Archives for category: Travel

TP32 Header sunsetI know there are those who believe that an early flight is the way to go so that you can ‘make the most’ of your weekend away. For Mrs. Panda and I, it is a gruelling trial by ordeal which we will undertake only when no other options are available.

That said, our Ryan Air flight touched down in Jerez just ahead of time and with minimal fuss. The flight had not suffered the ‘United’ curse of being overbooked and no one was dragged bruised and bleeding from the aircraft by security before we departed. I had indulged in a passable cup of Lavazza coffee and a cheese and ham croissant delivered by a cheery flight crew (probably at the start of their shift). Despite the early hour, I’d even managed to keep my eyes open for a whole episode of Bates Motel on the old iPad. Possibly the most trying part was the seating of the Essex equivalent of ‘Family Guy’ behind us and his relentlessly crying and complaining offspring, but even that could not temper the excitement of our forthcoming excursion!

Jerez is the land of sherry and one of my favorite tipples – Carlos I Brandy, but no time to hang around, Cadiz awaits. We had already established a small wrinkle in that Mrs. Panda had intended to be chief hire car driver but forgotten her driving license –  so I would be drafted in. By the lengthy queue at the car hire booth we should have got an indication that the ‘jobs worth’ factor was pretty high. If you have ever wondered why anyone would go to the famous, more expensive car hire firms when the local ones which are so cheap – well THIS is why! Turns out that despite the fact she is standing right next to me (with a passport to prove it) it was impossible for them to handle that my wife had made the booking but that I would be the main driver and apparently, we would need to completely rebook on line. While she told them politely but firmly to ‘get stuffed’, I wandered off to see what a taxi would charge, quite relieved that even the most sporadic and occasional driving wouldn’t in any way interfere with my wine, sherry and brandy consumption over the weekend.

TP32 Playa VA pleasant taxi driver ferried us the 30-minute drive to Cadiz, imparting nuggets of wisdom as they do and in a jiffy, we were pulling up outside the Hotel Playa Victoria Palafox. A couple of kilometers from the Old Town of Cadiz, yes, but placed squarely in front of one of the best stretches of sandy beach I have seen within the confines of a European city. Even though it was a mixed sky of cloud and the occasional sun beam, one could imagine that  expansive golden sand on a day of blistering sunshine. Being only April, we could only hope we would be lucky enough to see one.

13 kilometers. That’s what we walked on that Friday and it set the pace for the whole weekend. After a trouble-free early check-in to the hotel, we set off in search of…. well Vino y Jamon (wine and ham), which if you believe my friends and family is the main reason I go to Spain (and they are not entirely wrong). We satisfied our immediate hunger with authentic tortilla patata, jamon, olives and sliced manchego over a glass of house red in an understated locals’ café, before seeing whether we would reach the old town on foot.

Fortifying ourselves along the way with the odd café con leche, vinto tinto and as the temperature heated up, cerveza, we began our exploration of the old port town of Cadiz which was to last for the next 3 days.

Immediate observations were that it was a city with pride. Clean and well kept. Even the windswept sand is painstakingly returned to the beach and levelled every day my municipal workers. The old town is charming with a mix of quaint shops, cafes, bars and restaurants filling its narrow cobbled streets, which open up into impressive squares and patches of small organized open space with gardens and children’s playgrounds.

Being situated on an jutting strip of land, walking in any direction other than back to our hotel would eventually lead to the coast and a breathtaking view of the Atlantic.  Cadiz doesn’t strike you as a tourist place and nothing like the ‘Costa’ culture of the Mediterranean coastline. There are a spattering of tourists from Britain and Germany, but most of the time you are sharing the city with local people either going about their business or taking time out in their hometown. The result is that the place doesn’t seem like it’s ‘trying too hard’ as many tourist traps do. The pricing and quality of food and services pitches itself toward locals who are likely to be far more discerning than tourists!

TP32 TeatroI haven’t got on to the gastronomy yet, but before that there is a visual feast to enjoy. From the grandeur of the twin towered cathedral that is certainly worth a visit, to the Moorish architecture of the ‘Gran Teatro Falla’ theatre and the old cannoned port walls to the remnants of a Roman amphitheater, your cultural appetite is sated. Heading to the sea-facing tip of Cadiz, the old town has its own cove beach, sheltered and calm with an imposing pavilion where you could imagine the ‘well-to-do’ would have frequented in days gone by. Just down the road and facing out to the ocean is the Hotel Parador. A modern five-star hotel set next to the Botanical Gardens, which looks much more impressive in real life than in the rather dour and clinical website photos. There was a slight moment of ‘look what you could have won’, but to be honest, I’m not sure the extra star could make up for the view and access to Playa Victoria that our own hotel had to offer.

I have made no secret that our Cadiz trip was predominantly food inspired and we owe considerable thanks to celebrity Padstow chef Rick Stein for showcasing it on his ‘Long Weekends’ TV series. Based on Cadiz, when it comes to my stomach and taste buds, wherever Rick’s going – I’m going!

Of course, as a port town, seafood is top of the menu. I could not have been more delighted when my humble glass of beer at the nearby beach bar was accompanied by a generous plate of Boquerones (plump, battered and fried anchovies) on the house. In England, I’d have been lucky to get a well fingered half bowl of peanuts if anything at all! Ice cold beer, a crisp and fresh anchovy and my toes in the warm sand. I’m not sure how I was ever dragged away!

We enjoyed our share of cafes and restaurants, but when it came to shining a spotlight on the gastronomy of Cadiz, the Central Market is not to be missed. I have never been to a market that so deftly represents the commercial centre and social hub of a small city. Even if markets are not your ‘thing’ I would highly recommend a peek at this one. The covered centre is a traditional commercial food market with venders selling fish, meat, cheeses, fruit and vegetables. The variety left nothing to the imagination with huge tuna and swordfish laid out across the ice and glistening jumbo shellfish ripe for the picking. However, for the casual market explorer greater delights lie just outside the covered area as it is literally ringed by a corridor of food stalls – all naturally relying on the market for their fresh ingredients. We visited on a Saturday afternoon and there was this great feeling of community. It was as if the population of Cadiz has popped out to catch up with friends and family in the shadow of the market.

TP32 marketDotted through the corridor of vendors peddling their gastronomic delights, were tables, stools and benches. where if you were quick, you could grab a seat to enjoy your latest mouthwatering bite with a glass of crisp sherry or luscious red wine. On that subject, it’s a joy to be a country that realizes that there is a huge difference between being served your wine and sherry in plastic cups and goblets (as so often happens at outdoor events and markets) and enjoying it in a proper glass. Here the market bars simply charge you a Euro deposit for your glass and give it back when you return it. Alfresco dining with class!

Gadisushi, mentioned in many online reviews, is one of the most popular market vendors. Cadiz is renowned for its fresh Tuna, particularly in May. We were a little early, but it was still plentiful and delicious. The Japanese influenced Tuna carpaccio was sublime. I could have eaten it all day if there wasn’t just so much else to choose from (and if the empanada stall wasn’t calling to me from across the way!)

For our final eating experience before leaving we chose Casa Manteca. Again, its referred to in many an online review with good reason and was a stop along the way for Mr. Stein in his TV show. It’s very much an old traditional Tapas Bar on the corner of two narrow old town streets, a block or two back from the sea. Founded by a retired bullfighter, the wood panelled walls are coated with photos, posters and memorabilia of a life in the arena. On a Sunday, like many watering holes in Cadiz, the doors will not even creak open after lunchtime until 8.30pm in the evening. The barmen/waiters are an engaging breed who will serve you an impressive house red while you ponder the small but perfectly formed tapas menu and give you excellent recommendations of its highlights. Enjoy some fresh boiled peeling prawns in a paper cone bursting with the flavour of the sea – no seasoning required, while you consider theTP32 Boquerones various Pork dishes. Pork or ‘chicharon’ is big in Casa Manteca. Delivered in amazingly marinated wafer thin slices on greaseproof paper (as are all tapas dishes) the serving is over far too soon. However, I think my favorite must be the small raw Tuna and cheese skewers (yes, it’s that Tuna again!). Those and the complimentary marinated anchovies (more Boquerones!), this time not fried, but in oil and vinegar which is offset by the sweetest of tomatoes, diced and juicy. They were so good that when Mrs. Panda ordered dessert, I jokingly ordered more Boquerones and they dutifully arrived along with the most deliciously sweet fortified prune wine (again on the house). Thank you Casa Manteca, for a last supper worthy of your town!

Our prayers were answered on the last day of our long weekend with a cloudless sky and temperatures hitting 25 degrees. The beach which had so far looked impressive but a little windswept and deserted erupted into life! Tourists grossly outnumbered by local families and friends by enjoying the start of the what is likely to be a long warm summer. Beachside restaurants which had looked to hold promise but thus far seemed a little forlorn and empty, had customers spilling into the streets, enjoying their fried dogfish, shrimp fritters and ice cream to finish.

TP32 RumAfter a doze in the sun plus a brave and (extremely!) quick dip in the still rather icy Atlantic, we found ourselves again equipped with massive Cacique rum and cokes watching the sea lap on the sandy shore at Potito Beach Bar. Anyone who has visited Spain will know how generous the measures are when you order a drink and the waiter will generally keep pouring until you tell him or her to stop! In front of us a group of friends, clearly locals, had gathered for a drink and a chat, knocking back spirits and mixers encouraging more friends to join them and arguing over where the cheapest parking nearest the beach was. As the most vocal and jovial of the group had his glass topped up with whisky, the waitress paused just a little too soon and he encouraged her to keep going “Give me more happiness, more happiness!” he begged.

With the sun on my face, the sound of the ocean in my ears and the old town of Cadiz on the skyline, I was confident that my happiness had been topped up quite sufficiently already!

Still, another rum and coke couldn’t hurt, could it?

TP

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19adTP - xmas beachThe Advent Panda

19th Dec 2015: The Great Christmas Escape…..festive holidays

You either love the idea or hate it. A Festive Family Christmas gathered round the tree – frosty outside, but warm inside by the fire OR….

An escape to either sunnier climes or more extreme winter ones for ski-ing and tobogganing.

You can see the appeal. Are family christmases best viewed through the rose tinted lens of port and sherry, when in fact it’s often an assault course of cooking and chaos?

If you are going abroad for Christmas, go on your own terms, embrace the local culture and see where it leads you. If you’re just going to try and replicate your normal Christmas with a different currency – what’s the point?

There’s no right or wrong. Have fun with the people you love – here, there or anywhere!

Why not go for the best of both worlds? A family christmas in the ancestral home and a raging New Year a couple of hours away by Easy Jet?! Just saying…

TP.

Blick auf Binissalem und Tramuntana Gebirge, Mallorca, Balearen, SpanienIt’s been a while since I wrote about my journeys abroad and to do so about Mallorca feels slightly odd given we have friends and family there which makes it feel like a ‘home away from home’ rather than a trip into the unknown.

That said, there is much to be said about this beautiful Balearic island especially if you spend time in its charming interior where the occasional swarm of dozy wasps by the pool is far less intimidating than the swarm of union-jack shorted, bare backed teenagers performing lewd acts for cheap tequila shots in unscrupulous, warehouse-sized nightclubs!

We found ourselves nestling in the centre of the island and as I looked out from the ceiling to floor glass upstairs in our hacienda style villa, the view of the long flower-lined drive to the gates and the mountain range across the horizon beyond, conjured a much more fulfilling feeling than snorkels and San Miguel on the beach. Not that there isn’t a great deal of room for alcoholic sampling with vineyards stretching out on either side of us and even the local mini-markets stocking wine that has been produced just a stone’s throw away and that’s simply delicious.

The idea that you can spend what is almost ‘a retreat’ style holiday on a Balearic island in the summer, might sound unlikely to some, but lazing outside our villa with extensive gardens, pool, covered sunken dining area and even vegetable patch might make you think differently. Apart from crickets, cats meowing and the occasional very (very) distant Easy Jet flight, there wasn’t much to break the silence. Chomping through self-prepared tapas on the veranda with a glass of red by candlelight or sitting round a long Mediterranean ‘family style’ table literally wipes away hours and the days fly by.

TP25 squareIf you do start to feel stir crazy, it isn’t a long car ride to the nearest town. In our case Binissalem was just 5 minutes away. It was a small, traditional town of narrow streets, the expected town square, a church and a myriad of local restaurants. What was particularly surprising was that in late June the town seemed completely free of foreign tourists (barring us of course!). Nearly every time we visited it seemed that restaurants had expanded into the town square with trellis and patio tables and couples of mid to old age dancing to live music. Expansive families talked, joked and ate around gathered tables, the parents with a glass of wine or bottle of beer and the children running mischievously around their feet. The sound carried through the warm evening air and into the narrow streets and apartments with shutters open and gaping windows. Even opportunistic cats pawing at the odd bin bag in the street couldn’t ruin the quaint and charming picture. Cats have to eat too.

On no less than two occasions we trundled into Binissalem at around 11pm with hunger and hopefulness to eat Spanish style (late!). Despite rumours to the contrary, restaurants in little towns like this do generally close their kitchens at 11pm, even though you are more often than not welcome to spend the early hours consuming their beverages inside or on their terraces until much later. However, we ran across an obliging place, which not only put out extra tables to accommodate us, but were more than happy to keep their kitchen fired up to present us with food ranging from traditional pinchos to locally sourced meat and everything in between. As I tackled my freshly grilled sardines I pondered the sight of families pushing buggies and pulling dancing children home after midnight and wondered where I might see that in England, even in the summer. The culture of the family is vastly different and whilst there may be matters where the Spanish are steadfast, stern and uncompromising, there are others where they know how to relax and enjoy the pace of life as it was supposed to be.

TP25 streetsWhat often tends to make holiday destinations distinctive is conundrums and contradictions. Nestled in Binissalem amid the traditional restaurants and cafes was…no, not a McDonalds, but a gourmet sushi takeaway. Reassuringly expensive and apparently recommended throughout the island, we sampled some delicious Japanese treats after my wife had negotiated us home by car though the narrow streets. The walls and parked cars were so close on either side you could almost feel our passengers breathing in as if it might help us pass. With millimetres to spare, our wing mirrors made it back to the villa safely where we wolfed down the carefully prepared delights with wine and wasabi. Apparently, last year the Kings of Leon wouldn’t leave on their tour plane without despatching some minion to Binissalem for sushi supplies to tide them over. Okay, it would have more in keeping if they had requested a Spanish delicacy from a hidden away tapas bar, but it was so delicious I’ll let them off (just this once!).

TP25 paloIn the opposite direction from our villa was the tiny and sleepy village of Biniagual where we adjourned one afternoon for a pre-lunch aperitif at the village bar. In the small but welcoming hole in the wall, my brother-in-law introduced us to the ‘drink of the locals’. Never ones to pass up a new form of tipple we were presented with ‘Palo con sifon’. Palo is a dark, dense liquor which seems to alternate from sweet to bitter. It has an intense, woody, caramel-like flavour and derives from the bark of Quina plant and Gentlana plant, which are believed (as such things are) to have medicinal effects over various diseases including malaria. In the past, alcohol was used to preserve the plants for their medicinal effects and concentrated sugars from various natural sources were added over the years to overcome their great bitterness. This is perhaps why it is apparently said that no Palo bottle tastes quite the same. I don’t think I have seen a soda siphon at work since the 1970’s but they had one in Biniagual and we drank as the locals did – topping up our glasses of Palo with soda water as we drank. As the Palo lightens with every Soda top-up, you migrate from a taking a major alcoholic hit at the beginning to sipping a light caramel cordial at the end. A very pleasant journey!

You may notice that much of this blog seems to centre on food and drink. I make no apologies for this, because if cuisine has not been a major factor in the appreciation of your Spanish holiday – you might as well have laid under a sun-bed for a week instead! While the masses on the coast don’t get much further than a burger and chips to go with their beer, there is a huge array of fresh food that is relatively inexpensive and plentiful in comparison to the UK, especially if you have a kitchen or barbeque at your disposal. Of course eating out is part of the holiday experience, but when you have an apartment or villa, the things you can find at an average (yes average) Spanish supermarket will make your mouth water! The variety of cured meats, cheeses, fruits and fresh fish put English grocers to shame. Juicy prawns to pan fry with sea salt and plump, tasty Dorada (that’s Sea Bream to you) easy to place on the barbeque wrapped loosely in foil with lemon and garlic.

As I finish up my scribblings (predictably feeling in need of a snack), I hope that I have stirred a curiosity in the discerning amongst you who may to date have had reservations about Mallorca as a holiday destination. Rest assured, the shot swilling, lobster red, nightclubbing army will remain kettled in a few specific coastal enclaves, lacking the sobriety or imagination to wander out any further (except maybe for their requisite water park excursion). This leaves the rest of the island free for you to explore and enjoy at your leisure.

Pass the Palo and salud!

TP

ImageBefore you ask, this is not anything as pretentious as a travelogue or as marketable as a ‘visit Japan’ brochure. I would not be so bold as to advise you where to go or what to do when you get there – wherever ’there’ might be. This is simply a collection of recent experiences that will hopefully make those about to travel more excited and encourage those who have never considered Japan, to give it a go.

Before heading out to Japan, you cannot help but be a little trepidatious. Will I like the food? Will I understand anything? How will I find my way around? Will I be able to strike up sufficient communications to address basic needs such as ordering food or finding a toilet?!

Some people will try to be helpful and allay your fears while at the same time adding to them with stories of the famous Japanese politeness and reserved nature.

I will do neither, but instead share what I saw and did so that you can make your own minds up.

Food and Drink

We tried everything and didn’t just stick safely to the likes of McDonalds (although there are some modestly adventurous choices to me made there also).

ImageWhether its conveyor belt sushi (at 157 Yen per plate – that’s about £1) or Kobe beef at teppanyaki tables for £100 per head – everything is there to be explored. In most restaurants you can point at the pictures, cross your fingers and usually enjoy the consequences. I think I was most tested in the foothills of Mount Fuji, where in a Ryokan traditional Japanese hotel we were served our meals at floor level, sitting on straw matting. In what can only be described as a massive souped-up, stylish bento box with portable stoves, we were at times challenged with the unrecognisable and with textures more associated with washing up sponges in the western world! However, we survived, usually agreeing that the good outweighed the inedible and willing to have the same adventure at the following mealtime (even breakfast!)

Experience usually proved that walking blindly into restaurants paid off, with friendly service and sign language making up for any communication gap. What was surprising was that Japan had thriving bakery industry with chains of small bakeries in stations and streets serving the most thrilling array of savoury and sweet pastries and breads. My mid morning coffee was complemented perfectly one morning with what seemed to be a ‘hot dog croissant’. A deliciously cheesy croissant with a frank running through it! Other bizarre breakfasts included a ball of rice filled with cheese, deep fried in breadcrumbs and sitting in a rich sweet onion gravy with tender shredded beef. It was incredible and it was all I could do to wrench myself from the small establishment without ordering another 3 portions!

TP21 fantaTo accompany your meal, wine is expensive but beer (and sake) is everywhere! If you can’t stomach alcohol, green tea is often on tap (sometimes literally) and soft drinks range from known favourites to new variations (bright green Melon Fanta!) or some quite repulsive herbal ice teas. If you’re after a caffeine hit to get through the jet lag – coffee shops including Starbucks abound, but make sure you specify ‘hot’ when you’re ordering. Cold/iced coffee is big in Japan and most types of coffee are available in hot or cold versions.

 Toilets

Well you’re fed and watered and biology dictates that its got to come out some time! Do not fear – there are toilets EVERYWHERE and they are amazingly clean, whether in stations, parks or tourist attractions. Perhaps they have toilet fairies! It is clearly a very welcome Japanese obsession, as is the ‘electronic’ toilet which will do anything from automatically raising/lowering and heating your seat, to providing covering sound effects to hide embarrassing sounds and a myriad or other functions which essentially wash and blow dry your nether regions if requested. Basically – when you need to go – there’s usually somewhere to go! Women may occasionally be surprised by Japanese toilets (effectively a ceramic hole in the floor), but in most places a western style toilet is not far away together with helpful signs for locals on how to use it!

Image

 

Now that our fuel intake and bodily functions are taken care of….

How will you get around in this baffling and teeming new world?

You will be relieved to know that most signage is in English and Japanese, particularly for getting around and in the train/subway systems. Of course if you speak neither Japanese nor English, then I imagine life becomes somewhat more complicated! What was impressive was that on a couple of occasions when we were staring confusedly at a map or sign – all at once a helpful person appeared as if by magic at our side and asked if we needed help (reminiscent of the shop keeper in Mr. Benn for any of you old enough to remember that children’s cartoon). Sometimes this was an employee of the transport company, but sometimes it was just a volunteer with a smile, a map and a modest spattering of English language. It strikes me that in the UK we had such people pounding the streets during the 2012 Olympics, but in Japan – they just have them for everyday tourists! If this is how they handle visitors now – I can only guess how impressive the hospitality will be when the Olympics come to Tokyo in 2020.

Moving onto the trains and subways themselves. In the entire 2 weeks of our visit where we used the rail system extensively – we were subjected to just one 10-minute delay on a small local rail line. Other than that, everything was to time and often provided spaciousness and comfort unheard of on the UK rail system. Reclining seats with generous legroom, drinks and snacks for sale, plus frequent updates of where you were and where you were going. On my first commute to London when returning to the UK, I felt betrayed and that I had somehow been demoted to a second class citizen! This was made worse by a 45-minute delay due to a broken down train, which doubled my journey time. Where was my spacious seating area? I longed for the trolley of drinks and Japanese treats or at least on-board vending machines! What happened to the polite impeccably suited train guards who bowed when entering the carriage. Now I’m lucky if some scruffy looking chap growls “Tickets Please!” at me without actually meaning the ‘please’. How cruel the world is!

ImageAnother point that I loved about Japan was their attitude to the use of mobile phones on public transport. How often have you been stuck on a train or bus next to a brash and uninhibited passenger who has no volume (or quality!) control over their voice and absolutely no reservations about sharing the most intimate or sordid details of their work or personal life with the whole carriage, irrespective of whether we want to hear it or not. I have literally had to put on headphones and turn the volume of my iPod to extremes to drown out such noise pollution. On Japanese transport it is considered completely unacceptable to take or make calls when seated or positioned in the main passenger area. Signs and announcements reinforce this and people will religiously get up and walk to the exit door area of the train if they really need to take a call and they make it quick. This does not of course mean that the ‘use’ of phone devices is frowned upon in a train. No no no! Everyone has the latest smart phone and their eyes are glued to it – either squinting at video, tapping frantically at text or ‘candy crushing’ themselves into oblivion. Basically, you can do pretty much whatever you like with a phone as long as you’re not yelling into it!

During our 2 weeks, we tried pretty much every mode of transport – rail, subway, tram, monorail, bus, boat, taxi, coach and cable car! All ran apparently effortlessly and although sometimes crowded, made you embarrassed of our often frail and unpredictable public transport system back home.

Clean freaks!

Japan is spectacularly clean. The streets are completely litter free, which is surprising as you see very few litter bins and hardly ever catch anyone actually cleaning them. Perhaps the fairies don’t just clean the toilets! It just seems totally unacceptable to drop any form of litter, no matter how small. In terms of smoking, Japan feels to be a little behind the rest of the world with cigarettes still permitted in smoking areas of restaurants and even in designated smoking compartments of trains. That said, it is unusual to see a Japanese person smoking on the street, let alone tossing their finished butt. It seems that everything has its place in Japan.

On one occasion while standing on a rail platform I was shocked to notice I had a piece of chewing gum stuck to my shoe. I have to say that my immediate thought was to assume it was courtesy of a tourist! However as I peeled it from my sole, my next dilemma was what to do with it. There were no bins and to put back on the floor even in a corner away from foot traffic seemed like a completely unacceptable situation. I felt obliged to wrap it in a tissue and wait until I found a bin! The Japanese approach is clearly contagious!

Money 

ImageThe Japanese attitude to handling money is curious. It is a combination of respect and appropriateness. For example, in a restaurant, money never changes hands at the table. The act of eating and paying are separated by distance no matter how expensive or cheap the eatery is. The bill is paid on exit at the cashier. Credit cards are respectfully handed over with two hands and a small bow and cash is placed not in the hand or on the counter, but in a small tray. Your change is returned to you in the same tray and the receipt again passed with two hands and a bow. There is no need to be concerned about gratuity. There is no tipping! A million embarrassed and confused tourists have whooped with delight. Yes, that hideous decision of whether to tip and how much is instantly deleted from your list of holiday traumas.

A word of caution though, we have become accustomed to travelling the world armed only with our credit and debit cards and a small sprinkling of cash in our pockets. This is unfortunately not the approach to take in Japan. Credit cards are readily accepted in most significant outlets and restaurants, but debit cards not so much, unless they are from a Japanese bank. More worrying is the inability to use international credit or debit cards in the vast majority of ATM machines. If you are a ‘cash’ person or are spending in dribs and drabs that don’t lend themselves to credit cards, ensuring you have an enough cash for your trip is a strategic affair if you have failed to arrive sufficiently Yen equipped! ATMs in the Seven Eleven stores and Citibank are your best bet, so stock up when you have the opportunity.

People? Unreservedly unreserved!

Much has been said of the reserved nature of the Japanese. I suppose it depends on your definition. Did I find them polite and respectful? – Yes, but I can’t say I found them less friendly or engaging than other nationalities I have met on my travels. Clearly the language barrier doesn’t help you to get a completely accurate picture, but barring a few of those somber ‘old schoolers’ above the age 50 or so, I found them a charming and welcoming people. The customer service in shops, restaurants and other industries was also second to none. 

ImageAt one point in a tiny Kyoto bar (a bit like the Japanese version of ‘Cheers!’) we found ourselves in the midst of a small birthday gathering. By surprise and presumably as part of some kind of ‘in joke’, a friend of the birthday boy emerged from the microscopic toilet sporting full Darth Vader headgear. We quickly pulled our phones from their holsters and using the Star Wars sound effect app, played the Darth Vader breathing noise. This was greeted by roars of laughter from the birthday entourage and we were graciously treated to slices of birthday cake.

In a move that is probably one of the best pieces of customer services I have seen, we were literally stalked through the warren of a multi-level shopping mall beneath one of Tokyo’s biggest railway stations by a dedicated sales assistant. Disappointed that her condiment shop had not stocked the Katsu sauce my wife was looking for, she had clearly set about finding who in the mall did stock it and then tracked us down at the other end of the complex on a completely different floor. My wife was tapped on the shoulder by the exuberant sales assistant a good 10 minutes after leaving her shop, whereby she was guided to the balcony and enthusiastically pointed out the shop one level below where Katsu sauce could be purchased. You have got to love these people!

There is so much more I could say. I have not mentioned the majestic parks and imposing temples and shrines, but you can read about those in great detail on the pages of any travel guide. Instead I have focused on the people, the senses and the overall experience.

Needless to say when it comes to Japan, it was not just the Okonomiyaki that left a lingering and delicious taste in my mouth!

TP

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