Saturday 29 November 2014

Japanese Delights

One of the many great things about travelling is the variety of food available to try. I like to consider myself as an adventurous person when it comes to trying the delicacies of foreign countries. There are some things that I will not try under any circumstances, things such as insects or snails (mainly because insects and snails make my skin crawl – even when they are alive), but just about anything else is fair game.

I thought I had seen it all on my travels, particularly in China where they eat just about anything. However, Japanese food proved to be just as challenging, and I found myself in a position where I had to pluck up a hidden wedge of courage from a cache that I didn’t know existed within me.

My first encounter with authentic Japanese cuisine came on my very first day in Tokyo. Mrs PM and I visited a small bar/snack bar in the early evening. We sat at the bar, along with everyone else, and watched the bar staff serving beer and cooking food in an open kitchen. The initial idea was to grab a beer and introduce ourselves, slowly to Japanese social culture and watch the people. Mrs PM is far more adventurous than I am and suggested that we try one of the snacks on offer. She signalled the barman who presented us with a small menu written in Japanese with English translations next to it.

Here is what we were given:

I stared at the menu in disbelief. In case you can’t read it, here’s what was on offer:

Trachea, spleen, large intestine, rectum, uterus, small intestine, spinal column, organ (whatever that was – my mind truly boggled), throat, testicles, choice uterus, brain, birth canal.

It looked to me like something out of a hospital or medical laboratory.

The barman offered us “his choice of three items” in broken English.

“NO!!!” we both wailed and opted for a couple of safe items (two lots of bacon and shoulder meat).

A few days later we had immersed ourselves in an authentic Japanese hotel in a place called Hakone, near Mount Fuji, where we enjoyed traditional Japanese experiences such as bathing in an onsen and walking around in kimonos.

We also had to eat in the hotel (it was half board) and we were subjected to a traditional set breakfast and evening meal.

This meant that we basically had to eat everything on offer, no matter how bizarre. Here were some of the choice things we were given for evening meal:

Steamed abalone, conger eel sushi, jellyfish, eel stew, seaweed, bamboo shoot, raw bream.

I had eaten eel stew before in China and I hated it. The Japanese variety was actually quite nice. The thought of eating jellyfish filled me with dread, particularly because these creatures make me shudder with revulsion. Nevertheless, I remembered a time in China when I accidentally ate jellyfish.

“How can you accidentally eat jellyfish?” I hear you cry.

The truth is, I had popped it into my mouth and was busy chewing it when one of my Chinese colleagues asked me what I thought of the fish I was eating.

“It’s a bit rubbery and tasteless,” I replied.

When he told me what it was, it was too late so I simply carried on eating it. Mrs PM wasn’t keen to try it in Japan but when I ate some, she gave it a go.

If I’m honest, had somebody told me it was jellyfish before I had it in my mouth I would have refused with a look of utter disgust.

For breakfast, we were offered things that we wouldn’t normally have considered eating as our first meal of the day. Here are some of the things we were presented with:

Sesame tofu with noodles, fried horse mackerel, miso soup with crab, sashimi squid, sea urchin.

As odd as those things are, nothing had prepared me for sea urchin. I dipped deeply into my reserves of courage and found something that enabled me to try it. I was pleasantly surprised; it wasn’t as bad as I had initially thought – quite tasteless really.

Having eaten in an authentic Japanese hotel restaurant, both Mrs PM and I were no longer worried about what to eat and what not to eat. We ate Japanese food for most of the remainder of our stay, in particular enjoying sushi.

In Kyoto, in a specialist sushi bar, we ordered mixed sushi for lunch. As we were eating, we noticed two older Japanese men next to us, both of whom were quite drunk. What followed was a brilliant exchange with me and Mrs PM speaking to them in English and them replying in Japanese. We had no clue what was being said – and neither did they.

However, the most talkative guy started pointing at the menu as if to say “try this” We politely refused because we had had enough, but before we knew it, he had ordered yet more sushi for us. We guessed it was his favourite fish – and very nice it was too.

Before we knew it, he had bought us a beer each. The one English word he knew was “American” so we spent the rest of our twenty minutes together trying to convince him that we were English. Finally, we bought them a beer back and they took this as a signal that we wanted to carry on drinking with them. They paid and signalled to us, with a variety of hand signals, that we should join them in a bar crawl of Kyoto.

We had to politely refuse because we had a bullet train to catch. I resorted to showing him a photograph of a train to push my point home.

As they wobbled out of the sushi bar, I remarked to Mrs PM that it was a good job he hadn’t bought us something less appetising than sushi. Japanese people are extremely polite and I would have struggled to eat it just to accept his hospitality.

Before I go again, I guess I need to learn the Japanese for:

 “I’m sorry I don’t like birth canal, uterus, brain, testicles and organ (whatever the hell that is)”

Sunday 23 November 2014

I Am Not A Doughnut

JFK famously said "Ich bin ein Berliner", which caused journalists in Berlin to have a little fun at his expense. He was trying to say "I am a Berliner", a man from Berlin. What he probably didn’t know was that a Berliner is a local doughnut.

I didn’t actually want to make the same mistake so, while speaking pigeon German on my recent trip, I opted not to repeat the words of Mr Kennedy. We did actually try a couple of local doughnuts and very nice they were too.

We arrived in Berlin on Monday 3rd November, with absolutely no idea that the following Sunday (9th November) would mark the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall. I would have loved to have been there for that but the chances are that we would probably have struggled to find a hotel room. By travelling a week earlier we could experience the atmosphere of the city as they prepared for this momentous occasion.

I had missed Germany.

My previous visit there was thirty years ago when I attended the Oktoberfest in Munich. As I walked out of the train station at Alexanderplatz, I recalled just how friendly Germans were.  When I asked locals if they spoke English (mainly so that I didn’t embarrass myself for with poor German) they usually tried to accommodate me ("Ja – I speak a little”).

Of course, if they said “Nein”, which some did, then it was up to me to trawl my memory for words placed there almost forty years ago by my German teacher at school.

Mostly it worked. I was able to make myself understood on the occasion that I had to (although grammatically it was probably totally incorrect).

I am also trying to incorporate a scary thing in my life and on this trip I saw an opportunity. I had vowed never to climb a high building again and when Mrs PM told me about the Fernsehtrum (TV tower) I reminded her of this promise. The Fernsehturm is in the heart of East Berlin and very close to where we were staying. Standing at 1207 feet, it dominates Berlin and is visible from most areas of the city.

You're going to climb that? Really?
When I saw it, I gulped and had an inner battle with myself. Could I briefly overcome my fear of heights to experience amazing views of the city? Or should I sit in a bar at the base while Mrs PM took the lift to the top and allowed me to experience the views second-hand via the camera?

I decided to scare myself and go for it.

And I’m glad I did because I discovered something about my fear. As long as I am indoors and protected from the outside by glass I can tolerate the fear. At the top of the tower, I smiled with relief when I realised that I could stand slightly back from the windows and see the city for myself. Of course, Mrs PM still had to take the photographs but at least I knew my limits.

After that, we spent the rest of the day and the following two days, strolling around the city visiting churches, monuments and the odd museum.

Highlights of the trip include:

We visited the Brandenburg Gate where they were preparing for a big concert to celebrate the fall of the Berlin wall (Mauerfall). I discovered that in a major exercise of détente, the East and West sides of Berlin clubbed together and restored this magnificent arch after the serious damage that it sustained during World War 2. Sadly, this was before everything went pear-shaped, resulting in the Berlin Wall being constructed.

The Reichstag building is another masterpiece. Now home of the German government it is a very beautiful and imposing edifice.

The anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall dominated our trip though and we were introduced to some very harrowing stories about people who had tried to cross the barrier from the East into the West. The one thing that struck me in particular was the sheer size of the wall. It’s hard for me to believe that all of this happened in my own lifetime.

As part of the celebrations of the demise of the wall, a “frontier of lights” (Lichgrenze) was erected consisting of thousands of illuminated lights marking a segment of the wall. We saw some of the preparations for this as we strolled along parts of East Berlin where the wall stood.

On a lighter note, of course, we sampled traditional German food, beer and wine, from Currywurst to homely German winter food, served in cosy restaurants that resembled fancy pubs in England, It was nice to wash it down with a reasonable amount of German beer. We even found a tiny German style market in Potsdamer Platz.

Berlin itself is constantly changing. We noticed lots of building work, roadworks etc. and once again I was struck by German hospitality and friendliness.

It was nice to visit them again  and I think I will be back soon.

In the meantime, here are some photos from our visit.

St Nickolai-Kirche - Two steeples for the price of one.

Berlin as seen from the Fernsehturm. Mrs PM took this - I couldn't.

Modern Berlin complete with skyscraper

A fantastic German restaurant

Brandenburg Gate being prepared for the anniversary

The Reichstag in all its glory

Berlin Cathedral and the river Spree

A section of the Berlin Wall that remains intact

Two unfortunate victims of the Cold War
Checkpoint Charlie

If you are going to have a Trabant, decorate it like this

Sunday 16 November 2014

The Best Toilet In The World - Ever

When travelling to a foreign country, most people look at practical things such as vaccinations, language, customs, money etc. I do that too, except that there is one thing I add to the list that most people ignore.

Yes, I am going to write about toilets again – I apologise in advance.

Regular readers will know that Chinese toilets make me quake with terror, for reasons, I won’t repeat here (if you really really want to know, try this link).

The good news is that last year I encountered the best toilets in the world.

That honour goes to Japan.

I know you are wondering why I have awarded this prize to Japan, so allow me to explain. The Japanese have done exactly what they do to most things – they have combined technology with a basic human function and come up with a world beater in my humble opinion.

My first experience of a Japanese toilet was memorable.

First, I had an initial shock, when I perched myself on the throne. The seat was warm.

Picture the scene (if you dare). It is a cold winter night in England and I wake up in a cold bedroom with an urge to go to the toilet. I cannot fight this urge so I have to go. I enter the bathroom and see my nemesis in front of me. I know what is going to happen; I am going to have to park my bare backside on a freezing cold toilet seat. I brace myself and just go for it. The seat is so cold that I struggle to stifle the scream of shock.

This did not happen in Japan because a heated toilet seat is completely normal, unlike the UK where they are rare.

Back in Japan, another thing happened when I perched myself on the warm toilet seat; the toilet flushed automatically. Adjacent to the toilet, was a remote control, pictured below.

These are simple things that make you toilet experience very pleasurable. After I had answered my call of nature, I decided to experiment with the remote control. As you can see, the images indicate the function of each button (and thankfully the English translation helped) so it was relatively easy to operate.

I pressed the button marked SPRAY and was so shocked at the outcome that I actually shrieked, prompting Mrs PM to run to the door and ask whether I was okay.

“Yes,” I laughed.

I explained to her what had happened. The button caused a continuous jet of warm water to be sprayed on my backside and my outburst was due to the initial shock of that. Even better you could adjust the water pressure and I spent a good five minutes pushing the + and buttons to achieve optimal pressure.

I won’t go into any more detail (in the name of good taste), but suffice it to say, I actually looked forward to my trips to the loo.

However, I have to say that not every toilet experience was enjoyable. I did had one potentially embarrassing experience in a café toilet.

I sat down and the first thing that struck me was that the remote control was more complicated, similar to:

I managed to decipher it and enjoyed my experience as usual. But when the time had come to flush, I suddenly realised that there was no handle. The very first toilet had an automatic flush when I sat down (although not a full one) and it also had a handle to use when the job was done.

Not this toilet. I stared at it, perplexed and scratching my head. Unlike my first toilet, there was no English on this one whatsoever. The spray and bidet icons were there but there was nothing that indicated FLUSH.

“Ah,” I thought. “I can sit down again and it will flush automatically.”

It didn’t. The toilet was so clever that it knew I might not have finished. It was TOO clever if you ask me.

I actually sat down again and pushed button after button but to no avail.

What was it looking for?

A combination of buttons?

Did it want me to jump up and down on the seat?

Believe me, I tried that. Anybody waiting outside must have wondered what the mad monster inside was actually doing.

I started to panic, aware that there may be another person waiting to use the loo. I had to solve this; I couldn’t bear the thought of running out of the loo and leaving a horror show in the toilet bowl (I have been on the receiving end of people’s disgusting toilet habits before and it is most unpleasant).

Eventually, more by luck than judgement, I managed to get the thing to flush. I actually whooped with joy and high-fived myself in the mirror – which is doubly embarrassing (a) because I don’t usually high five anybody and (b) because I am English not American.

Yes, that’s right. This stubborn toilet briefly turned me into an American tourist.

When I left the toilet there were two Japanese guys waiting to use it. They smiled politely at me (as Japanese people do) and I tried not to look embarrassed (I think I failed because although I struggled to flush the toilet my face was still flushed).

That aside, I cannot fault Japanese toilets. Yes, they still use the disgusting hole in the floor toilets in some places, but the vast majority are technological marvels.

When I left Japan and reflected on the trip, I decided that I would miss the toilets a lot – and that is something I have never felt when leaving a country.

And now, back in a British winter, I miss them even more.

I might just invest in a heated toilet seat.

Friday 14 November 2014

Dear Mother Nature

Dear Mother Nature,

I went for a walk at lunchtime today, as I do on every other working day. I have three routes; one is 1.5 miles, the second is 1.8 miles and, for days when I am feeling particularly stressed and/or energetic, the third is 2.1 miles.

When I left the office, the sun was shining and, although it was chilly, I was content and comfortable. I opted for the 1.8 mile walk and, having pressed reset on my pedometer, I set off, with a high tempo song pounding on my iPod to help me keep a brisk pace.

However, as I approached the 0.9 mile point, I suddenly remembered two things that I had forgotten at the start of my walk.

The first thing was that British weather is totally unpredictable.

The second, and most important thing, was that I had left my umbrella in the car.

What prompted this sudden total recall?

It suddenly started pissing down with rain. There was no warning whatsoever; it was like you had decided to turn on the shower with maximum water pressure.

And what song was playing on my iPod when this deluge occurred?

November Rain by Guns’n’Roses:

Is this your idea of a joke? You wait until exactly half way through my walk, when I am at the furthest point from the shelter of the office and decide to drench me in rainwater with no shelter but the leafless trees at the side of the pavement. The fact that November Rain was on must have been the icing on the cake.

When I finally got back to the office, having navigated my way back through steamed up and drenched spectacles, I looked like a drowned rat.

My work colleagues were merciless. I spent the entire afternoon in a state of damp despondency trying to ignore water related puns from amused colleagues.

And my hair, which is a pain at the best of times, finally dried in a style that can best be described as “disturbing to children”.

Why, Mother Nature? Why?

I’d like to ask for a few favours regarding the weather in Britain. Have you got a pen?

(1) Instead of dumping the entire contents of the Atlantic Ocean onto the UK, Manchester in particular, can you please send it to America instead?

(2) Yes, I know we need rain to survive but if it must rain, can you please make sure that it happens between the hours of midnight and 6am, when I am safely tucked up in my warm bed?

(3) British weather is unpredictable at best – even in the summer when it is supposed to be warm. Most summers, we have mostly bad cold weather, occasionally interspersed with a few good sunny days. I like those sunny days. During summer, can you please make sure that we have warm sunny days (25 °C will do – I’m not fussy).

(4) I hate snow. I used to love it as a kid but now it is horrible and also dangerous. The whole country grinds to a halt, particularly when temperatures drop so low that it freezes. Can you please take all the snow to the North Pole where it belongs?

(5) And talking of cold weather, can you please arrange for us to have mild winters? I’m looking for temperatures of 15 °C minimum.

(6) I realise that I am sounding a little selfish here so, on behalf of the rest of the world, can you stop creating hurricanes, typhoons and monsoons? I am sure the people of the world can survive with standard rainstorms with a little bit of wind rather than the monstrosities that rampage around the world – including those hurricanes that find their way over to the UK and cause lots of damage and general trauma.

Is it too much to ask?

Your name suggests that you are a mother and I am sure that a good kind mother would not want to play such a nasty prank on one of her children – i.e. me.

There are lots of us in the world and I am sure that we all have similar complaints. There’s a guy called Santa who actually takes requests at Christmas.

Can’t you do the same?

I’m sure you chuckled as I dragged my drenched and bedraggled form back to the office for hours of ridicule (I might have done the same had it happened to somebody else) – but this is not the first time it has happened. Even when I have had the foresight to take my brolly, you have somehow conjured up 100mph winds to render it useless and make me even more saturated.

I hope you listen to me – I am sure you are a nice person really.

Yours hopefully,

Plastic Mancunian.

P.S. An alternative to dumping the rain on the UK might be to dump it on France – apart from when I am there on holiday of course.