It's the end of an era. Literally. At the age of 85, Japanese emperor Akihito has made the unusual decision to retire and have some fun during the last years of his life, rather than work himself into a not-so-early grave. The Japanese measure their calendar by imperial reigns, so we know in advance that Akihito's era, known as Heisei, will come to an end on April 30th. As seasoned Japanophiles, you'd imagine The Belated Birthday Girl and I would want to be there for the changeover.
Unfortunately, planes and hotel prices for that week have inevitably skyrocketed, so we're going the week before instead. Sorry about that. We have other plans for the changeover week, though, and you'll get to hear about those. Eventually.
We arrive at Haneda around 7am local time Saturday morning, with a little over 48 hours scheduled in the capital before our next stop. It's a tight window, and we immediately burn up two hours off it queueing up at the airport's JR office to collect our pre-ordered Japan rail passes. (It'd probably be quicker to pick them up from the next station down the line at Hamamatsucho, though obviously that'll mean you pay for one extra journey that would normally be covered by the pass.) Once we're over that hurdle, we immediately use the passes on a combination of monorail and train to head into Tokyo. We squeeze in several bits of personal admin before noon: dumping our luggage at the Sotetsu-Fresa Inn, buying some artisanal chocs for Easter from Minimal, and heading to Ginza Yamano Music to buy the previously mentioned Golden Bomber CD single marking the new era, Reiwa. I also make an impulse purchase of an album of Queen's greatest hits played on a music box, partly because I know the guy on the cash desk will try to persuade me that I've made a terrible mistake. I haven't.
The reason for the pre-noon rush is that at 12 precisely, we're scheduled to meet Tae and Yuko in the hotel lobby. We took them round various hotspots in London when they visited us last September (most of which, at their request, were connected to the TV show Sherlock), and they're returning the favour this weekend. We're battling through jetlag most of the afternoon (I'm personally in a constant state of subdued alarm, convinced I've left something behind somewhere), but we still get a fair bit done - a soup curry lunch at Sapporo Dominica, some sightseeing on the city's free Metrolink buses, and finishing off with dinner and our 39th Beer Visa stamp at BrewDog Roppongi. When we discover their board game selection includes the Sherlock edition of Cluedo, we know what we're doing for the next couple of hours. (Two people whose second language is English who haven't played the game before, and two people who haven't played it in at least three decades: but somehow we manage to get through it, and most importantly I win.)
The next day we're out with Tae and Yuko again, this time on a day trip to Koenji, a district that an NHK World programme has persuaded us is basically the Shoreditch of Tokyo. To be fair, that's a little harsh, as a proper Shoreditch of Tokyo wouldn't have room for the unironic delights of Tensuke, a twelve-seat tempura restaurant that takes an hour or so's queueing to get into. Mind you, a lot of that's down to the photogenic showmanship of its chef, whose egg-cooking technique is built for social media: but eight pieces of tempura - egg, big prawns, squid, green pepper, fish, aubergine, broccoli and little prawns - plus soup, pickles and tea is one hell of a lunch deal for 1300 yen. Elsewhere in town there's a decent brewpub called Koenji Beer Kobo (though we fail to work out where the brewing happens), and a bewildering combo of record store, coffee shop and Indonesian culture spot called S.U.B. Store. Just one stop down the railway line is Nakano, most famous for Nakano Broadway, a shopping arcade built almost entirely out of otaku shops. There are stores specialising in boy and girl idol groups, books and films, action figures, cosplay costume rental, and what I think is a shop dedicated to what they call BL manga, but was too scared to ask our hosts about. None of this is as freaky as P's-first, an unnaturally clean pet shop that doubles as a petting zoo. After all that activity, we wind down with dinner at Hallogallo, a ridiculously cool vegan bar with fun cocktails, local craft beers, excellent chilli and cheese (both dairy-free), and a music policy that at one point takes in the theme from Assault On Precinct 13 without anyone blinking an eye.
It's been nice having Tae and Yuko along for our weekend in Tokyo, but when it comes to our final activity of the trip they tell us we're on our own. A 4am wake-up call has that effect on people. Remember back in 2012, when we got up at a similarly stupid time to catch the morning auction at Tsukiji fish market? Well, Tsukiji closed down a few years ago, and the whole market business relocated to new premises at Toyosu. You can't just roll up there on spec any more: you have to enter a draw for auction places a month or so in advance. Happily, we manage to get ourselves a pair of places, although there's a nagging suspicion on the day that there aren't enough applicants to really justify a draw. We have to catch the first train on a couple of subway lines to get there for our 5.30 appointment, which is a little bit nerve-racking but ultimately works. Once there the group is split into two teams with red and blue shirts, and each team gets about five minutes in each of a pair of open viewing balconies, before we have to join the rest of the general public in a quieter, more isolated balcony with glass windows. It's still fun watching people negotiating big sums of money over huge fish, but you feel a bit separated from the action compared with Tskuji. You may be less likely to be run over by speeding fish trucks than you were at the old place, but you can tell everyone is quietly judging the one tour group that's somehow made its way onto the auction floor. Still, the ultra-fresh fish at the market restaurants makes for a lovely breakfast: try the tuna rice bowls at Tsukiji Dontaku like we did, but bear in mind they open later than most of the others (i.e. around 7am).
Good news for the long-term readers amongst you: you'll be pleased to hear that our Easter Sunday tradition of watching a movie in the place where it was shot remains upheld. This year, we keep it straightforward for the Tokyo leg of our trip and watch the 1953 classic Tokyo Story in our hotel room, with the aid of the BFI Player and some technical jiggery-pokery to make it think we're still in England. (Sorry, guys.) Comparing the film with its nearest modern-day equivalent, it's easy to spot the humanism and narrative skills of someone like Kore-eda, but Ozu's visual style is entirely his own. Though to be fair, the film spends so much time in small rooms with its floor-level camera that we don't see much of Tokyo at all. In fact, when it comes to location shots, we probably see as much of Onomichi, the small town where the old couple are travelling from.
On Easter Monday, we leave Tokyo and head on a train towards Onomichi, because nowadays we plan all our holidays like word association exercises.
Actually, we're in Okayama for four nights, which is a nicely central hub for day-trips to Onomichi and several other places. That seems to suggest that there's nothing of interest in Okayama itself, though, which isn't true at all. It's an utterly charming town from the moment you leave the station and hit the statue of Momotaro, the peach boy with his animal companions, which I mentioned on a Simian page not too long ago.
Navigation's generally straightforward - the town's built around the intersection of two major roads, and it's just a question of working out which of them you should be turning off and where. There's also the landmark of a small canal, which is gratifyingly close to the Koraku hotel where we're staying: a bit old-school Western in its styling, but comfortable enough considering its low price. They do a decent enough buffet breakfast, but there are other places like Club Ratie nearby which will do you hard boiled eggs and toast doorstops for those of us who are still amused by what the Japanese think a Western breakfast looks like. And if you're using Okayama as a travel hub, there are plenty of dining options in and around the station.
There's a pair of trams that run along the road junction, but to be honest you're only ever likely to be using them if you're feeling lazy. We use them for our one biggest journey internally - from the hotel to the castle - and then walk back. It's the one genuine place of tourist interest in the town: take a stroll through the epic Korakuen Garden first, then head over to Okayama Castle, which is one of those post-war rebuilds you see a lot of in Japan but has a few interesting exhibitions in it. There are other artistic sites of interest, but they all turn out to be disappointments of one kind or another: the Prefectural Museum of Art is closed for a week in preparation for the extended holiday, while the Orient Museum (meaning Middle East rather than what you think) is a little dull but at least teaches you where the paisley pattern originates from.
Still, there's always food. The BBG is made ridiculously happy by Hiradaira Heppei, in part because its name is a fine bit of fun with the Japanese language, consisting of the same Japanese character pronounced in four different ways (平平平平). Food-wise, it's a traditional izakaya, selling bar food like sashimi, tempura, sausage, riceballs and straw grilled Spanish mackerel, washed down with Malts beer. ("Why can't someone do something like this but with craft beer?" suggests The BBG.) It's old-school to the extent that the people either side of us are smoking, the one concession to modernity being that one of them's on a vape. And there's a similar vibe at tofu restaurant Okabe, whose set lunch deals are ridiculously good value.
It's the bar scene that's really impressive in Okayama, though, once you get past the hostess joints with names like Brothel and Nob. Over our four nights in town we find ourselves in several different craft beer bars, mostly located in tiny upstairs rooms and run by one or two beer otaku. Lily's Diary is possibly more of a cafe with booze than an actual bar, but their Sankt Gallen beers are a fine introduction to the region's drinking habits, and the decor is enjoyably quirky, all the way up to the projected Mickey Mouse vintage cartoons that gradually become eye-wateringly racist. At opposite ends of the canal, there's a pair of terrific little places run by interesting blokes - Beer Island, which boasts its own beer sommelier, and Craft Rainbow, decorated as a temple to its owner's twin obsessions of booze and football. Be warned that all of the above will hit you with a cover charge of 500 yen per person, normally justified with a small bowl of bar nibbles. There didn't seem to be a charge at the Armadillo brewpub, though that might be because we had a pizza each while working our way through all six taps of their rather fine beers.
Okayama's a rather lovely place, but to be fair you can probably get through all of its highlights in a day. What makes it interesting to us is the ability to use it as a hub for getting to other places, all of which are just an hour away by train or ferry.
As promised, our first one is Onomichi, which is a relatively short hop from Okayama by train. It has a number of attractions in its own right, the biggest one being a well-documented (though not entirely well-signposted) temple walk, with around twenty-five of the things spread over a couple of miles. We grab a map and do the first half of it, peeking at all of the temples up as far as Senkoji - the high point of the walk in more ways than one, primarily accessed by a fun ropeway ride. As we hit the summit, a massive thunderstorm breaks which means we can't ride it back down again. It's actually not too bad a walk back down, swinging via the much-hyped Cat Alley which turns out to be almost entirely deserted save for the odd tourist looking for it. We celebrate getting back to street level with a fine okonomiyaki lunch (seafood mix and some sort of vaguely Italian combo) at Poppoya, and wrap up our visit with the Cinema Museum, which among its lovely old memorabilia has a small section dedicated to Ozu and the time he spent here filming Tokyo Story.
Onomichi can be pretty much covered in half a day, as can Kurashiki, which is a bit further down the railway line: the trick is deciding which half of the day you want to dedicate to the latter. Kurashiki's best known for its historical district, a glorious collection of old buildings about ten minutes walk away from the station. Go there during the day, and it's swamped by tourists: go there in the evening, and the buildings look lovely in the fading light, but most of them are closed, giving a bit of a ghost town atmosphere to the place. We go for the latter option, and have a fun hour or two taking pictures and admiring the view. There are plenty of high-end places willing to take lots of money off you for dinner, but we settle (somewhat inevitably) for Craft Beer Market Kurabeertei, which offers us numerous plates of bar nibbles (oysters, prawns, potatoes, broccoli, eggs and cream cheese) to go with fine beers from local breweries like Armadillo. ("It's like Hiradaira Heppei but with craft beer," enthuses The BBG.) Be sure to walk back to the station via the road joining the shopping arcade to the high street, to see what a modern Japanese red light district looks like: all women in fancy coats being looked after by men in suits, discreetly handing out business cards like they were promotional packs of tissues. (They missed a trick there.)
Our other big excursion is inspired by a Guardian travel article we saw earlier in the year, which informed us of a huge collection of modern art just a short ferry ride away from Okayama on the island of Naoshima. It's a fairly packed day if you choose to do it, and suggested timetables are widely available, but you'll need to factor in the inevitable embuggerances you'll encounter. For a start, you won't be the only person following this recommended route, and the not-all-that-frequent courtesy buses get full pretty quickly, so be prepared to do some walking - about 25 minutes from the courtesy bus stop to the first gallery on the island, Chichu Art Museum. The other thing to note is that everything you read casually suggests that it might be worth booking tickets for Chichu in advance. Let's clarify that: you must buy tickets for Chichu in advance, unless you want to wait around in their lobby for an hour or more waiting for the next free timeslot.
Get past all of that, and you've got a terrific day ahead of you. The suggested route takes in three galleries, all of which have their high spots. Chichu, as befits the most popular one, has some of the most spectacular pieces, from a small collection of Monets to James Turrell's remarkable experiments with light: but it's also a marvel of architecture, constructed underground, and lit entirely by natural light coming in from the ceiling. The gallery dedicated to Lee Ufan (who I refer to throughout the day as Lee Evans purely to irritate The BBG) has some monumental sculptures (especially in the grounds outside), but it's the small scale stuff I enjoy the most. Benesse House, aside from its Issen restaurant being perfectly positioned for a chaisuke set lunch in the middle of your day, also has an interesting collection of art from various modern Japanese artists. Depending on how much time you've got between that and the 4.30pm closedown, you should get back into town to pick up a ticket and a map for the Art House Project, a kind of treasure hunt where you have to track down half a dozen old houses that have been turned into art exhibits of varying degrees of spectacularness. (Minamidera - another piece by James Turrell - is the one that requires a degree of advance booking: trust me, it's worth it.) All this, plus two Yayoi Kusama spotty pumpkin sculptures lurking on the beach, makes for a packed arty day.
And finally, although it doesn't really fit into this day trip excursion bit of the post, we manage to get back from Naoshima to Okayama to get in a wee bit of Monoglot Movie Club action at the Aeon Cinema. We plump for Tonde Saitama purely on the basis of its utterly batshit trailer, not realising until we get home that it's directed by Hideki Takeuchi, who we already know from comedies like Thermae Romae and Tonight At The Movies. This one re-imagines the prefecture of Saitama as a dystopian hellscape, where the resistance is being led by a woman with orange hair and a man who looks like a visual kei singer (played by actual visual kei singer Gackt). The character stylings tip you off quite early on that this is adapted from a manga, and there's an assumption that you've got a passing familiarity with the story: but for someone who doesn't even understand the language being spoken, it's a struggle to work out how the people on screen are connected and what they're actually doing. You can pick up on the broadest gags, mainly the ones about what a shithole Saitama is: but lord knows how the enormous battle at the end fits into it, or why the framing story about a family hearing it all on the radio is there. It's never dull, though, and the end titles song by Hanawa - a punk rock anthem with the chorus 'dan dan dan dan-dan dan dan, dan dan-dan Saitama' - sends you out with an idiot grin on your face. Tonde Saitama will never be seen outside of Japan, but it's worth noting that it took more money there in its opening weekend than the Hollywood adaptation of Alita: Battle Angel did in its entire theatrical run. Which may be the best joke of all.
This takes us to Friday April 26th, the day before Japan takes a week and a half off to celebrate its new Emperor. We therefore need to get out of the country before the hotels all double in price. So we do. As for where we go to, that's a story for another time...
[to be continued]