Thursday, October 25, 2007


Is anyone still here?

What a whirlwind... The crisp autumnal air, the clear blue skies and the fiery crinkly leaves have all conspired to inject new energy into my jet-lagged bones. I love Autumn.

On Friday, we saw Akram Khan perform Zero Degrees again at the Sadler's Wells with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. My review from the last time we saw this performance remains unchanged, but I marvelled again at how the loose, fluid movements of Cherkaoui contrasted beautifully with the logical, almost alacritic movements of Khan. This now counts as my sixth Akram Khan performance, all of which are collected here on my blog since 2004. Obsessed, moi?

Then on Saturday night, we attended Philip Glass's musical adaptation of Leonard Cohen's The Book Of Longing poems. I like Glass's original compositions, but find his adaptations of other peoples' work less passionate and inspiring than the originals. I enjoyed this night for the majestic presence of Mr Cohen himself. What a man! Though he sat in the audience for the entire performance - at the end of our row no less - he did recite one of his poems for us on stage and there were other recorded recitations throughout. I would have enjoyed the night even more if it had been just him and his voice. He has a dark and brooding drawl that draws one dangerously in and his descriptions of love and sex and passion and women and God that are so addictive. In short - he is very sexy... and in his 70s! He's also followed Buddhism (without necessarily calling himself a Buddhist) for several decades and several of the audience questions directed at him about spirituality were flowery, pretentious and almost cultish. He deflected those with poise, tact and elegance revealing a man whose spirituality is so private and ingrained that he doesn't have to go on about it. My hero.

Much of Saturday was spent viewing flats and houses in our area - 10 in total. We shortlisted a couple of places in our minds, but I was not entirely convinced: the layout was odd, or the decor was too sterile, or the second bedroom was too cramped and made me feel claustrophobic. And then we opened the door to a three bedroom house in a leafy, quiet street 5 minutes from where we already live and we were instantly smitten. The decor was all wrong, of course (bright red walls in the living room, lilac walls in the bathroom, pine everywhere), but every room was the perfect size and the layout was perfect - a double living room, a double kitchen with room for a large dining table, a pretty private garden with well-established shrubs and trees, two excellent-sized double bedrooms upstairs plus a good sized single bedroom which can be our study or, later, nursery.

We are both used to making instant decisions - quickly weighing up the pros and cons rationally, but ultimately going with our gut. Though we saw a few more houses and flats afterwards, this was the one we kept thinking about. So on Monday we put in an offer and, after a little haggling from both sides, our offer was accepted and they took the house off the market. This morning we set the ball rolling in terms of mortgage, surveyor and solicitor. It could all go pear-shaped and we are prepared to keep searching. But in the meantime, I can't help dreaming of my new house! I pray we can move in before the New Year.

I'm not done with our Japanese trip... hang in there and I will get round to blogging more about it.

Thursday, October 18, 2007


Life has been so hectic since we got back from Tokyo, that I just wanted to drop in and say thanks for your lovely comments. I have at least three more Japanese posts to write, which I will do but it may take longer than I wish.

In the meantime, we're house or flat hunting, and a few other activities are also gobbling up my after-work time. Plus I'm still dog-tired from jetlag.

We've managed to take some time out to visit a couple of galleries though. We both had Monday off, so after unpacking our bags and doing laundry, we headed to the Southbank to see the new Louise Bourgeois retrospective at the Tate Modern and the private viewing of The Painting Of Modern Life exhibition at the Hayward. The latter was a surreal and hilarious experience because each floor of the exhibition was needlessly guarded by loads of bored security men dressed all in black with loud walkie talkies. What did they think the invited guests were going to do? We couldn't contain ourselves when we overheard one of them explaining, "I'm 23 and I figure I only have one year left of being young so this year I'm really going to give my band my all"!

Anyway, we'll be returning to both exhibitions in the weeks and months to come, when I'll write about them in more detail.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Tokyo notes

  • At first, I was underwhelmed by Tokyo. There was a lot of neon and not enough grandeur. Because of the ravages inflicted on the capital city by war and earthquakes and the zealous rush to build quickly during the bubble economy, I found the city to be lacking in the visible history, elegance and diversity that makes other modern cities such as London and NYC so full of character. However, the more we explored, the more the city's diverse personality revealed itself to me. Glitzy Ginza, tawdry Roppongi, nerdy Akihabara, hip Naka-Meguru, swish Aoyama, flashy Shinjuku, gaudy Harajuku, trashy Shibuya, grown-up Ebisu... And there are some ultra modern architectural treats in each neighbourhood. The city quickly grew on me.

  • Road signs are difficult to spot. You have to be guided by familiar buildings or landmarks. However, there are vicinity maps on most streets and whether people speak good English or not, everyone will help you if you are lost.

  • Everyone waits at the crossing until the walk sign lights up, even if there is no traffic. We found this a very stress-free way of navigating the city. And despite this being a rich, capital city where a lot of money is made and people are very busy, we found that people walked at a slower pace than in NYC or in London or even in Paris.

  • People are addicted to their mobile phones here - not for chatting but for surfing the net or reading or texting or emailing. On trains, in stores, in elevators, on the subway, meandering down the middle of a busy street, in restaurants, with friends - everywhere, everyone with their noses in their clamshell cellphones.

  • The streets are the cleanest I have ever seen. People will carry their litter rather than throw it to the ground. Where bins exist - usually beside the numerous drinks vending machines on every street corner - they are separated into various types - paper, plastic, cans.

  • We didn't see any Tokyoites snacking on the streets and the vending machines sold only drinks or, more rarely, ice creams. The only people we saw snacking on chocolate and crisps were European or American tourists. Obviously we don't know what goes on in peoples' homes but we were also struck by the smaller portion sizes in restaurants, even in McDonald's.

  • I expected more people smoking. I get more bothered by people smoking on the street in London than in Tokyo and this surprised me. There are even signs embedded in the pavements requesting that people refrain from smoking on the street. In restaurants, the extractors were quite efficient and we were only troubled a few times.

  • People pay a lot of attention to what they are wearing - even on the weekend. Smart or casual, designer-clad or Harajuku-mix n' match, the attire was always clean, tidy and well thought out. Baggy pink ti-shirts, dirty trainers and messy hair were more likely to be seen on tourists than on a native Tokyoite. In fact, the attention to fashion detail and the overall chicness reminded me of the Marais district in Paris.

  • I didn't see a single female commuter in sneakers. Kitten and high heels everywhere, all the time! These girls will suffer in order to look good.

  • Tokyo is the city of neon - lots of it, flashing everywhere, even in the most nondescript of neighbourhoods.

  • The pachinko parlours, video game arcades and slot machine bars were crammed with suited men and women after work - perhaps preparing themselves for their long commute home to the suburbs.

  • Service in restaurants and stores and even on the subway was impeccable and attentive. People saying Hello and Goodbye and Can I Help You and Thank You.

  • Manga and anime are huge here. We descended into Shibuya's vast underground Mandarake store and saw numerous women alone or in pairs with other women browsing the shelves of romantic or sexual "boy love" manga and anime. There were fewer men on the Saturday night we were there, but they were browsing the manga (often quite violent) porn and the glass displays of new and rare manga figurines, comic books, stickers and posters, even original art work.

  • Books we finished on our trip: Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and South of the Border, West of the Sun; Ryu Murakami's 69; and Banana Yoshimoto's Hardboiled / Hard Luck.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Eating in shabu shabu style

It's nearly 4 in the morning, I've been up a couple of hours already, and I'm jetlagged. So I thought, what better way to start a Planethalder post on our trip to Japan than to write about some of the food we ate.

When we first arrived in Tokyo, we were a tad trepidacious about ordering out as it was rare for an English menu to be displayed outside the restaurant itself. These plastic replicas of dishes (first two photos below), from tempura to pizza, helped, and quickly we learned that all you have to do is ask for a menu in English or point.

Bowls of char siu ramen, with pork, fish cake, hardboiled egg, seaweed and spinach, at Shun Kan in Shinjuku / Shrimp tempura with soba noodles at Masudaya in Shinjuku / Grilled eel in Minokichi in Shinjuku / Mixed sushi (mackerel, shrimp, tuna, salmon roe, gizzard shad, gourd strip and cucumber) at Koshi Sushi in Aoyama / Okonimyaki - one with pickled radish, red ginger and spring onions; another with squid, pork and shrimp - at Ushio in Roppongi / Tonkatsu - breaded pork - with miso soup, rice and pickled daikon in Ginza.

Two of my favourite dining experiences took place in glitzy Ginza (think 5th Avenue with less grandeur but more neon), towards the end of our holiday. We had a variety of green tea desserts at a basement establishment whose name now escapes me. The place was filled with female office workers and there were long queues to get in. And at Zakuro, we ate shabu shabu where we submerged thinly sliced pieces of beef into a cauldron of bubbling light stock made from kombu or kelp and then dipped the meat into sesame and Japanese vinegar dipping sauces. Our charming waitress also dipped enokitake mushrooms, cabbage, rice noodles, spring onions, spinach and tofu into the stock and served them to us in small bowls. Throughout the meal, she kept skimming the fat off the water's surface, and at the end served us bowls of the stock itself.

We didn't only eat Japanese food of course. We had pizzas and cheese toasties and pasta and salads too. We were staying in the luxurious Park Hyatt Tokyo (of Lost In Translation fame) so we couldn't pass up the chance to dine on exquisite Tochigi beef steaks with sauteed vegetables and pureed potatoes there. And in Kyoto, the refined kaiseki menu we ate in our traditional ryokan became all too much for me and I gave into a craving for McDonald's - but that's for another post.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Eastward bound

We're off to Tokyo and Kyoto - see you in 2 weeks with loads of photos and descriptions!

Monday, October 01, 2007

Taking it leisurely

The merest hint of a cold for both of us on Friday, so close to our Japanese trip in a few days, led us to take a far more leisurely approach to our weekend this week. On Friday, for example, we had planned on meeting up after work for another wander around the British Museum's Crafting Beauty in Modern Japan exhibition, followed by dinner at nearby Biwon or Abeno. Instead, we went home and made oven-cooked fish fingers, chips, peas and loads of tartare sauce for a TV dinner with Steve Coogan's very funny Saxondale - followed by store-bought apple crumble. Oh, we eat well!

The bright and sunny Saturday morning saw us still in bed at 10am. M finished re-reading Haruki Murakami's South Of The Border, West Of The Sun and flicked through a couple of Daido Moriyama photobooks, while I watched music videos on my iPod - an eclectic mix of David Bowie, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Leonard Cohen and The Pussycat Dolls.

While M read the weekend FT over a breakfast of toast and sheep cheese, I watched Rachel Allen cook a slow-cooked, spiced shoulder of lamb on BBC1 and surfed the blogosphere. Then it was my turn to browse the Saturday papers, while M watched Football Focus.

By lunch, though, we were both itching to get out and about. We hopped on a bus then walked a little along the Regent's Canal to the Parasol Unit on Wharf Road, where we viewed Yutaka Sone's Secret For Snow Leopard exhibition. Sone's latest work reveals an intense fascination with natural phenomena - intricately carved marble sculptures of icy landscapes, crystal snowflakes and models of dense green and mossy jungle; and yet the man-made world is also etched out in exquisite detail in the undulating terrain - houses, skyscrapers, roads and ski slopes.

We lunched at Life on Old Street where M ordered the cake set consisting of adzuki bean cream and green tea ice cream, and I ate a beautifully presented French toast with Japanese sauce and green tea and adzuki bean ice creams. The service was attentive and we shared the large bare brick, wood panelled space with three very cute toddlers with wild black hair, and their more refined mum.

To the Barbican to pick up a birthday card for M's sister and then a cab to the Chisenhale Gallery for Hiraki Sawa's mysterious and meditative multi-screen video footage combined with subtle digital manipulations capturing the shifting light of a cultivated forest surrounding a Shinto monastery, birds flocking over churning waste water being pumped into the sea, a moon rising over and fireworks exploding above a nuclear power station set at the ocean's edge, land and sea and skyscapes morphing into one another... This rates as one of my favourite pieces of video art I've viewed in recent years, along with Runa Islam's Timelines, Yang Fudong's No Snow On The Broken Bridge and Pierre Huyghe's A Journey That Wasn't.

We walked back along the Regent's Canal towards London Fields, admiring the multi-coloured Autumnal leaves, but it was not as leisurely a stroll as we'd hoped because we spent most of our time dodging manic, earnest cyclists. Onto Broadway Market and lemon and ginger tea for M (or lemonade and ginger tea as our waitress kept saying) and Rooibos tea for me at the Gossip cafe, where I got out my diary and we firmed up a daily itinerary for Tokyo and Kyoto. Then we met up with the birthday girl herself for melt-in-the-mouth 10oz Argentine fillet steaks, thick-cut chips, Serrano ham with palm hearts and a variety of empanadas at the busy Santa Maria Del Buen Ayre.

Back to ours for Arsenal's match against West Ham on Match Of The Day and hot honey and lemon drinks as M's sister is also nursing a cold.

On Sunday, we left the house just to stock up on provisions - chicken from our local butchers, miso paste and daikon from our local Japanese store, vegetables and fruit from our local Turkish grocery. Then we spent the rest of the day at home. For lunch, M grilled a couple of salt-coated mackerel and served it with grated daikon and miso soup with wakame. He had a long bath with lots of essential oil of ginger for his cold and I settled in with some books, some magazines and the internet. I also reviewed my packing list for Japan and started putting a few things into my suitcase.

For dinner, M has cooked a lemon-stuffed roast chicken with rosemary and will serve it with roasted sweet potatoes and broccoli. Then we will settle in to re-watch Café Lumière on DVD - the tender and contemplative portrait of a Japanese reporter named Yoko who researches an article on a Taiwanese musician and copes with an unexpected pregnancy and impending single.

What a chilled weekend.