You know how this has worked in the past. Every four years – specifically 1993, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2009 and 2013 – I’ve visited Hong Kong, with the last three of those trips being in the company of The Belated Birthday Girl. At the same time, as a result of her influence, we’ve also been travelling out to Japan every two years, in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014. As holiday schedules go, it doesn’t leave us much room for exploring other countries. (You can spot the gap years in that sequence where we’ve done what we can: 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015.)
We've decided to change things around a bit. So in 2016, we didn’t go anywhere near Japan, deciding instead to head off on a beer-inspired Nordic Expedition. And in May 2017, in order to force a hard reset on our Asian excursions, we went to Hong Kong and Japan back to back, spending one week in each. You already know about the Hong Kong leg of the trip: it’s when we failed completely to get into BrewDog Hong Kong, but managed to find enough things to keep us occupied regardless. Here’s what happened in Japan, taking in both the familiar sights of Tokyo and the less well-trodden environs of Kanazawa.
The instructions on how to get to Edo Sakura from Uguisudani station are a bit sketchy, covered as they are by a literal sketch on the ryokan's website (note the pointer to a similarly-named hotel, helpfully labelled ‘we are not here’). Luckily someone from the hotel sees us wandering about lost and points us in the right direction. It's a delightfully friendly guesthouse in the traditional Japanese style, with staff who'll bend over backwards to help you out. There's a choice of breakfasts: I'm always a sucker for the Western option of boiled egg 'n' toast doorstop, while The BBG goes for the more traditional Japanese-style breakfast featuring a huge bit of freshly cooked salmon. The living arrangements also embrace the best of both worlds: a traditional tatami room, with en suite facilities, plus a shared Japanese family bath that can be booked out for private use throughout the day.
During our limited time in the city, our one bit of culture is a trip to the National Art Center for the Yayoi Kusama exhibition, My Eternal Soul, which is pleasingly crammed for a Sunday morning. It feels like we discovered Kusama by accident on our 2010 visit to her home town of Matsumoto, and since then have been encountering more and more evidence about how big a deal she is: in Hong Kong just one week earlier, an advert for the local Madame Tussauds had her on a similar level of fame to Taylor Swift. The showstopping bit of the exhibition comes quite early on – a huge room crammed with 140 of her more recent paintings, all of them around four square metres each. It's overwhelming just walking into the room and seeing them together, and then making your way round each of them and seeing the themes that echo between them all. Most of them, to be frank, appear to be about her imminent death, though the colours and the dark humour stop them from becoming too oppressive. There's also the fun of the Obliteration Room, where you're given a set of coloured polkadot stickers and encouraged to make your own additions to the artwork (or end up with the stickers attached to the soles of your shoes, both are possible). In the six months that have elapsed since our visit, this particular exhibition may have closed, but now Kusama has her own dedicated museum in Shinjuku, so you should go there instead.
As for food and drink in Tokyo (with additional contributions from The BBG as appropriate)... The helpfulness of the staff at Edo Sakura stretches to a terrific map of local restaurants, which is how we end up at Ohiriya, "a decent little local izakaya that seems comfortable with foreigners sent over from the ryokan: the food's all enjoyable without any one thing standing out." Those things include crab croquettes, chips, deep fried cheese, minced chicken balls with beans, misc veg, and shishiamo in oil and garlic, along with several beers. Our other main meal of the weekend is at Baird Taprooms, a small upstairs brewery tap that hides on one of the side roads off Takeshita Dori, and takes lots of mucking around with Google Maps and GPS to find. We manage to get a couple of seats at the bar and dig into the menu: "pretty decent bar food, good for soaking up beer, with enough veg options for me." We go for a combination of grilled mackerel and wasabi potato salad, oyako-don, a fried tofu skewer and a chorizo skewer, along with half a dozen of Baird's own brews. It's our main craft beer experience of the weekend, though for old time's sake we also squeeze in a swiftie at BrewDog Roppongi, delighted to see that it's still doing well, and that the clientele on a Sunday afternoon are pretty much all Japanese apart from us.
After an intermission of a few days – details below – we come back to Tokyo for an overnight stopover in the Bayside area. We waste a bit of time at the very start trying to find our hotel, until we realise that Kokusai-tenjijo-seimon and Kokusai-tenjijo are two different stations on two different lines. Once we’ve sorted that out, we make it into the Hotel Trusty Tokyo Bayside, which is moderately flash and has a nice view of the bridge out of our window. We meet up for dinner with Tae and Yuko at Murata in Tokyo Bay Ariake: "a shopping mall restaurant, but the food was all pretty good with interesting dishes I'd not had before - skate wing bones which were soft and tasty, whole roasted garlic with miso on the side. I was completely stuffed by the time the rice came at the end." We don't have time to do much in the morning other than wander round the Diver City complex during a major downpour. We stop off for a ride on the Great Wheel, which is a slightly unsatisfying experience in the rain when you can barely see through the pod windows. But there’s a wee thrill when we check our respective change and realise that contrary to our initial assumptions, we just have enough of our holiday cash left to pay for the souvenir photo at the end.
Tokyo is a pretty familiar city by now: Kanazawa is new to me, although The BBG has fond memories of visiting it nearly two decades ago, which is why we're here for the middle section of our Japan trip. It's about three hours away from Tokyo by train: once again, we spend far too long after arrival following a Google map that doesn't quite tell us exactly where the Resol Trinity Hotel is, until a kindly local points us the last part of the way. The map sends us on a fairly roundabout route, when in reality it's quite simple: walk straight out of the station, turn right when you hit the market, and you can't miss it.
There are some traditions we have to maintain on a Japanese holiday, particularly first thing in the morning: so every day in Kanazawa, we set our alarm for 7.50 so that we're awake and in front of the TV in time for Hiyokko, the latest NHK morning soap opera. (See also: Hitomi , Ge Ge Ge Woman  and Massan .) This year's soap is a solid piece of sixties nostalgia with an ultra-catchy theme tune to match, and never forgets to have its heroine encounter some sort of minor personal trauma at around 8.14am every day. It sets us up nicely for breakfast, which we end up getting from a couple of nearby cafes. There's a branch of the national chain Doutor directly across from the hotel, which is good for various things involving dough and cheese: but you might be better off with the fractionally less corporate Komeda's Coffee, which has a selection of morning set meals. "I thought the sets looked a bit small on the menu, but they're nicely done with good coffee, and they're great value - you just pay for the coffee, and the toast and egg are added for free." You might also be tempted to visit the nearby market to see what they offer: our tip is to not do it on Wednesday, as that seems to be the day when most of the city closes.
Kanazawa seems to be heavily geared up for visitors: either tourists, or conventions (the windows are currently covered with alarming posters welcoming the International Society of Limb Salvage). We think we've been smart coming here after the extended Japanese holiday of Golden Week, but it turns out we're mistaken – this place is a destination during Golden Week, so a few of the attractions stay open for it and then take their own holiday the week after. There are lots of buses that will take you around Kanazawa, but the one to look out for is the JR bus, for which you'll need to pick up a timetable at the station information desk. There are two JR loop routes from Kanazawa station, either running through the cultural zone (Korinbo Route) or bypassing it for faster access to the Higashi Chaya District (Owaricho Route). If you’ve got a JR pass, they’re entirely free to use, though you may have a short delay getting off while the driver makes a note of your pass number for their records.
There's plenty of documentation for visitors, such as the leaflet Kanazawa Architecture Tourism, which provides two walking routes based around the main landmarks of the city's cultural zone: Kenrokuen Garden, and Kanazawa Castle. We end up cherry picking the best bits of both routes for a day's exploration: starting with an extended stroll around Kenrokuen Garden, and then doing a combination of sometimes just observing the architecture from the outside (Seisonkaku Villa, Kanazawa Folklore Museum), sometimes going in and having a look around (Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of History, and The Fourth High School Memorial Museum Of Cultural Exchange, the latter being an enjoyable example of vintage school architecture despite its total lack of English signage). Making our way back towards the centre of town, we also take a peek at the Nomura samurai family house, as well as a nearby cluster of not-quite-as-well-preserved houses from the same period.
On another day, we get a bit more mileage out of the JR buses. First there’s Kanazawa Castle, another Japanese fortress that's been completely rebuilt over the years, but still fascinating to walk around, particularly with the displays describing the restoration. We then head out to the geisha district of Higashi Chaya and, after a bit of lost wandering about and some help from a local resident, we eventually find the Kaikaro teahouse. It’s a tourist trap, but a pretty good one – its headline feature is a zen garden made entirely of broken glass, and the tea break at the end includes a small sweet with the city’s signature bit of gold leaf on it.
We also manage to fit in an excursion out of town, taking the Noren train to Wakura Onsen. We found out about this when making our initial plans for the trip, and were concerned that there was no way of actually reserving seats on it until we were in Japan – thankfully, two days in advance appears to be enough warning. (And, again, it's covered by our JR passes.) It’s a ludicrously fancy train, getting its name from the ceremonial curtain which shields the platform it’s on from passengers for common or garden trains. Inside it’s a similarly over the top mixture of wood panelling and gold. The journey itself is most notable for the number of times we see passers-by waving at the train – most notably, an entire school party we pass early in the trip. There’s a brief stop at Hakui, the area that’s trying to brand itself as UFO Town, but the main area of interest is the town of Wakura Onsen. Unfortunately, we only have 90 minutes before the train back we need to get to make the rest of the day work. That just leaves us enough time to walk halfway down the main road, dip our feet in a public footbath, and head back into Kanazawa on a much less interestingly decorated train.
One thing that surprises me about Kanazawa is how good the restaurants are, even if you're just trying to grab a quick lunch in between spots in the cultural zone. For example, near to the museums we eat at the Kanazawa Nanahoshi Curry restaurant – at least we did on our second attempt, as it's another Kanazawa place that closes Wednesdays. "This was terrific: I'm glad I copied Spank and went for a set meal rather than a single curry. It was halfway between Japanese and Indian curry, with the texture of Japanese and the flavour of Indian." A little way down the road is the more traditional Café Tomo, serving a reasonable lunch menu including katsu curry and "a decent ebi fry with really nice salad." There's also a classier option inside the 21st Century Museum Of Contemporary Art, where Fusion 21 was "pretty good, even though they lost our order initially. My pasta came with baby sardines and mullet roe as well as local grass." I have the teriyaki chicken and rice, which is equally good once it turns up.
We rely on external help for our evening meals, notably another tourist leaflet entitled Enjoy Kanazawa Cuisine. From that, we discover Tamaya, where we get a sensational traditional Japanese meal accompanied by Kanazawa Hyakumangoku local beers. For The BBG it was "my favourite meal of the Japan leg. The cold tofu was exquisite, the fish cakes were among the best I've had, and I was amused at the 'fry fish skewers' turning out to be fish fry, i.e. very small." On the Wednesday evening, having discovered that the local tempura restaurant was – you've guessed it – closed on Wednesdays, we simply slap ‘kanazawa tempura’ into Google to see what happens. This is how we end up finding Yoshihisa, where we have the tempura set meal, the Yoshihisa gozen set meal (which is the same but with extra sashimi and a grilled fish), and two Ebisu beers. "I wanted the bigger set meal so I could get some sashimi too - it wasn't the best tempura I've ever had, but it was still good, and I was stuffed by the end."
We have a few recommendations for places that do decent beer, thanks to Tokyo Beer Drinker, but be prepared to have to put some effort into physically locating them. ABRI Ramen & Beer is a ramen restaurant that boasts half a dozen craft beers on tap, and over the course of an evening we work our way through all of them: Kyoto Brewing Shunkashuto Spring Saison, Kanazawa Brewery Hatsune APA, Iwate Brewery Kura Koharu White Ale, Berkut Prank IPA, Shigakogen Hop & Bean Coffee IPA and Nihonkai Club Dark Lager. Obviously we have ramen to eat with it, which The BBG thought was "fantastic - my meat-free ramen used fish stock rather than the usual meat stock, and I was offered an egg instead of the pork topping. A lovely little place with an excellent selection of local beers, and tacoyaki properly made fresh in front of us - all in all, one of my favourite meals of the holiday."
We also track down two places that are more about the beer than the food. Craft Beer Dive Futa's is once again really difficult to find without GPS – during the day, with the lights off and no sign outside, it’s very easy to miss. Early evening, it’s got a small but buzzy crowd inside: late night, it’s a bit noisier and equally fun, with two women who appear to have propped up the bar solidly for the three hours or so between our two visits. We grab a few completely unfamiliar beers: Daisen G Beer Weizen, Johana Kagayaki W7 IPA, and Shiga Kogen Porter. The other bar we stumble across during our trip to Higashi Chaya is the taproom of Oriental Brewing, offering the traditional craft combo of beer and pizza. "It was a pleasant surprise finding this, as we didn't know it was in this part of town. You couldn't say it was authentically Japanese, but everything was really well done, and we could watch the pizza cooking and the beer brewing. The beers were excellent, and the pizzas were pretty good, with nicely textured dough."
Aside from the various architectural delights, Kanazawa's got several cultural highlights all of its own. Probably the most famous one is the 21st Century Museum Of Contemporary Art, where you can easily burn up an entire afternoon without really noticing. On the day of our visit, the main exhibition features artist Ikeda Manabu: The Pen is a collection of his terrifyingly detailed large-scale canvases, which you can spend hours looking at. They do different things at different distances: standing back gives you the huge sense of wonder, while getting in close reveals dozens of micro-narratives. The exhibition's surrounded by miscellaneous other large-scale pieces of varying degrees of conceptuality, of which Leandro Erlich’s installation The Swimming Pool is the most fun (see picture).
Close by to that is the Kanazawa Noh Museum – one of those Kanazawa attractions that took a few days off after Golden Week, so we couldn't get to visit until the penultimate day of our stay. It’s small, but does the job perfectly. Downstairs there’s a mockup of a noh stage explaining the positioning of the pillars and performers (and I take ridiculous delight in learning that the principal performer is known as the ‘shite’), along with an exhibition of costumes and masks, including the opportunity for kids and tourists to try them on. Upstairs, there’s a temporary exhibit of paintings inspired by noh stories, plus some useful performance videos that tie together everything you’ve seen.
Getting back to more contemporary culture: I do a little bit of research to see if we can fit in some live music during our time in town. That's how we end up spending our final night seeing Jazz & TAP VOL 2 at Mokkiriya, a delightful little jazz club with one entire wall filled by the owner’s record collection. As the title implies, the show features a vocal jazz trio working alongside tap dancer Risshintan. We get two sets – the first is highlighted by a 5/4 reworking of the old standard Loverman, the second by a solo tap number accompanied by piano and bass. The one slight letdown comes at the interval, where a large multi-racial group sits at the back and proceeds to talk throughout the second set. Astonishingly, the lanyards they’re wearing reveal that these rude buggers are all delegates from the International Society of Limb Salvage conference that’s been advertised around town, obviously letting their hair down on their final night. At least they didn't bring any salvaged limbs with them.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Kanazawa – all the emphasis on it being such a part of Japan's cultural heritage made me suspect it might be a bit dry, but that was far from the case. After four days there, our quick stopover at Tokyo Bayside seems restrained by comparison. We grab a final lunch at Haneda airport courtesy of Muginbo Udon, which works perfectly as comfort food after a morning of being rained on. ("We hadn't had any udon or soba at this point, so this made for a perfectly good ending to our time in Japan - a good quantity of udon, and the topping was fresh and high quality.") Our two stage Cathay Pacific flight via Hong Kong gives us time to bingewatch ten-thirteenths of The Good Place, starting off a love affair with the show which I'll eventually consummate a few months later. And eight hours after landing at Heathrow, I’m off again on a plane to Dubai, which finally brings you up to speed with what I did last May. In totally the wrong order, admittedly, but you can't have everything.