (the heated seat, the water flushing noise, the various bidet settings – plus the wash-basin incorporated into the water tank!), and a raised tatami-mat bed area, plus a carpeted sofa corner and a wet-room shower, the hot water directly piped from the local hot springs. It was fantastic!

We were provided with kimonos and obi to wear while were in the hotel (or even outside – we saw a couple of people doing that, but it was really too cold for us to attempt that – it felt like winter in Hakone!).

We went up to the roof to try out the hotel’s onsen (hot spring baths). There were separate mens’ and womens’ baths, and we had to bathe naked, which was a little confronting at first, but we soon got used to it. The idea is to shower and scrub yourself, then take a dip in the hot pool, and repeat the whole process several times. We did the first bit, but once we were in the 40° pool water, we didn’t really want to get out. It was so relaxing!

The pool room was roofed, but with an open wall which looked out onto a vertical bank of luminous green spring woodland. We could hear the rushing of the river water below, and the lazy chirping of birds getting ready to roost for the night. The deepening night air kept our faces cool while our bodies turned to jelly in the heat of the water. After 45 minutes or so it was very hard to move! Happily we didn’t have far to go, as we’d booked into the hotel on a half-board basis, so only had to make our way down to the dining room.

There was another pleasant surprise here – dinner was an immaculately presented 6 course menu of local delicacies. Our starter included ‘firefly squid’, ‘tara bud tempura’ and ‘canola flower sushi’ and a huge broad bean (massive beans seemed to be a local specialty – in a later meal we were treated to a monster kidney bean!). There was a simple but elegant clear soup of clams, crab, tomatoes and olives, and a taro dumpling in a caremelized sauce.

The main course was a tasty dish of grilled beef with three different pickles, and a bowl of possibly the most delicious rice I’ve ever tasted! It was cooked at the table – the waitress lit a little block of blue-flamed solid fuel under a ceramic pot filled with uncooked rice and water, and 20 minutes later, the fuel burnt out and we were left with a perfect mound of fluffy fragrant rice (completely unseasoned – it didn’t need any other flavours!).

Dessert was a soft creme brulée with a rather sickly pink ‘cherry blossom’ sauce (which did taste a bit like medicine!). The meal was so perfectly balanced that we just felt pleasantly sated at the end, not stuffed or unhealthy at all!