Pingyao and its People

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He rattled through the streets on a motor tricycle which was as rusted as he was wrinkled with age. Half a century ago, the whole town would have dressed as the old man still did, in the rough tunic and peaked cap of his better years.

The couple with the donkey cart were silver-haired too. Though they wore modern clothes, their cart might have been already ancient when they were born. It had been built, without thought for aesthetics, from timbers which would have served for a seagoing junk.

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Pingyao is more or less bang in the centre of Shanxi Province. It is four hours from Beijing by bullet train, but the China of bullet trains seems a fantasy of science fiction from inside its city walls.

Virtually all of the 4000 buildings on more than 100 streets and lanes across the square mile within the walls were built in the Ming and Qing dynasties, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Some are older than that, and the walls themselves have been standing since 1370. There are deep grooves worn by cartwheels in the roads leading up to the gateways.

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The dust of centuries clings to the bricks of the shops and courtyard houses. Their doors are gouged and dented from the mishaps of generations long passed. Lanterns hang underneath the swooping eaves. Silks, ceramics, antiques and decorative bottles of Shanxi black vinegar are arranged in doorways and tables outside the shops.

A mechanic has dragged a moped out of his workshop into the road. He crouches over it, surrounded by spanners, in an unwisely white vest. The unstoppable tide of domestic tourists eddies around him. Grim-faced ladies cycle against the flow on bikes which creak and crunch and squeal with every stroke of the pedals.

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The pagoda-like Market Tower broods over the main drag, which in other cities might qualify as a side street. A road sweeper leans against the wall with studied nonchalance. The reason why is working a street food stall, and he is managing to make her laugh.

Incense wafts from the splendid temples, Taoist and Confucian. There is a small Catholic church in one corner, as well. Marinated pork skewers are rotated over a grill by a contraption which looks as if it is driven by bicycle chains. A clunking museum piece of a machine laboriously produces confectionery. Hole in the wall restaurants serve Pingyao beef and Shanxi noodles, and they are a bustle of scraped chairs and excitable voices in the middle of the day.

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The city was an important banking centre in the nineteenth century, although it is hard to credit now. Rishenchang Exchange House Museum is one of several courtyard houses open to the public, either as themed museums or preserved family homes.

It was originally built in the eighteenth century for the Xiyuecheng Dye Company. To spare the worry of carting sacks of silver coins across China, the company began issuing drafts which could be cashed at any of its branches. The idea took off among merchants and became so popular that the owners of the company got out of the dyeing business and became bankers instead. Other draft banks set up in competition, in Pingyao and across the province.

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Away from the shops, the restaurants, the temples and the courtyard houses turned into museums, there are quieter corners which the tourists mostly avoid where the shops sell mundane staples and old posters are peeling from the walls.

The dust is more thickly encrusted in these parts. The lanterns are faded and ragged. Chickens scratch around junk in the courtyards. Chillies are laid out in baskets to dry in the sun. Washing is stretched out on lines across the fronts of buildings. The fruit seller has parked his three-wheeler in the shade of the parasol over his stall and is sound asleep in the back. At first horrified glance, he looks like a cadaver.

In the evening when the lanterns are lit outside the shops and the sky fades to a deep blue streaked with pink, then a deeper blue and eventually black and the air is still warm and a girl chars water spinach on a grill on the cobbled pavement with the paifan gate silhouetted behind her and a neon sign for a practitioner of traditional medicine glows in the background, the tourists thin out and the city relaxes and slows to a pace altogether more fitting.

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It is a surprise to find the road sweeper still working. But he is perhaps catching up with the work which he should have done earlier that afternoon when he was chatting to the woman with the street food stall.

© Richard Senior 2019

Cycling the Shimanami Kaidō

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I set off too late from Hiroshima, then got the wrong train, and it was going on for lunchtime when I reached Onomichi. But I decided to skip lunch because I wanted to cycle at least some of the Shimanami Kaidō between the eight islands, from Honshu to Shikoku, across the suspension bridges over the Inland Sea.

I have since read about travellers planning and training for the ride for weeks and basing their trips to Japan around it, but I am too spontaneous, too chaotic for anything like that. I had found out about the Shimanami Kaidō by chance a day or two before when looking for something else in the guidebook.

It is a 70km (43 mile) route, end to end, and my guidebook reckoned it would take somewhere around eight hours to ride, which to me seemed too pessimistic. I reckoned four or five.

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The rent-a-bike point was hidden in a car park but I found it eventually and chose a cheap ‘mountain bike’ over a selection of old ladies’ shopping bikes. I revised my estimate to five or six hours when I saw it, dropped my daybag into the basket and rattled along the waterfront to the ferry across the Onomichi-suido Channel. I had picked up a map of the route but it was, in any case, marked with blue and white lines on the road. It would be hard to get lost.

If I wanted my deposit back, I would have to return the bike to Onomichi before 6pm, but the deposit was only ¥1000, or £5.89. (The hire cost was half that, which made it a cheap afternoon’s entertainment.) I saw when I skim-read the back of the map that I could drop off the bike at the end, or at points along the way, and take a bus back; and that was all I needed to know, for the moment.

The bike was too low-geared to go anywhere fast, but the route was flat – or at least so it seemed after the merciless hills of northern England – and the sun was hot and it was a perfect day for cycling. The route took me through a slice of Japan which you rarely see as a tourist, neither the sleepy towns of old wooden houses, nor the bustling cities of neon-lit skyscrapers, just workaday hamlets with a few houses and shops, a filling station, then nothing until a big-hammer factory, and nothing again for the next ten minutes.

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I tracked diagonally across Mukaishima Island and came out at the waterfront and followed its contours round towards the Innoshima suspension bridge. The blue and white lines led under the bridge and round a corner and then twisted back on themselves up a steep hill which spiralled to the cycle lane of the bridge suspended beneath the roadway.

Two hours in, I had worked across Innoshima Island and traversed the Ikushi Bridge, with orchids lining the approach road and big barges trundling underneath and the sun glinting off the water. I was on the fourth island of eight and seemed to be making good time.

There is apparently a temple worth seeing on Ikuchijima Island but I was too focussed to detour to it, and in any case I had been to Nikkō, Nara and Kyoto already on that trip and would not feel cheated if I never saw another temple. There were, as well, a few curiosities at the side of the road: an old bus in faded psychedelic paint in the style of Ken Kesey’s Furthur and a group of life-size dummies seated in a row as if they were waiting for a bus.

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It took me somewhere around an hour to get to the next bridge, 36 kilometres from Onomichi, a little over half way to Imabari. I had, it seemed, been wildly optimistic to think that I could finish the route in four hours but about right with the more conservative six. I was not sure why the guidebook thought you needed eight, but then the map said eight to ten and I have since read that some travellers spread the ride over a couple of days.

I could still, just about, have turned the bike round and headed back to Honshu before the rent-a-bike terminal closed, but I was enjoying myself too much for that. The other terminals, I saw when I read the back of the map properly, closed at 5pm. There was an outside chance that I could get all the way to Imabari on the edge of Shikoku and find the terminal in time, but it was no more than an outside chance.

There were three other terminals along the way, so there was no need to give up just yet. It was a lovely ride along the waterfront on Omishima Island and across the arched bridge to Hakatajima, where I caught up with a group of serious cyclists with sprayed-on lycra and bikes made from carbon fibre and fresh air and passed a couple of them; but there was too much face to be lost in being overtaken by a tourist in street clothes on a pig-iron mountain bike, so they clunked down a gear and streaked past me.

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I decided as I snaked through the national park to the west of Hakatajima Island to drop off the bike at the next terminal, just before the Hakata-Oshima suspension bridge, the last but one before Imabari. I only had 20km left to ride to the end of the route, and plenty of energy, but by then it was clearly too late to get there before 5pm.

I imagined the bus interchange to be a big building with helpful things like timetables and an information desk, but it was actually just a turning circle with a few wooden shelters. There was no one else around. In a few of the shelters, there were photocopied sheets with bus times on them but the destinations – naturally – were only in Japanese. The last bus going anywhere seemed to be at half-past five.

At somewhere around twenty-past, a bus pulled in but the driver denied that he was going to Onomichi.

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Of course I had no contingency plan and I thought I would be lucky even to find an English-speaker within reasonable walking distance, let alone a hotel or a taxi firm. If it came to it, I supposed I would just have to walk back to Honshu.

But then, at something to six, the bus turned up.

© Richard Senior 2016

Learning to Love Osaka

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Osaka, at first glance, is a hard city to love. It seems to be 140 square miles of concrete, sardine-packed with tower blocks and criss-crossed with flyovers.

But the cherry blossoms along the Ō-kawa River temper the brutality of the concrete. The river parts and flows either side of Nakanoshima island, where the first mile or so has been landscaped and turned into a public park. It is a tranquil spot, lovely to walk through with a gentle breeze blowing off the river, and as you gaze at the lawns and the trees and the rose gardens, you might not even notice that the island is hemmed in by soulless office blocks.

Beyond the park, there is a hint of what Osaka might have looked like before the War in the 1912 Central Public Hall with its red and grey brick, stained glass and cupolas and the 1904 Prefectural Library with its monumental steps and columns.

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The classical castle nearby was rebuilt in the twentieth century, but then so were most of the castles in Japan; if they were not burned down in the tumult of the Meiji Restoration, they were flattened in World War II. It is still impressive to see, and worth paying to go in for the museum with its samurai swords and suits of armour, screens and fans, woodcut prints and ancient scrolls, and the panoramic view from the top.

The Umeda Sky Building is the high-tech, modernist equivalent of the castle, designed, like it, to dominate its neighbourhood, to awe and intimidate, to exude power and wealth; and it has the best views in town. The lift scoots you almost to the top, then an elevator takes you through plate glass nothingness to the roof.

To the south and east, Osaka seems everlasting with office and apartment blocks fading to infinity. To the north, they are interrupted only by the broad expanse of the Yodo River, emptying out into the bay to the west.

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At night, a million squares and circles of light glow in the windows, yellow lights swirl at street level, red lights pulsate on the rooftops, neon hoardings shimmer in blues and reds and greens, and the spokes of the giant Ferris wheel out on the harbour glow orange if the next day is set to be sunny, green if cloudy and blue if it is going to rain.

Amerika-mura (American village) got its name from shops selling second-hand Levis and Zippos and trades on it with Uncle Sam and Statue of Liberty models bursting from shop fronts and local interpretations of American fast food.

The vintage shops and street style stores blast J-Pop from the doorways to deter over-25s and to try to encourage the sullen girls in clumpy shoes and over-the-knee socks and giggly boys with spiky yellow hair to look briefly away from their smartphones.

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A little to the east, the Shinsaibashi-Suji shopping arcade extends for a dozen blocks with all the world’s high street chains mixed up with noodle shops and pachinko* parlours, soundtracked one minute by J-Pop, the next by Vivaldi, and always  by the staff in the shops shouting irasshaimase! when customers enter and arigatou gozaimashita! when they leave.

Shoppers jostle down the street with three bags hanging off each arm, mothers propel push-chairs, teenagers snigger in unruly groups, tourists stop and whip out their selfie sticks and the crowd eddies round them. At the end of each block, a road cuts through and the honking cars surprise you.

The mall empties out by the Dōtonbori Canal, where there are monster neon adverts wrapped round the ends of the buildings. The oldest and best-known is the marathon runner, who has been advertising the Glico confectionary company since 1935.

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There is a crab restaurant round the corner which states its business with a massive 3D model of a spider crab above the door with claws that wave and eyeballs which extend in turn like pistons. Other restaurants along the street have taken up the theme and there are big puffer fish lanterns, an octopus, model gyoza dumplings, a giant hand holding nigiri-zushi and a life-size model cow.

There are bars and bowling alleys and amusement arcades. In the doorway of one, a salaryman, with his jacket off and sleeves rolled up, danced like your dad to the music from a game.

But just steps from all the sensory overload of Dōtonbori is a quiet corner with a temple dedicated to Fudo Myo-o, the deity of fury, where worshippers stop, pray and throw water over the diety’s statue, which is thick with moss from years of soakings.

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There are cobbled alleys lined by izakayas** with nothing but the traditional red paper lanterns to advertise themselves, no mechanical crabs, no illuminated puffer fish, no model cows. I ate very well in one of them, sitting at the bar watching the chef prepare the food and serve it to me on a long-handled peel like bakers use to take loaves from the oven.

Sake was once served in a small wooden box called a masu, but the practice fell out of fashion. Izakayas, though, sometimes put a glass inside the masu and let the sake overflow into it to show how generous their measures are. Here, the chef, who was also the barman, carried on pouring until first the glass and then the masu overflowed.

I had misjudged Osaka. The ugliness I saw at first was nothing like as all-pervasive as I feared. While it is no Kyoto, it has a sprinkling of traditional sights, and a whole lot more which could not be reduced to items on a list of Top Things to See…, but which is rewarding to see nonetheless. Above all, though, it has an infectious joie de vivre which I never saw matched as I travelled through Japan.

© Richard Senior 2016

*Japanese pinball

**Bars which sell food – loosely like Spanish tapas bars

Being on the Market in Busan

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It is an imposing modern building on the waterfront in Busan in the south-eastern corner of Korea. The sides are green plate glass; the roof is swooping steel and evokes a flock of gulls in flight. The ground floor is the main hall of the Jagalchi Fish Market, the biggest in South Korea. Above it are six floors of restaurants, below it a two-storey car park.

Casual visitors browse the stalls alongside the trade buyers; they choose their fish and take it upstairs to one of the restaurants, where the chef will gut it, skin it, slice it and send it back to them raw with half a dozen side dishes. This is hoe, South Korea’s answer to sashimi.

The market spills out into the surrounding streets and extends for several blocks. The first world slickness of the main building disappears outside, where the stalls have all the picturesque chaos of a traditional Asian street market.

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A man sits on an upturned crate, his face hidden behind a wide-brimmed hat, gutting and salting mackerel. Formidable ladies in visors and wellingtons squat at stalls under colourful umbrellas either side of the lanes. Behind them are haphazard piles of Styrofoam boxes, plastic bowls, carrier bags and filleting knives.

There are fish laid out on plastic sheets draped over planks balanced on buckets: grey mullet, red snapper, flounder, porgy, halibut, shark. There are octopus kept alive in bowls of percolating water; and baskets of fish heads; and every sort of seafood: shrimps, prawns, mussels, clams, sea cucumbers, abalones, sea snails, occasionally squirting jets of water at passers-by like kids with water pistols. There are stacks of jars with baby crabs fermented in chilli paste; and racks of dried squid; and bowls of seaweed, and bottles of chilli sauce.

Shoppers amble up and down the lanes, stopping to look a fish in the eye, peel back its gills, open its cavity, question the woman on the stall. Sometimes a scooter bullies its way noisily through the crowd.

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There are seafood restaurants, where the stalls peter out, with little rooms inside and big tanks outside, piled high with spider crabs and lobster, or a writhing mass of eels. It is rare to find English spoken or written and you are reduced to pointing and guessing, but whatever you get is bound to be fresh and will probably be cheap.

Jagalchi is not – yet – a tourist attraction on the scale of Tsukiji across the Sea of Japan in Tokyo, much as the tourist board tries to talk it up. It is just as rewarding; but no one important, as of yet, has endorsed it as a Must See sight, so it never appears on bucket lists and the tourists come in twos and threes instead of by the coachload. There is no need to restrict entry to certain times or hand out English language maps at the gates or post lists of things which the visitor should refrain from doing.

I was the only Westerner there and the only visitor with a camera. The rest were just trying to buy dinner, and I was trying not to be annoying.

© Richard Senior 2015

Gyeongju: Two Days in the Museum without Walls

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There are two or three blocks of forgettable shops south of the station, then a sudden lake of yellow rapeseed.

Narrow paths have been cut into the rape field and happy young couples stroll through the flowers, stopping to smile and make peace signs for cameras at the ends of poles they hold at arm’s length. The field is floodlit at night and more couples stream in and flashtubes pop across the field like a diorama of a battle.

Beyond the rape field, behind trees, older couples march along paths through the forest to a stream with their ski poles and sunhats and leisure wear as vivid as the yellow of the rapeseed and the blue of the sky. There are hazy mountains in the middle distance and the keenest start early and hike to them.

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Gyeongju was the capital of the ancient Silla kingdom which ruled Korea for a thousand years from the first century BCE. The walking trails criss-cross the site of Banwolseong Fortress and there are fragments of the old walls in the undergrowth. The hourglass-shaped Cheomseongdae Observatory is still intact after fourteen centuries and sits, surreally, in the middle of a park.

The kings and their treasures are buried in two dozen grassy hillocks, like a much-simplified form of the Egyptian pyramids. One has been opened up so that visitors can look inside and the whole complex has been modelled into a park with quiet paths between trees and azalea bushes and traditional music piped in through hidden speakers, which gives it a dreamlike quality.

The same music plays, to the same effect, in the grounds of the royal palace. The pavilions and ornamental lake have been rebuilt and the gardens restored and you could stroll there happily for hours, at least if you were not being followed around by a school party repeatedly saying “hello” and “how are you?” because they wanted to practice their English and those seemed to be the only words they knew. It is wonderfully ethereal at night, when the pavilions are lit up and reflect in the lake.

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Gyeongju is known, with justification, as ‘the museum without walls’. I filled a day looking at temples and tombs, pagodas and wooden hanok houses and walking along trails through the forest. I planned to hike Mount Namsan, as well, but it turned out to be a lot further away than it looked and I gave up on the idea before I got there.

I set out early next morning on a bike which I borrowed from the guest house. It was a cheap, Chinese-made thing with brakes to trap fingers, sharp edges to scratch and protruding parts to bruise. It was a vicious cycle.

The shifter for the back hub refused to shift. The other had four positions for three gears. The first just made it click annoyingly, the second took me back to where I started, the third made the crank spin like a propeller, and the fourth made the chain come off.

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What I had taken, from the map, to be a quiet country road was actually a busy highway; it ran alongside the railway and sloped forever uphill. But there were cherry blossoms, white herons and mountains as well as the concrete, cars and trains.

I guessed that it would take around half an hour, an hour at the most, to ride to Bulguksa Temple, but it apparently takes longer than that in the car. The incline seemed slight but never let up until the turn off for Bulguksa, when it became a long, steep hill. Each sign implied that Bulguksa was round the next corner, or the one after that, and it began to feel like chasing a rainbow.

I got there in the end, though, and it is a splendid temple with pagodas, bridges, statues and intricately carved, gloriously painted roofs set in a forest you could lose yourself in for a day; but it was Saturday and brimming with day-trippers – of course, I was one of them – and instead of the serenity you expect at a Buddhist temple, there was the stress of a big city at rush hour.

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It would have been too easy to freewheel down the hill and follow my tyre tracks back to Gyeongju, and instead I took the long way round, up yet another hill, and hoped that it would lead into town. Eventually it did.

© Richard Senior 2015

An Onsen Town

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“The Japanese have the same attitude to bathing as Frenchmen reserve for eating: they do it with a mixture of connoisseurship and physical abandon. A bath can be enjoyed alone, but it is more often taken with many others, keeping up with the latest gossip while scrubbing one’s neighbour’s back” – Ian Buruma, A Japanese Mirror

Yamanaka Onsen was deep in the mountains. It had rained and the road was damp and the mist clung to the peaks of the mountains. In the bottom of the gorge, a river followed the road in a series of undisciplined curves. It was a striking, mineral-rich green and flowed rapidly after the rain. A truss bridge stretched high across the river, triangular in section, violet in colour, describing a lazy S-shape. It led to a path through a park filled with cherry blossoms, and alongside the river, past a waterfall to a shrine and a 2,300 year-old cedar. Ryokans were clustered around the river on the edge of town.

It was the middle of the morning and the main street was all but deserted. There were no customers in the old wooden stores. It was early, yet, for the sake brewery, the tea-house and the soba noodle shop; and there were no tourists, but me, to browse the shops which sold the lacquerware for which the region is famous.

The town was built around hot springs and the two public bath houses, one for men and one for women, are centrepieces of the plaza.  The waters, at a temperature of 48.3 degrees Celsius and rich in calcium and sodium sulphate, are said to relieve “muscular pain, joint pain, shoulder pain, bruises, chronic digestive diseases, haemorrhoids, over-sensitivity to cold, fatigue, arteriosclerosis, cuts, burns, chronic skin diseases and motor paralysis”.

I slipped my trainers off and went in, only to be stopped at the door and made to understand through urgent, embarrassed gestures that the smaller building across the plaza was the men’s bath house.

I had come unprepared, as ever, and had to hire a towel and buy a sachet of shower gel. There were lockers in the foyer for shoes and valuables and, with those locked away, I went through to the wood-panelled changing room and folded my clothes into a basket and slotted it onto the shelf. It is illegal to be untidy in Japan.

It was a bright, spacious bath house with a pitched wooden ceiling and high windows running the length of the room. The walls and the floor were tiled in muted colours; there was a tiled pillar in the centre of the bath with a plinth you could sit on and lean your back against it. Around the edge, there were shower heads and mirrors set low. I took a plastic stool from the stack, sat down and showered, then padded across the room to the bath and slid into the hot water. The idea is to soak for a while, get out, shower off and soak again. I have no idea whether it does anything for the conditions it is said to relieve, but it is without doubt relaxing.

There were a couple of locals bathing, perhaps connoisseurs but thankfully not acting with the physical abandon which Ian Burumu mentioned in the extract above. They politely ignored me and I politely ignored them. We had no language in common to gossip, in any case; and I was not going to scrub anyone’s back.

© Richard Senior 2015  

Staying in a Japanese Ryokan

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“Two person?”

“One.”

Two person.”

“No. There’s only one of me.”

He huffed and searched through his papers until – like prosecuting counsel presenting a witness with an incriminating letter – he showed me the message from the booking site. “Two person!”

Well that must be a mistake.”

“Hmph. Two person.”

It was a small ryokan* up a quiet side street in Nagasaki. The owner, it seemed, would never quite forgive me for only being one person, but reluctantly showed me to the room.

I had left my trainers at reception and changed into the Crocs supplied to walk through the building and now changed from those to the slippers inside the door of the room. There was a separate pair to change into when using the toilet.

The hallway led off to a small bathroom and a separate toilet with all the accessories you come to expect in Japan, the heated seat, the hot water jet, the sound effects to spare your embarrassment. Beyond them, through a sliding screen, was the main tatami-mat room. At the other side of the room, there was a paper screen on a wooden lattice which filtered the light from the windows overlooking the street. Behind it was a narrow room, like an indoor balcony, with polished wood floors, a fridge, a garment rail and space to put luggage out of sight of the main room.

There was a low table and a cushion to kneel on and a kettle, tea pot and cups for green tea, and a neatly folded futon and traditional clothes. The walls were painted a peaceful taupe and were bare except for discrete ornaments in the alcove. Even the mirror attached to a small set of drawers was covered with a drape so as not to disrupt the harmony of the room. “Owner does not say a busybody,” it said in the information pack.

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A bell sounded as I went downstairs and the owner, who does not say a busybody, came out of his office and supervised me while I laced up my trainers. He was a taciturn, expressionless man and it was unnerving to have him standing there, silently, as if watching to make sure I did not slip behind the desk and steal the petty cash. I suppose it was just his idea of customer service.

Another bell sounded when I came back in, and the owner – still not saying a busybody – stood and watched me take my trainers off. He did it every time.

He had been in the room while I was out and straightened things up. He must have despaired of my gaijin** untidiness. Clothes strewn about, now perfectly folded; a discarded t-shirt placed on a hanger; scattered books, stacked. A dropped towel replaced with a fresh one. Even an empty carrier bag crisply folded into four.

I changed into the yukata, like a long, thin dressing gown with flowing sleeves, tied the obi sash around it and pulled the haori jacket on over the top, then made a cup of green tea, and laid out the futon for the night.

Each evening when I came back to the ryokan, the futon had been neatly packed away, the yukata folded, the tea replenished and whatever clutter I had brought into the room tidied behind the screen.

When I checked out and got the bill, the prices had all been scored through and replaced in neat manuscript with lower figures. The owner had given me a discount because I was not, in fact, two person.

© Richard Senior 2015

*Traditional Japanese inn

**Foreigner

Eating at Yatai in Fukuoka

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There are few sights in Fukuoka, although there is a handful of heritage buildings, a pleasant park and the remains of a castle, as well as the endless scope for immature sniggering at a name which begins with ‘fuck you’. But there are well over a hundred yatai.

At nightfall, outside the big stores on the main shopping streets, vendors drag trailers up onto the pavement and convert them, Transformer-style, into pop-up restaurants. Yatai, they call them.

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From the outside, they look like workmen’s huts, or makeshift shelters for the homeless, with walls and a roof made of rough wooden sheets and opaque plastic windows. Some are open at one side, some have a curtain made of fabric or plastic, while a few have a proper door.

It is hard not to feel as if you are intruding when you push the curtain aside and take your place at one of the half dozen or so stools round the counter. You will almost certainly be the only foreigner. The other customers will probably be suited salarymen stopping off after work for a snack and a few glasses of shōchū. The chef is unlikely to speak any English; if you are lucky, there might be some English on the menu, and if very lucky it might make sense. A lot of the time, though, you are reliant on pointing, miming, taking pot luck or asking for something which you know they will have.

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There is more or less bound to be ramen, and Fukuoka has its own take on this iconic dish. The thick, unctuous broth is made with pork bones and caramelised onion and ginger, and cooked at a boil instead of a simmer, and served with thin noodles, red ginger, green onions and little puddles of black garlic oil. There will be yakitori, meatballs, gyoza dumplings and mentaiko, another speciality of the city: spiced and lightly-seared cod roe.

The first time I ate at a yatai, I sat with a group of salarymen, ties askew and several shōchūs into a bibulous evening, and one of them spoke excellent English – he modestly denied it – and guided me through the Japanese-only menu with suggestions on what to order. The next time, though, I was on my own but for a hit-and-miss app which could sometimes decipher Japanese script and, if it could not, just made something up. I hoped that the “fishermen with morning mist” was good and went well with the “toolshed drunk in water”. The weave of my t-shirt meant “eight,” the app told me in passing.

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The yatai stay open into the early hours but I dare say they are much like a British kebab shop later on when people tumble out of bars and decide they have to eat. They are packed up, then, and magicked away in that brief hiatus between the latest drinkers shuffling off home and the earliest commuters marching in to work.

Once the sun comes up, there is no sign that the yatai had ever been there.

© Richard Senior 2015

24 Hours in Sokcho

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The bus from Gangneung pulled into Sokcho at 10.30. I spotted the guest house as we rounded the last corner and walked up there, dropped off my bags, picked up a map, and took a local bus out to Seoraksan National Park.

It was too late to think about doing the ten-hour round trip to the top of Daecheongong Peak and back; so I headed, instead, for Ulsanbawi which tops out at a more manageable 876m –  still 50 metres higher than the world’s tallest building. I was as well-prepared as ever with a vague tourist map, no water and ordinary street clothes.

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The path, only gently sloping to start with, meandered past a kneeling Buddha and stone lanterns and alongside a river which had dried to a trickle and was lined with blossoming cherry trees, and over an ornamental bridge, past a temple complex with kingfisher blue roof tiles and exquisitely painted eaves, and on and into the depths of the forest of deep green firs and brighter green deciduous trees from which – in the distance – the jagged peaks protruded.

I followed the path into the trees and over boulders and across more bridges and up and up, as the terrain became more difficult, and out onto a plateau where an ancient hermitage had been cut into the mountainside and up again to a spit of rock which I scrambled up and looked back across the expanse of the park into the floor of the valley way below. The peak, though, still brooded over me, hundreds of feet above. Its upper slopes looked more or less vertical.

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They were. There was an iron walkway up to the top with – depending on whom you ask – 800, 808, 888 or over 900 steps, which in any case is like walking halfway up the Empire State Building. I had aimed to get to the top without stopping but lost my resolve halfway up the walkway and stopped to rest, but only for a moment, because a sprightly old lady in luminous hiking gear surged past me and shamed me into pressing on.

The reward, though, for reaching the peak was a breathtaking view across the park, across the countryside, back to Sokcho and on to the coast and out over the Pacific.

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It was mid-afternoon by the time I got down, too late for lunch, too early for dinner, but I stopped anyway at an outdoor restaurant and ordered the local dish known as squid sundae, which sounds a bit Heston Blumenthal, but has nothing to do with the Western dessert of the same name. It is a squid body stuffed with diced pork, tofu, tentacles and shitake mushrooms, steamed and sliced into rings.

There was a shorter, easier trek through the woods, over rocks and bridges to the Yukdam Pokpo and Biryong Pokpo falls, and that passed an hour so before I got the bus back to Sokcho and poked around the fishing harbour and market and took the hand ferry across to the North Korean expat village (Sokcho was the wrong side of the border before the war and is an hour from the DMZ now).

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Koreans are said to go Sokcho just for the mudeumhoe (raw fish platter) in which the fish is sliced carpaccio-style and served on bean thread noodles with the tableful of side dishes you always get in Korea. There was enough, this time, for a small group: a fried fish, sashimi, oysters, whelks, squid sundae, squash, soup, salad, kimchee (fermented cabbage) and goodness knows what else. Thankfully you are not expected to eat it all.

Then I was back on the intercity bus in the morning, heading for Chuncheon, the last stop en route to Seoul.

© Richard Senior 2015

Tsukiji: An Improbable Tourist Attraction

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Big sheds, grim concrete, rusting steel, walkways painted in industrial blue. Bustling vendors in oilskins and wellington boots; porters scudding around on motorised carts. Polystyrene confetti, puddles of melted ice. Stacked crates. Reefer trucks. Everything, in short, you would expect of a municipal fish market, right down to the smell.

But it is not just any municipal fish market: it is Tsukiji Fish Market, by common consent one of Tokyo’s Must See sights. The guidebooks explain, as if with a trumpet fanfare, that it is the World’s Largest Wholesale Fish Market. What next, you might wonder: Asia’s Deepest Sewage Tunnel?  Japan’s Oldest Scrapyard?

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The Lonely Planet Fundamentalists are there at five in the morning, half an hour before the trains start to run, clutching guidebooks flagged up with Post-it notes as they queue in the hope of joining one of the two groups of sixty let in to watch the tuna auction.

The frozen fish are laid out on pallets. Sceptical restaurateurs peer at the eyes, lift the gills, shine their torches into cavities. The auctioneers jump up on boxes, ring handbells, doff their caps and shout and bounce excitedly, like contestants in some incomprehensible game show.  Bidders raise hands casually as if acknowledging a friend, and porters hook the sold tuna and drag them away, then return for the pallets, and hose down the floor as another auction starts across the room.

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After nine, when the market is quieter, tourists are allowed into the wholesale areas and march fully armed with SLR’s and telephoto lenses across the flooded cobbles, down the aisles between the stalls barricaded with teeming fish tanks and Styrofoam boxes, and stop to watch the fishmongers butchering tuna on trestle tables with knives like swords, and fire off a few shots of chopping boards dripping with blood and hoses left running and boxes stuffed with silvery bass and orangey snapper and brilliant white squid and octopus tentacles as thick as your arm and coiled eels in buckets of water. The stallholders struggle past them and ignore the staccato clicking of camera shutters and the tourists kneeling to get selfies with severed tuna heads. Mercifully there is no room for star jumps.

It is an improbable tourist attraction, but compelling.

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By eleven, the vendors start to pack up and close their stalls and the tourists put their cameras away and join the queues outside the sushi restaurants, where they stand for an hour or two or three and some get bored and peel off to browse the stalls selling knives and pans and bags of dried fish, and the door occasionally slides open and the tourists look briefly hopeful until it slides shut again. There is room inside, at a squeeze, for around a dozen at the bar and tables. The sushi chefs work centre stage, slicing, moulding, plating up; another, stage right, stirs a vat of rice with a paddle.

How fresh is the fish?” someone behind me in the queue asked a regular. “Well, it was swimming an hour ago,” came the reply.

© Richard Senior 2015