October 28th: Only Lightly Polluted

This week Shanghai experienced its most polluted day in about six months.  Fortunately, we have the US Consulate and the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection keeping an eye on the smog for us.  The US Consulate’s figures were accompanied by a health warning of “hazardous” (get indoors now; don’t breathe for a few days).  The Chinese State’s assessment was somewhat different, describing it as merely “lightly polluted” (reduce outdoor exercise).  The discrepancy is easily explained away by the local government, accusing the US Consulate of measuring different particles sizes.  Not being an expert here, I much prefer the benign sounding “lightly polluted”.  I’m interpreting it in the same way a packet of crisps could be “lightly salted” – Ok in small doses but too much may cause your lungs too collapse.

A multi-cultural week food wise for me and Bron.  An Indian take-away on Wednesday night with Rachel and Andrea, taking advantage of another essential of life in Shanghai: the home delivery service form Sherpas (£1.50 delivery charge from any restaurant within about 5 miles of where we live.  Any restaurant but usually one selling curry.  And yes I know we should be cooking having brought an Indian shop’s worth of spices with us.)

Back to Sailor’s on Thursday night for fish & chips (counting this as English food) to celebrate JB’s last night in Shanghai (for a whole week).  Sailor’s is on Yongkang Lu, an arty sort of street full of tiny restaurants and bars, loads of Westerners and many disgruntled local residents.  A few complaints (understandable) from those that live above the restaurants saw the arrival of the police shortly after 10pm to usher everyone indoors.

Friday night’s Chinese meal was a buffet-style affair inside another KTV (karaoke) warehouse as Tim took the IS and IT teams out for three hours of singing/wailing.  An elaborate computer system, entirely in Chinese,  allows visitors to select songs from a list and add them to a queue.  Having been a few times, I’ve memorised the right sequence of buttons to take me straight to Radiohead’s “High & Dry” (no Smiths, Cure or Aphex Twin sadly; but they did have a bizarre easy-listening version of Muse’s “Plug in Baby”).  Songs are added to a queue to give everyone a go, but mysteriously my and Tim’s songs kept getting bumped to the top….

Austrian night

Nicole, Jo, Bron and Chong at Austrian night

Bron avoided the ear assault by going out for an Italian instead, so Tim and I joined her later on in Kaiba, a Belgium Beer bar that features a huge selection of beers from around the world (including London Pride).  Ostensibly the launch night (even though we’d been there about a month ago), the police were again in attendance to usher people off the street and back into the bar.

Saturday night was Austrian night, courtesy of Juliane (the only Austrian we know).  The Hyatt hotel on the North Bund apparently has an Austrian chef and manager, so why not… Juliane and Nicole fully dressed in dirndl’s, putting the rest of us to shame.  I’m not sure I’ve experienced Austrian food or drink before, but the plum schnaps, beef stew and apple strudel did the job nicely.  I also don’t know any Austrian songs apparently; even the standing up and sitting down again song got the better of me.

Paradise and Hell Bar

A bar run by a cat.

We ended the night with Juliane and Bruce in the Paradise side of a bar called “Paradise and Hell”.  One side was kind of white, the other a tiny bit red.  Having never been to Paradise before, I now know it features a very comfortable cat that appears to manage bars, overseeing as it did the behaviour of its patrons and the delivery of new beer.

I’m writing this early on Sunday morning; knackered thanks to the workman who rang our doorbell repeatedly at 7.20 this morning.  Wrong house.  Thanks.

Austrian night

(Apologies for dodgy quality): Isaac, me, Bruce, Juliane, Nicole, Jo, Bron and Chong at Austrian night

A big brass instrument

Isaac and Juliane with the Austrian musicians

October 21st: Green Tea with Whisky

Everything here is hectic; Shanghai never stops.  The old folks arise at sunrise to do their morning Tai Chi before being gradually interrupted by the commuting masses.  Armies of three patrol during the daytime as grandparents take their single grandchild out and about.  Local restaurants fill to bursting point between 12pm and 1pm as the Chinese, in unison, eat lunch, and again between 6pm and 7pm as the commuters stop off enroute home; Western style restaurants fill-up a little later.  Street vendors appear after 10pm to feed the stragglers and restaurant workers, offering miscellaneous veg and meats on-a-stick.  The bars and clubs close their doors in the early hours as the revellers stagger home in a manner completely discordant to the graceful movements of the Tai Chi masters.

To survive in Shanghai is to be swept along as one of its adopted citizens, going with rather than against the flow.  Never quite understanding but fully accommodating this is a place where everyone seems to do everything at exactly the same time.  Chaos, but somehow organised.  The more we flow with it, the less time we have to miss the UK.

Alex's leaving do

The girls out at Alex’s leaving do: (L to R) Haze, Jude, Bron, Alex, Judy, Lilly, Susan, Anny, Yeats, Yolanda and Kiwi

We’ve had week of mixing with locals and expats; KTV (Karaoke) and whisky with green tea (starts off weirdly; gets better over time) with the HR team on Thursday night to say goodbye to Alex as she ends her 6 week trip to Shanghai.  We discovered it’s impossible to duet with JB since what he may lack in tunefulness is fully compensated by volume (and always entertaining).

On Friday night I joined Bron and her marketing colleagues for a sauna.  OK; technically, this was a meal in a Korean barbecue restaurant where you cook your own food.  But the lack of air con and being positioned directly in front of hot charcoals meant a good compromise between sweating the toxins away whilst ingesting others.

Me and Marcel on the boat...

Not quite “King of the World”

On Saturday Bron and I disappeared out on a boat at a yacht club an hour away from Shanghai with several other ex-pats as part of an Internations trip.  Mid-October and still shorts & t-shirt weather; I could do with the weather staying exactly like this (mid twenties) but sadly it won’t last.  A barbecue to follow the boat trip and a little dancing to Shakira (my “dancing” lasted maybe 10 seconds having steadfastly refused until nearly the end of the song).  And the happiest corner shop owner in the world as a coachload of (mainly) foreigners pulls up outside her shop to purchase a few beers for the journey home.

A cracking Sunday roast (our first in Shanghai) today with JB, Elouise, Ryan and Richard and a few games of pool to round off the weekend.

The routine of chaos begins again tomorrow….

October 14th: The Japanese Diversion

Writing this bit on a Shinkansen train to Hiroshima, where the onboard announcements are preceded by the first 5 notes of the British national anthem, although I assume that’s a coincidence. And the staff bow each time they enter or exit the carriage (then again, the ground staff bowed to the plane when it landed).  Other than that, Japanese trains are perfectly normal.

Japan is weird.  Entertaining, sometimes breathtakingly beautiful, but weird.  Entire buildings filled with arcade-style crane grabbing machines to win anything from, erm, happy-lady-toys to packs of Pringles.  Dedicated drinking streets where you, too, can share one of many wooden sheds with 3 other squashed people.  Cisterns that double as sinks (genius). Women dressed in pink rabbit outfits (note: definitely not bunnies) to lure men into bars.  Giant robot women in pink bars.

And ridiculously expensive.

Recognising that most of our Chinese colleagues are not happy about us visiting Japan due to the Diaoyu Island dispute, we’ve broached the subject in several bars to get the Japanese perspective.  So far the view is one of indifference – everyone we’ve asked seems to think it should be up to the politicians to decide but wouldn’t be too upset if they were officially ruled as belonging to China.

What follows is the quick record of our trip – far too much to type up in detail (and far too much effort to tidy up the mixture of tenses, styles and content).  I’ve also uploaded a few select photos – the remainder we’ll inflict on relatives only (and I might get around to labeling/tagging the photos later this week).

I don’t think we’ll have 10 days as bizarrely entertaining for quite a while.


4th Oct Thursday: Tokyo

Landed in Tokyo; monorail and metro (“Tokyo Met-a-ro” says the announcer) to the hotel in Shinjuku.

Lunch in restaurant: push buttons in machine outside to make choice and take ticket to counter.

Evening: edge of tropical storm – heavy rain after 10 minutes = not going anywhere so hotel restaurant instead. Confused waiter by giving him Chinese bank card to pay . He says “Xiexie” (Chinese for thank you).   Loving the Japanese pronunciation of new words – such as (phonetically) “Inta-neh-toe”.

Out after rain.  Weird sights in Shinjuku.  Neon everywhere.  Bars called things like ‘Happy Girls’.  We think this may be red light district.  Huge chair beyond window with big mechanised woman behind.  We have no idea.

Man beckons to us: “Come into club – couple friendly but you [me] can mix with Japanese girls; they have good English”. We decide this definitely is red light district.

Ended up in tiny bar in Golden Gai area -‘Hip’ – 6 seats. Barman plays guitar in a band called Kactus. Few hours later back to hotel.


5th Oct Friday: Tokyo

Visited local government building shaped like computer chip. Building swayed by seven metres in earthquake.

Asakusa area- interviewed by Japanese TV crew on how polite Japanese people are. Very.

Tokyo Sky Tree tower.  Very tall (350m).  Massive queues.  Big views.

Top nosh meal in Jyujyu teppan restaurant.  Avoided place with “biblemeat” and “pig rectum” on menu.

Early-ish night (midnight) due to tomorrow.


6th Oct Saturday: Tokyo

Up at 3.30am to go to Tsukiji fish market.  Ridiculously expensive taxi: about 30 quid.  In Shanghai we could almost travel all day for that. Queuing outside from 4.20am. Only 60 people allowed in.  Entertained hungry mosquitos.  In at 5.50.  Watched tuna auction.  Done at 6.30.  Breakfast at 7am of sashimi – not normal.

Tsukiji is biggest fish market in the world.  Struggled to find our way out.  Bed at 9am. Up again at 1pm.

Imperial palace: couldn’t get near.

Saturday evening with Dwight from Brainchild in local tempura place (excellent food).  Didn’t know you could eat the leg things from prawns.  You can.  And eel bone. Along with different types of sake.

On to another small bar in Golden Gai area. They feed us sour Japanese plums.  Bar-lady to Bronwen:

  • “Are you married?”
  • “Yes”
  • “You’re very beautiful”
  • “Oh, thank you”
  • “I’m bisexual”

Photo of us taken and now on loop on digital photo frame in bar.

Mosquito bites doing well.


7th Oct Sunday: Hiroshima

Train to Hiroshima. Meet up with Rachel half way there (with about a minute to spare).

Atomic Bomb Dome and Peace Memorial Museum. Very graphic; incredibly moving.

Turned away from 3 restaurants in evening (X-factor style crossing of arms apparently indicates they cannot accommodate us. But doesn’t indicate why).

Settle for all-you-can-eat place. No English, no pictures.  Rachel’s demands for sushi, sushi and more sushi were well met.

Discover at end of meal it was all-you-can-drink too. A discovery made too late.

Bite on arm continues to develop nicely.


8th Oct Monday: Nara

Train to Nara.  3 trains.

Hotel has no wifi but receptionist offers a razor and toothpaste instead.

Beautiful place. Largest wooden building in the world. Largest bronze Buddha in the world. World’s weirdest mascot: Baby Buddha with antlers.

Tame deer roaming free in park. Rachel attacked by deer.

Evening in restaurant with no English menu (or English spoken) but promising pictures of food. Inside we discovered there were only about 4 pictures available. We chose the pictures.

Bite on arm recedes after an evening of being frozen by ice.


9th Oct Tuesday: Kyoto

Rachel back to Tokyo. Bron and I to Kyoto. Hotel not where it was supposed to be.

Evening in tiny Japanese restaurant – best meal in Japan so far. Grilled beef cooked like we’ve never had before. Elderly Japanese lady next to us delighted we were heading to Kobe.

Bar staff in evening offer us Japanese sugar.  At least I think that’s what it was.


10th Oct Wednesday: Kyoto

Walked for miles (15 of them according to the Fitbit). Bamboo groves and orange painted lined avenues. Overheard a lady neatly summarising Kyoto to her husband: “There is a lot of temples”. Very accurate.

Another stunning place – views and scenery. No monkeys.

Gave in to 6 days without curry.

Refused to pay cover charge in several bars .Given X-factor style “members only” message in others. Found free bars instead.

Everywhere in Japan we’ve been to so far has featured areas with street after street of tiny bars, with the majority insisting on a cover charge of anywhere from £2 to £25 per person. We’ve only paid it one, by accident. And then negotiated a 2-for-1 deal.

Mid October and still T-shirt & shorts weather.


11th Oct Thursday: Kobe

Nishiki market in Kyoto – all manner of weird dried fish, aubergines in fresh batter, octopus on a stick.  Whole tiny octopus. Apparently romantic to share the head with your partner (girl in front of us did so).

Train to Kobe.

Ryokan (Japanese style) hotel – no hotel signs outside in English. Guess at entrance. Lady shows us to room but no sharing of names.  We hope we are in right place.  Cheapest night of our trip to Japan – shared bathroom, but free pyjamas.

Soju for pre-dinner drinks (similar to Sake but a bit more flavourful).  A bar full of huge Soju bottles and nothing else.

Noodles for tea.

Hit head four times in ryokan.  Hair is good.


12th Oct Friday: Arima Onsen (near Kobe)

Three local trains to Arima Onsen for Hot Springs hotel.

Bron gets to choose her yukata (type of kimono but less hassle) colour. Mine is fixed. Asked if I would like to pull Bronwen in a cart for 2 metres from reception to lift.

Room has an outdoor hot spring.  Relaxing but very orange.  Room also has magic toilet that opens its lid when you open the bathroom door and offers wash and blow dry.

We try another type of hot spring.  Water is hotter than the sun.  I am pink.

Evening meal consists of loads of courses of random Japanese food.  No instructions.  Given our own hot plate to cook Kobe beef.  Apparently the best beef in the world – might well have been if someone else had cooked it.

Head back into orange hot spring after dark – sat outdoors in a bath looking at stars.  Great experience.


13th Oct Saturday: Tokyo

More random food for breakfast followed by rice pounding demonstration.  One drum beat to one pounding of rice. We therefore cannot make at home (no drums).

Train back to Tokyo.Pass Mount Fuji, just like in every film with a train scene in Japan.

Met-a-ro to Shibuya.  Hotel is a hefty walk away – another Japanese style hotel (but this time with own loo).

All of Tokyo’s young people appear to be out in Shibuya in the evening.  More neon; more tiny bars; more robot women.  We find English bar (The Aldgate) selling probably the best beer this side of the planet.

Having tried Japanese-style curry on Wednesday, we opt for Japanese-style Thai food.  Good stuff.

End-up squashed into a place called the “Beat Cafe” surrounded by French people.


14th Oct Sunday: Shanghai

Train, monorail and plane back to Shanghai.  Back to normality?  Never thought I’d say that…