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Friday, 17 July 2009

Mental Oriental Malt Mission - Part 2

Closer to Port Ellen than you think....(by Bullet Train)

So far, our time in this wonderful land has been nothing but an absolute pleasure. The food, hospitality and general good-will across Japan is truly extraordinary and I was beginning to feel right at home as we boarded our train to Kyoto, despite only knowing the scantest amount of the language. The city itself was another unexpected massage of the senses, albeit of a more spiritual kind, with some sensational temples, gardens and a hugely laid back lifestyle, which seemed to eschew the hustle and bustle of the more populated cities.

Wandering around the north east of Kyoto, reminded me a lot of San Francisco and its sunny summer haze, with long, hilly tree lined streets and row upon row of unique boutiques, selling traditional silk prints, antiques and exquisitely hand made sweets. There also just happened to be some very nicely appointed bars, which served thirst quenching, but deceptively strong Highballs (Japanese whisky, topped with soda). After several, we wobbled off to see an English band play to a packed room of very enthusiastic teenagers, setting the scene for a dash thru the Ponto Cho district and it's street musicians, whilst enjoying some excellent Shocho in the various bars along the way.

Our time in Kyoto was criminally short and it will be an almost certain return destination, especially in the Blossom season, which is undoubtedly stunning.

So onwards to our final leg of the trip and a speeding Shinkansen bullet train whisks us into the heart of Tokyo. Wow. We start to realise just how fortunate we were to acclimatise to Japanese city life in Osaka, as Tokyo is a complete blast to the senses. The huge network of train lines looks like a mass of knotted spaghetti on the map, as we stare blankly, wondering how to get to our hotel. Weird signs adorn the walls of the station and we start to feel very alien indeed....

Fortunately help is at hand and we are lucky enough to have a 'local' to guide us around for a few days. The lovely Anna (Mrs Caskstrength's old school friend) is fabulously fluent in Japanese and we soon settle in, Anna making us some refreshing green tea in our own 'ceremony', which cleanses the palate for our first evening in Shibuya.

On the way to this famously busy district, we see some wonderful statues and shrines, which sit almost anonymously next to the high rise buildings and 'Love Hotels', in a city very keen to preserve its rich heritage, whilst leading the world in technological innovation.

when we reach Shibuya and its famous crossing- this is the scene we're presented with:

How everyone makes it across, without injury, is extraordinary!

After all this people-watching we decide to have a bite to eat, which is easy, considering there are probably no fewer than 1000 restaurants in just this one area of Tokyo. My mind wanders over all the fabulous delicacies we could try- and for a moment, I wonder if i'll ever eat a roast dinner again!

Chickening out, we play it safe and go for Sashimi and Ramen, as opposed to the Fugu (Pufferfish) or the equally alarming Raw Horse:

Our next rendezvous is at the Stay Up Late bar in the Shimbashi district. Almost impossible to find, this bar is something of a revelation. Occupying the 3rd floor of an office type block, the first thing you notice is that it is remarkably small, with just 10 seats. The other thing which strikes you are the 6000 CD's behind the bar, next to a cracking array of single malts. Rock music and single malts....unquestionally the finest bedfellows since bread and butter.

We order 10 yo Laphroaig Highballs (refreshing and peaty... nice) and are given a little slip of paper to write down a power ballad of our choice, deftly selected from the wall of cd's by owner Yuji Okumura- aka the 'living jukebox'.

I plumped for Boston's 'More Than A Feeling' and we were off to a flying start.

Cue more highballs, beers, plus a very rich tasting Cask Of Yamazaki bottling from 1990 and soon we'd reached Jennifer Rush's 'The Power Of Love', via a live version Motorhead's 'Ace Of Spades'!

A businessman falls over in sheer excitement...

3 words seem to fit the bill at this point...Only In Japan.

Stay tuned for our final part, where I reach the summit of Whisky Nirvana and Mrs Caskstrength and I celebrate our wedding Anniversary in truly lavish 1930's style.