The West

The average American has visited 12 states. In the last four weeks I have been to 27, plus the District of Columbia, bringing my all-time total to 34 states and DC. On the flip side, I lived in Britain for 31 years and have never visited Ireland.

states

My all-time states

The first US state I ever visited was Illinois, when we landed in Chicago at the start of our trip ten years ago, and it was Chicago that I found myself in again a few days ago. At the end of that first visit to the US I decided that Chicago was my favourite American city. It’s much more laid back than New York, with more interestingly-shaped skyscrapers. It has blues bars and pizza pies and overhead railways with wooden platforms. It has a beach whose only giveaway about not being on a real ocean is the lack of a salty seaweed smell.

Returning a decade on, having subsequently visited so many other great American cities, I wasn’t sure if Chicago would stand up to San Francisco for beauty, Boston for liveability or New Orleans for fun.

I checked into a hostel to the north of downtown Chicago and took a walk through Lincoln Park to the beach. The English language is quite inadequate that we use the same word to describe Lake Windermere, Lake Garda and Lake Michigan. The scale of Michigan and the other great lakes are orders of magnitude above their European counterparts. When you stand on the beach in Chicago, there is not even the tiniest hint that the state of Michigan lies on the other side. Lake Michigan is over 100 miles wide – five times the distance between Dover and Calais.

Chicago is famous for its loaded hotdogs and its deep pan pizzas. The pizzas are made with a buttery pie crust with high sides, piled with toppings in a very particular order. The tomato sauce, as expected, forms the base, but then the meats and vegetables come next, with the cheese covering these. I sought out and ate one; very tasty, but the buttery crust made it rather greasy.

***

The next morning I went straight to Willis Tower (previously, and more famously, known as Sears Tower). For a while, it was the tallest tower in the world and was taller than anything in New York – or, indeed, the western hemisphere – until the new One World Trade Center (aka Freedom Tower) opened a few years ago.

Of course, the views from the top were spectacular. There was a glass box built out of the side that you could walk on, with only an inch of glass between you and a messy death 1450 feet below.

One of my favourite topics in GCSE History was prohibition and the organised crime that sprung up around it. Chicago was at the heart of this, with Al Capone controlling much of the city and his mob carrying out the St Valentine’s Day Massacre here. I had hoped that there’d be a museum about this fascinating, if rather grizzly, period of recent history.

Alas, there was no dedicated museum, but the Chicago History Museum did have a section about it, among exhibits about President Lincoln, civil rights, sports and the migration of the blues to Chicago from the south. The following day, I would also stumble upon a staircase in Union Station that I immediately recognised as the scene of a shootout in The Untouchables, the Kevin Costner movie about Al Capone.

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In the evening, I headed to a blues bar near my hostel. I ate battered shrimp, drank a few beers and enjoyed some gritty blues.

***

The next morning, after a wander around the modern art in Millennium Park, I boarded the California Zephyr bound for San Francisco. The Zephyr is the most scenic of the Amtrak routes and considered to be one of the world’s great railway journeys. The first afternoon aboard is not especially exciting, as it cuts through the cornfields of the midwest, but when you awake the next morning you’re eastern Colorado, approaching Denver and the Rockies.

Aboard the California Zephyr

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As the train follows the Colorado river through the Rockies, the scenery is spectacular. The conductor provides something of a guided tour of the canyons, mountains and passes. I dined opposite a couple in their late 80s who are big fans of the Zephyr. The lady was telling me of her experience as a teacher in New Orleans in the 1950s. She was a white teacher in a segregated school for black children only, which had no books. When she took them on school trips she had to lie to the bus conductor that she was Creole, so that she could sit in the “colored” seats at the back of the bus with her students.

I’d learned a bit about segregation in museums in Austin and Memphis, but to speak to someone who had experienced it as an adult really brought home how recent this awful period of US history was.

I was not quite done with my trip, so rather than continuing all the way to San Francisco, I alighted in Grand Junction, Colorado. Grand Junction is a small city on a plain, surrounded by a ring of flat-topped mountains. I picked up a rental car and drove two hours west into Utah, to Moab.

Moab and the national parks that surround it has been a part of the trip that I’ve been looking forward to. The drive there, mainly along a straight, fast interstate, was itself impressive. The scenery became progressive less terrestrial, the rocks redder and more oddly-shaped.

I checked into my motel, then headed to Arches National Park for sunset. Unfortunately, they’re doing nightly roadworks, so the park had closed at 7pm. Not to worry, there was another national park (there are five in Utah) just a few minutes up the road.

Canyonlands National Park is, as the name suggests, full of vast canyons. No photograph I took could do justice to the utter vastness of the expanses or the depths of the canyons. I watched the sunset, then stuck around the park for a couple of hours until the stars came out. It was a clear night and the only interruption to the dark sky was from a sliver of crescent moon. The Milky Way stretched overhead with a clarity that I’ve never seen before.

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***

In the morning, I joined a 30 minute queue to enter Arches NP. Once through the gates, the road turns back on itself and climbs up the red rocks to the east. Then you emerge onto the surface of Mars. The ground is arid and red. You’re surrounded by oddly shaped red rocks, often balanced on top of each other (entirely naturally) or shaped into arches by millennia of erosion.

My arch enemy

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After several hours exploring the park by car and taking a few short hikes around the arches, I left and drove south of Moab for an hour or so, to find an alternative entrance to Canyonlands NP. This area is known as The Needles, after the narrow, tall rock formations that litter the canyons.

Among the canyons were areas of cratered grey rock. If most of this area looks Martian, this was lunar. Occasionally, these craters will fill with rainwater and trigger a brief flurry of life. Marine eggs, laid during the previous period of dampness, will hatch and an entire lifecycle will take place in a rush before the tiny pool dries up again. I could see little tadpoles.

***

I awoke yesterday in Moab on the penultimate day of this trip. With a train to catch from Grand Junction in the afternoon, I headed first to the Islands in the Sky area of Canyonlands NP and explored a few areas I hadn’t got to at sunset a couple of days earlier.

Long distance Amtrak trains have to share their tracks with freight services, so it’s not unusual for the trains to be delayed by a couple of hours. I boarded my train in Grand Junction two hours later than scheduled at the peak of the onboard dinner service, so they brought a plate of steak and shrimp to my cabin (always go for the most expensive item on the menu to make the most of the food-inclusive roomette ticket).

As I type, the train is winding through the Sierra Nevadas, entering California. This afternoon I will arrive in Emeryville, a short ferry ride from San Francisco.

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27 states in 29 days, by bus, train, car and plane. I’ve seen Texas, the south, the northeast, the midwest and the west. I’ve travelled through deserts, mountains, plains and forests. Americans are often derided for their lack of passports, but with a country as varied and beautiful as this on their doorstep, why would they?

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Portland to San Francisco

I headed south east from Portland along route 26, bypassing the exciting sounding town of Boring and into the Mount Hood National Forest. I passed briefly through the unappealing sounding Government Camp, which actually turned out to be a twee Alpine ski resort, featuring such hilariously-named establishments as the Huckleberry Inn.

Once the trees finished, the landscape opened into a broad expanse of flat-topped hills and yellow grassland. I was entering central Oregon and it felt like the mountains and redwood forests of the Pacific coast had given way to the old west. Route 26 carried on through the Warm Springs Indian Reservation: an area of federal land, independent of Oregon and governed by the Warm Springs tribes.

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The first town after the Indian reservation is, amusingly, called Madras (yes, yes, different Indians). Continuing south on the 97 took me through a string of run-down towns of various sizes. One of these towns, Chemult, was to provide my bed for the night. I had opted for the $50 per night Budget Inn over the $100 per night Eagle Crater Lake Inn. This decision was entirely justified; not because the Budget Inn was nice – it wasn’t, it was a dump – but because the Eagle Crater Lake Inn looked equally bad.

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The Budget Inn was a row of about a dozen rooms in a wooden building so flimsy that slamming the door in one room caused all of the others to shake. It reminded me immediately of my all-time worst motel experience in Flint, Michigan, but it was clean. The only dining option in town was a Subway attached to the gas station that the motel backed onto. I ate, watched TV for a while and slept.

I awoke to pouring rain, which didn’t bode well for the visibility at Crater Lake National Park, which was the reason why I’d taken this eastern detour of hundreds of miles. My rental car displayed the temperature in Fahrenheit, a scale I have no intention of ever being familiar with. I know that water freezes at 32F and boils at 212F; the lower of these two values was of most relevance to me, as I wondered whether the torrential rain would give way to snow as I ascended.

Sure enough, as I drove up the road to Crater Lake, the temperature ticked steadily downwards. When it reached 35F the rain became noticeably sleety. 34F… 33F… 32F… bang on queue, the downpour was replaced by big gentle snow flakes and the road began to cover over. By the time I reached Rim Village, the snow was deep and visibility was minimal. This meant that I could see nothing of the allegedly spectacular lake that I’d travelled so far to see.

Somewhere over my shoulder is the deepest lake in the US

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Remarkably, the cafe and gift shop was open. I ordered a cheeseburger, much to the excitement of the staff who told me it was their first cheeseburger of the year.

“In October?” I asked
“We get a new menu each season. Cheeseburger is on the winter menu.”
“And when did the winter menu start?”
“Today”

So what they were really excited about was that I was the first person that day to order their cheeseburger. While three people set about cooking it, a chatted to the server. He had a peculiarly slow way of saying anything, so the only advice I got from him was that I should one day go and visit the Integratron near Los Angeles. He kept talking about energy in a way that made the physics teacher inside me scream in anguish, and was just getting onto the topic of UFO sightings when my cheeseburger arrived. Sitting lonely in the middle of a large plate, it met the minimum requirements of being a cheeseburger: bread, a thin grey patty and a slice of cheese.

I drove back down the other side of the mountain, heading west. I guess the altitude stayed higher for longer than on the other side, as I travelled much further before leaving the snow. While still inside the national park I saw a car being hauled out of a snowdrift by a park ranger’s pickup truck. This made me feel pretty smug about hiring a 4×4, although even my Jeep lost grip a few times.

Watching this car being towed out of trouble, I felt pretty smug about my 4×4 rental

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A couple of miles west of the national park exit, I came across a large pickup truck stranded at the side of the road. I pulled over to see if there was anything I could do to help. As there was no mobile phone reception, he asked me to check there was a tow truck on its way when I next reached civilisation.

I drove for another 30 minutes or so and was well below the snow line before I eventually found a forest ranger station, where I dropped in to tell them about the stranded driver. Hopefully someone did actually go and rescue him…

I headed west, through dense redwood forests, until I reached Crescent City on the Pacific coast in northern California. My motel was pleasant (certainly compared to the Budget Inn) as were the coastal views. Crescent City itself, however, appeared to be nothing but a sprawl of semi-derelict motels and fast food chains, desperately competing with each other for a handful of late October visitors. One motel was even offering a free cheese pizza in return for custom (their generosity did not stretch to any toppings).

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The following morning – the last day of my trip – I headed to the Trees of Mystery, a tourist attraction a few miles down the US-101. It is to forests what Ripley’s Believe It or Not is to museums; in fact, some of the strangely-shaped trees are apparently replicated at Ripley’s. These included the Elephant Tree (it had a branch that looked like an elephant’s trunk) and the Cathedral (several trees squashed together to form a natural chapel shape).

There was also a pointless cable car ride to the top of a hill. You are advised to only walk back down if you are an advanced hiker in proper shoes, so naturally I attempted it in a pair of Converse. It was only a mile long, though a little steep and slippy in places.

After exiting via the gift shop, I hit the road for a very long drive back to San Francisco. It was about 330 miles and I had originally planned to split it across two days, but decided to finish a day early instead. I only got a few miles before I was distracted again, this time by a drive thru tree.

Much of my interest in American road trips comes from reading Bill Bryson’s Lost Continent, in which he does two large loops around the east and west of the USA to recreate the holidays of his youth. During the western loop he recalls a 1950s postcard from some relatives who visited a drive thru tree and longs to go there himself. Sadly, he never got close enough to the large coastal redwoods to fulfil this, so in his honour I made sure that I didn’t pass on the opportunity.

I dropped $5 into the honesty box and waited in line behind the tree while a family from Texas took photos of themselves driving through it. When it was my turn, I drove through slowly, sparing only a couple of cm on either side. This particular hole-in-a-tree clearly predates the American penchant for SUVs; anything larger than my relatively modest Jeep would’ve got stuck.

I drove *through* a tree this morning

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My final journey back to San Francisco was uneventful, apart from my stupid decision to leave US-101 and take the nice coastal road along California-1 instead. This added two hours to my journey and involved a lot of twisty roads through forests in the dark, and one emergency stop to save the life of a deer.

Seattle to Portland

After a delightful weekend in Seattle visiting my friends Tim and Jen and their newborn Jack (joined also by Tim’s parents, over from London and meeting their grandson for the first time), I hit the highway in a rented Jeep. My road trip back to SF is to snake along the west coast of the US, through Washington, Oregon and northern California. I will visit the Mount Rainier, Crater Lake and Redwood national parks, as well as the city of Portland.

First glimpse of Mt Rainier, from the Bainbridge ferry

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Mount Rainier’s white peak is visible from Seattle, 100 miles to the north-west. Rain was forecast and, since my experience with a snowy interstate on the Donner Pass the previous weekend, I didn’t fancy getting stuck in a blizzard. This is my excuse for renting a 4×4, although nostalgia also played a role.

The Team America 2007 monster truck, and its spiritual successor

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I entered the national park from the north-east, heading first towards the visitor centre at Sunrise. However, being late October, the road to it was closed, so I made my way around the south side of Mt Rainier to Paradise. Paradise was exactly as the name would suggest: cold, windswept and deserted. Large heaps of snow had been pushed to the edges of a car park surrounded by wooden structures – hotels, restaurants, visitor centres, ranger stations – all of them with signs that basically said “We’ll be back in the spring.” Still, there were some excellent views across the mountains, even if Rainier itself was enveloped in cloud.

This lack of any open facilities was of increasing concern. It was late afternoon and I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, apart from half a bag of chocolate M&Ms and the free mini pretzels from my flight north on Friday. I was heading west to leave the park in search of sustinence, when around a forested bend I saw an oasis: an open inn. 

30 minutes later, satiated by a bowl of mac ‘n’ cheese, I left the inn. As I did so, I overheard the advice given to another traveller to be careful driving at twilight, as this is when the deer come out. Sure enough, around the very first bend I encountered a gang of deer scattered across the road. Apart from a chipmunk that I may or may not have hit with my car earlier that day, this was my only encounter with wildlife in Mount Rainier.

As I made my way to the western exit, the park began to live up to its name, as the weather got rainier and rainier. This was my second visit to a US national park; Mount Rainier didn’t live up to the expectations set by my August visit to Lassen Volcanic National Park. While Lassen had weird geology and sulfurous discharges, Rainier was just a little barren. This was at least partly due to the season and partly to the weather, I guess. One cool feature I did find was Narada Falls, where I did what every other visitor with a camera did and took a slightly long exposure photo.

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I spent the night in a Relax Inn near Interstate-5, before heading west on the Washington-6 towards the Pacific coast. Nine years ago, on the east coast, I had lamented the death of small towns. Every town centre was dead, with the only viable businesses being located in the strip malls of chain stores, motels and fast food at either end of the town. Along this particular stretch of western highway, however, small town America was alive and well. I passed through towns with names like Pe Ell, Pluvius and Menlo, each one sporting a general store, a small post office (sometimes just a portakabin) and a gas station with prices 50% higher than normal. Not a chain to be seen, apart from the old fashioned Pepsi signs outside the general stores. I looked around my car to check for a flux capacitor.

Even the people sitting on their porches watching the traffic go by looked like they could be from the 1950s. In one town, a window was draped with the confederate flag. Considering the western states were never a part of the confederacy, I think we can conclude that this was just one guy wanting to make clear to passing motorists that he is a racist asshole. This at least made for some variety from the ‘Make America Great Again!’ yard signs that are usually used to convey this message. (The exclamation point at the end of that slogan tells you everything you need to know about Donald J Trump and his Comic Sans campaign.)

The three contiguous Pacific states are all solidly Democratic, but I have seen a total of zero signs for Clinton since beginning this trip. Even in liberal Seattle, there were plenty of Trump posters – and even a handful for the Libertarian Gary Johnson – but none for Clinton. In rural areas there are, however, thousands of signs for the election of local sheriffs, commissioners, fire chiefs and judges. If there’s one thing Brexit has taught me that it’s not necessarily a good idea to hold a popular vote for a fire chief, as an arsonist is likely to win.

I reached the US-101 road, which runs from northern Washington, through Oregon and all the way down to Los Angeles (entering San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge). I followed the road for about an hour before crossing the Columbia River into Oregon over the magnificent Astoria-Megler Bridge. Astoria was the first US settlement on the Pacific coast, and is now a charming (but not self-consciously so) seaside town with a boardwalk and (seasonal) boardwalk streetcar. I dropped into a colourfully-painted and empty cafe to eat a hearty bowl of clam chowder, with a side of garlic bread in which the garlic appeared to have been substituted for salt. It was lunchtime and I was the only customer, yet the chowder was good and the whole bill came to only $9.

After lunch I strolled along the boardwalk, soundtracked by the mysterious animal noises coming from a warehouse I passed. I’m pretty sure a flock of geese was using the warehouse to host an illegal bare knuckle fight between a pig and a sea lion, but it may just have been an abattoir.

I headed east along the Columbia to Portland, a city I know nothing about other than from watching Portlandia on Netflix. I was disappointed not to find any feminist bookstores, although I did find the huge statue on the Portland Building after which the show is named. The most Portlandia thing I did come across was a designated route through the city for skateboarders.

#portlandia

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I would’ve finished this blog post last night, but I stumbled across the American answer to the Great British Bake Off. Called ‘Forged in Fire’, it pits four men and women against each other to forge knives against the clock. When their knives are finished they are tested against various criteria, including ‘killability’. As I prepare to head south towards Crater Lake I will leave you with this inspirational quote from a contestant who had suffered a minor setback while attaching the handle to his knife:

“Thor himself punched me in the chest and said ‘You can do this’.”

Hello

Welcome to my new blog. My name is Rob and I’m a teacher from the UK. In August I will be leaving London for a new adventure in San Francisco, teaching physics at an international school.

This blog is my way of recording my thoughts, observations and experiences about life in San Francisco, California and the wider United States. If you happen to find anything here interesting… great.

What am I likely to write about? Well, I’ve imported some previous travel writings to give you a flavour; in particular, the blog I wrote during my 6 week adventure down the Eastern seaboard (from Niagara Falls to Key West) back in 2007.

I may occasionally reflect on the contrasts between teaching in a state comprehensive in London and a private international school in San Francisco, though this isn’t an education blog (I do have such a blog – of sorts – on my professional website, CowenPhysics.com).

Living near Silicon Valley and running a couple of edutech websites (the aforementioned Cowen Physics and the rapidly growing Mega Seating Plan) means I may occasionally write about technology and my efforts to build impactful, popular tools that just might actually turn a profit.

For the last year or so I’ve been a very occasional and (very) amateur stand up comedian in London. I’m not promising any jokes, but I may blog about my experiences starting out on a new comedy circuit.

Mostly, I suspect, I’ll just be musing about the differences between life in the 31st and 51st states. Comparing Walmart to Waitrose, Wendy’s to Wimpy, or Donald Trump to Boris Johnson.

Japan 2015

Day 1 Tokyo

I had a cunning plan for sleeping on the plane: partially deprive myself of sleep the night before, so that I’ll be super sleepy on the flight. Instead, it just compounded the existing tiredness with an almost sleepless night on a jumbo jet.

We arrived at the ‘luxury capsule hotel’ near Shijuku station (the busiest station in the world) and immediately began jumping through the various bureaucratic hoops that may allow me to actually sleep tonight.

(By the way, some may assume that ‘luxury’ and ‘capsule hotel’ are mutually exclusive. They’re not: this one has a spa pool, sauna, massage chairs and all the toiletries you can imagine.)

I’ve been intrigued by capsule hotels ever since seeing them on Blue Peter sometime in the 90s. Essentially, instead of a room, you get a bunk which you enter head first. There’s enough space to just about sit up, a TV, a tablet computer, air con and a privacy curtain across your feet.

Anyway, the bureaucratic hoops…

On arrival, as is apparently traditional in homes and hotels across Japan, we were asked to remove our shoes and put them in a locker, resulting in us receiving a key. Check-in itself was only interrupted by the receptionist insisting we each draw a golf ball out of a cardboard box. Sadly, her English wasn’t fluent enough to explain what prize we’d have won I’d we’d drawn the red ball, but it was exciting enough that the ambient Japanese music was replaced by the Indiana Jones theme for the confusing few seconds that it took to draw the ball.

We then handed over our shoe locker keys in exchange for a key for a belongings locker, into which could go a small rucksack. This key also contains the barcode for access to the capsule corridor. Our larger rucksacks went behind reception in exchange for a numbered blue plastic chip.

In order to leave the hotel, we had to exchange our belongings locker key for our shoe locker key, plus a numbered plastic card.

On return, our shoes go back in a locker, the key for which is combined with the plastic card to get our big locker key back.

All to sleep in a room no bigger than 1m x 1m x 2m.

When inside the hotel, it appears to be expected that we wear the brown suit and slippers provided by the hotel. It’s pretty strange to have a uniform for hotel guests, but not as strange as the bathing experience…

First up, Japan is a very clean and hygienic country. Every toilet has a control panel to produce various well-targetted jets of water or hot air, as well as a ‘scent release’ button and one that produces a poor imitation sound effect of a toilet flush in order to mask the natural sound effects.

This bashfulness does not extend to getting clean, which is often a communal experience. More on the etiquette of Japanese bathing later, but suffice to say there was a poster with very clear instructions on the various nuances that may be unfamiliar to western travellers.

However, those instructions were not enough to prevent me going through the wrong door and parading along a public balcony/walkway with only a tiny towel (see later) for company. I fear this may be a significant breach of etiquette. Mercifully we leave for Nara in a few hours and don’t return to Tokyo for over a week, by which time they will hopefully have forgotten my transgression.

Our first Japanese meal was deep fried (tempura) seafood, served on a bed of rice with some miso soup on the side. All very tasty. This was accompanied by a free glass of some sort of cold coffee, which was a bit revolting. If that stuff turns out to be the secret of Japanese longevity, I’ll pass.

Day 2: Nara

We took a Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Nara, via Kyoto. Nara was the capital city of Japan for 70 years in the middle ages, so is full of temples and shrines.

Our hotel for the first night was a 2000¥ (£10) cab journey away, next to a busy dual carriageway and several other hotels. I’d found a bargain on Booking.com: 8800¥ (£44) for two king size rooms with breakfast.

At first glance it looked a great deal: huge rooms with TV and projector, free WiFi, a huge bath with water jets etc. Even a massage chair. Then the things we found in the rooms started to get seedier, the full details of which will probably be turned into a stand up show, but for a start the minibar was stocked with lingerie.

This turned out to be a ‘love hotel’, the kind that can be rented by the hour.

Anyway, we spent as little time there as possible, eating out in central Nara (Matt suspects he ate pig brain) and leaving early in the morning for an altogether more sophisticated establishment.

Day 3 Nara

The Wakasa Hotel was an entirely different experience, situated close to the city centre and Nara Park, in which 1300 wild deer roam freely.

We dropped our bags there and headed straight for the station, where we met a tour guide that Matt had found online. Tani was delighted and relieved when she saw us, as no other tourists had turned up. For 2000¥ (£10) each we had a private walking tour of Nara’s temples and shrines.

The more elaborate temples were Buddhist, including Toda-ji, which was until recently the world’s largest wooden structure. Inside is the world’s largest bronze Buddha, surrounded by a variety of other statues. For a sense of scale, the Buddha had over 900 curls in his hair, each the size of a human head.

Tani explained the history of religion in Japan, including how the early emperors (who were themselves Shinto) imported Buddhism from China as a means of uniting Japan.

Outside a Buddhist shrine we watched a crowd of pilgrims chanting a prayer as part of a 33 shrine pilgrimage of western Japan. The Shinto shrines, nestled up a hill inside a sacred forest, are much simpler. Tani taught us to pray in the Shinto style: two deep bows, two hand claps, a moment of silent reflection, then a final deep bow.

Shinto is Japan’s national religion and worships human heroes (including Japan’s emperors, who are believed to be descendants of a sun god, or at least were until Hirohito publicly renounced his godliness after WW2) and the spirits of nature and animals. Buddhism and Shintoism are not exclusive in a way that Christianity or Islam are. One person could have a Shinto wedding and a Buddhist funeral.

After the tour, we sat down to eat local noodles, as recommended by Tani. Both of us ate duck broth with noodles, but I ordered my noodles cold. I’m not sure what the point of this is, as you then reheat them by dipping them in the broth anyway.

At the hotel check in we were greeted with a cold towel and a glass each of refreshing lemon juice. Our bags had already been taken to our room, which is a traditional Japanese room with no beds: just a low table and a couple of floor chairs on a tatami (woven straw) mat. Later that evening, maids would push the furniture aside and roll out a couple of futon beds.

We went out for food, but failed to find the restaurant recommended by the man at the hotel. Instead, we ate teppanyaki, where the food is served on a hot plate in the centre of the table. We ate, in order of appearance: a ham salad; thinly-sliced potato topped with cheese; octopus; beef with garlic, mushrooms and asparagus; abalone (a strange-looking sea snail); king prawns with squid; and a slab of cabbage omelette with cinnamon (which is exactly as inedible as it sounds).

Day 4 Miyajima Island

Breakfast at the ryokan was exquisite. We both turned up dressed in yukata (summer kimonos), although most people were in normal clothes. Awaiting us at our table were trays filled with 14 different dishes, including broths, an eggy thing, some meats, a tiny stove with hot vegetables on, yoghurt, fruit etc. All of it was finely presented, as though arranged with tweezers. Unfortunately my yukata had no pockets, so I have no photographic evidence of this.

Speaking of photos… I later checked out of the hotel and was handed a small plastic wallet containing a postcard and a photograph of a young couple, in which the man looked very vaguely like me (a white guy with glasses). We all look the same, clearly! I politely accepted it, although I suspect they spotted their error within seconds when Matt appeared, looking nothing like the blonde lady in the photo.

We then walked to Nara station and boarded our first of four trains en route to Miyajima island. After settling into our seats, a western couple sat across the aisle. They seemed familiar. I looked at the photo from the ryokan and it was them. They were eastern European, though spoke excellent English, which was convenient because a failure of communication here could have created some weirdness when I handed them a photo of themselves.

After our fourth train, from Hiroshima to Miyajimaguchi, we boarded a ferry for Miyajima island (also free with our excellent JR rail pass). On exiting the ferry terminal, we spotted a people carrier with the name of our hotel on the side. A man jumped out, loaded our bags and drove us the 10 minute walk up the road to our hotel.

In Miyajima’s shopping street we found what claims to be the world’s largest rice scoop. It was about five metres long and presumably useless for handling rice. Still, the island is very proud of this claim to fame, so every shop sells (smaller) souvenir rice scoops.

Also popular in Miyajima’s shops are small chocolate filled cakes and grilled oysters. We ate one of each. I’ve never eaten oyster before. Grilled, they’re basically giant mussels.

Miyajima was relatively busy because we were visiting on the day of their biggest annual festival, Kangen-Sai. This involves a boat rowing from shrine to shrine around the island, before being greeted by a lantern parade after sunset.

The festival began with a box being carried by 10 men from a temple to the huge red shrine that stands out on the sand, accompanied by drumming and music. At low tide you can walk around the shrine, but the rest of the time it is surrounded by the sea.

After sunset, crowds began to gather by a smaller coastal shrine on the other side of the town centre. We were all given paper lanterns, lit by the local fire brigade and then waited for hours for the boats to arrive. It was all very calm and spiritual, but frankly quite dull.

Day 5 Hiroshima

The Japanese love to bow. It’s used instead of a handshake and as a general nonverbal greeting, thank you or acknowledgement. Most bows are small, firm nods of the head, though deeper bows are used sometimes, for example at Shinto shrines.

Leaving the hotel in Miyajima, we were flanked by lines of hotel staff wishing us well and bowing deeply, which felt a little over the top, but is just a small example of how innately polite and respectful people are here.

We ferried back to Hiroshima and headed straight for the peace park and museum. Until relatively recently, I’d assumed that Hiroshima was basically abandoned after the atomic bombing, and would, like Chernobyl, be too radioactive for humans to spend long there.

That’s not at all true. The levels of radioactivity were safe within days (not that it hadn’t caused enormous death and suffering in the meantime, much of which wouldn’t be evident for years or decades) and the city is once again a bustling, modern metropolis.

The peace museum is undergoing heavy refurbishment until 2018, but still provided a moving account of the horrors faced by the local people on that hot August day almost exactly 70 years ago. Many of the exhibits were items of clothing or possessions of the children killed by the bomb. They were often killed while conscripted to demolish buildings to act as firebreaks in case of American fire bombing of the sort that destroyed Tokyo.

Little Boy instantly released a vast fireball when it exploded 800m above the city, essentially a small star with temperatures to match. This caused heat rays travelling at the speed of light to burn almost every building within a 2km radius. If the hypocenter was Trafalgar Square, every building as far north as Camden Town, as far east as the City and right across the river into south London would be completely destroyed. A few km beyond this area would be partially destroyed.

140,000 people died by the end of 1945. Many of those burned in the initial explosion took days to die in horrible pain, their skin hanging from their bodies. Others suffered immense injuries when the pressure difference caused by the heat triggered a huge back draft.

If the initial bomb didn’t kill you, the radioactive ‘black rain’ gave you radiation poisoning that could take weeks, years or decades to manifest itself.

The UK has 225 nuclear weapons, each many times more powerful than Little Boy. The only purpose for each of them is to kill civilians on an unimaginable scale.

Around the museum is the Hiroshima peace park. In 1945 this was a bustling urban area, but was almost entirely flattened by the atomic bomb and turned into a memorial park afterwards. Thousands died almost instantly in this area, and a flame now burns here until the day we rid the Earth of nuclear weapons. An eternal flame?

At the northern end of the park sits the A-bomb dome. It was built in the early 20th century as a prefecture hall, and was just a couple of hundred metres from the hypocenter in August 1945. As the bomb exploded almost above it, most of the blast was directed downwards, allowing the walls to stay intact; it was pretty much the only building in this area not to be flattened. The building stands today (and forever, as decreed by the local government) as a monument to the dead.

Day 6 Ikuchi-Jima

We had two nights booked in Hiroshima, but after covering most of Hiroshima’s sights in one day, we decided to travel up the coast for the second day. We took a Shinkansen to Mihara, from where we took a ferry to the island of Ikuchi-jima.

Ikuchi-Jima is one of several small islands between the mainland of Honshu and the large island of Shikoku. Honshu and Shikoku are now connected by a series of bridges that hop between the small islands, making them far less isolated than they were 20 years ago.

The ferry to Ikuchi-Jima was a small boat with the interior decor of a 1980s static caravan. Getting the ferry was challenging, as few signs were in romanji (western lettering) and the lady in the terminal spoke little English. Major cities and tourist destinations have English translations on most signs, so this was an indication that we were leaving the normal tourist trail somewhat.

On the island we hired bikes and cycled the full perimeter (about 23km) before cooling down with some beers in a beach bar that mainly played western 80s music. Ikuchi-jima is a beautiful island and it was nice to leave the foreign tourist trail for a day.

Day 7 Osaka

Bathing in Japan is very different from at home. Most hotels have communal single-sex baths, even if the rooms are also en suite. As a westerner reading about these ‘onsen’, I was a little apprehensive.

Etiquette dictates that you first remove all your clothes and leave them with your bath towel in the changing area. The only thing you take beyond this point is a tiny towel that can (optionally) be used to cover yourself up. The towel is not large enough, however, to wrap fully around your waist, unless you happen to be a petite Japanese man.

You then sit on a little stool in front of a mirror and shower head, with dispensers for shower gel, shampoo and conditioner. A sit down shower is actually a very satisfactory experience and involves far less dawdling than in a standing shower, as the seated position and mirror make for a very focused wash.

Only after scrubbing yourself clean and rinsing all the soap are you allowed near the bath. At a traditional onsen, this would be natural hot spring water, but more likely it is hot tap water, maybe with added salts and bubble jets. Here, you relax for a few minutes and avoid eye contact with the other men in your bath.

Any apprehension quickly disappears during the first visit to an onsen as you learn that it is a very relaxing experience, especially after a long day in the summer sun. Whenever a hotel had an onsen I would make sure to pay it at least one visit. This was why, on our first afternoon in Osaka, we found ourselves at Spa World, which is half onsen and half water park.

The water park area (where everybody wears swimwear) was a very crowded swimming pool with a couple of big slides, each with a correspondingly long queue. We didn’t stay long, and instead headed for the men’s floor of the onsen, which this month was the ‘European zone’ (men and women alternate monthly between this and the Asian themed baths).

Essentially, it was a lot of different baths, steam rooms and saunas (including a salt sauna) spread across the 6th floor of the building. The baths varied in temperature from a chilly 18C in the Finnish bath, to 41C in the Roman baths. There was even a row of individual baths which appeared to deliver small electric currents.

A particularly bizarre experience was when we bought beers in the Germanian foot baths while watching a Japanese TV show about viral YouTube videos. A reminder that, throughout the spa area, the most anybody wears is a tiny towel and many forego even this. Please spare a thought for the barman, if only because it might displace some of the images currently in your brain.

Squeaky clean and relaxed, that evening we met up with a lady called Yoko outside a railway station Starbucks. She walked us to her apartment where she taught us how to cook Japanese food.

We ate cold roast wagyu beef (which was very rare and delicious) with salad, aubergine and a tofu dressing. There were meant to be scallops, but Yoko forgot them. This was washed down with a glass of sparkling sake, which was very tasty, mainly because it didn’t taste of sake.

Japanese people generally get drunk very easily, so this glass of sake led Yoko to take us to a local festival, where a man taught us a Japanese dance not entirely dissimilar to the macarena.

Day 8 Osaka

Japanese t-shirts are great. I don’t mean the ones that are in Japanese, as I have no idea what they say. I mean the t-shirts written in English (and occasionally French) that are widely worn in Japan. Many have inappropriate or poorly translated slogans, while others just have random English words. For example, ‘Hypothesis’ and ‘R&D’ were both t-shirts for sale in one shopping mall, along with ‘Pyrex 23’. I bought a ‘Math’ and a ‘With’ t-shirt.

I mock, but in the English-speaking world we are just as guilty. Our cookery teacher, Yoko, told us that the SuperDry Japan clothing brand is actually British, and the logo is nonsense (literally it translates as “Maximum dry (please do)”).

Cat cafes are an increasingly popular addition to cities in Japan. These are places where you can go and pet cats if you live in a tiny apartment (as many city dwellers do) that don’t allow cats. We didn’t go to a cat café. We went to an owl café. Here, we were given the opportunity to pet some owls, which we literally seized with both hands.

Osaka is a vibrant and modern city. We were staying in an AirBnB very close to the Dotonbori area, a glowing strip of restaurants, shops and bars alongside a canal. Halfway along we found a restaurant with low Japanese tables, with little trenches beneath them to dangle your feet in. In the centre of each table was a gas barbecue pit on which we could cook whatever we wanted from a long menu of meat, offal, seafood and vegetables.

We had had to wait around half an hour for a table, so I left my name at the door while we went for a wander. It is a well-known source of borderline racist humour that Japanese people often mix up L sounds and R sounds when speaking Engrish. According to Wikipedia, there is a complicated linguistic reason for this (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perception_of_English_/r/_and_/l/_by_Japanese_speakers), which explains why my name was written down as ‘Lope’.

Among other things, we ate chicken fondue (as in, we cooked bits of chicken then dipped it into a bowl of melted cheese) and beef that was cooked in candy floss and soy sauce, before being dipped in raw egg to enhance the flavour. Sweet, salty, umami-y goodness. Delicious.

Day 9 Kyoto

About 50km to the north of Osaka is Kyoto, which was Japan’s capital city for over 1000 years. Compared to other large Japanese cities it has a lot of older buildings, due to being largely spared from US bombing during WW2. In fact, it had a narrow escape: it had been the intended target of an atomic bomb, but was spared – apparently due to the US Secretary of War having honeymooned there. Nagasaki was bombed instead.

Japanese tea ceremonies are strange things. Proper ones can go on for four hours, with little chatting. The host and guests spend this time very slowly and carefully making and drinking tea, with little OCD twists such as rotating the cup a certain number of clockwise turns before sipping. The ceremony we went to was a much briefer affair, but I was still fighting to stay awake. A very calm experience, but I was not at all surprised to learn that the tradition is dying out.

That evening we found a sushi restaurant with conveyor belts. I’ve never been to Yo Sushi, but I suspect it’s a similar arrangement where you take what you want and pay based on the number of empty dishes you have at the end. Unlike Yo Sushi, the sushi was prepared in front of us by chefs, using some very fresh fish and seafood. Also, I suspect it was a lot cheaper, with each dish costing 180 yen, which is about 90p.

Day 10 Kyoto

On day 2 of this holiday I had torn my feet to bits with blisters, due to a poor decision when buying new sandals to replace my pair that had spontaneously fallen apart in the Tokyo heat. Every day since then we’d done quite a lot of walking, so my feet were pretty revolting by this point. This was why we hired some bikes instead of walking along the ‘philosopher’s path’ in Kyoto.

This path has loads of temples although, to be quite honest, by this stage I had acute temple fatigue. Japan has lots of temples and, though they are all exquisite, they are also all quite similar. Anyway, at the end of this trail sits the so-called silver pavillion of Ginkaku-ji. This was meant to be covered in silver, but its builder had run out of cash. It does have some nice gardens, though, including raked gravel beds.

From here we cycled west across the city to the golden pavillion of Kinkaku-ji. This actually is covered in gold leaf, making it look like a Premier League footballer’s iPhone. The temple was rebuilt in 1955 as the previous one had burned down. A rather high proportional of all the historical buildings we saw in Japan were actually modern replicas, either due to war or fire (or both).

The final leg of our cycle ride took us out of the west side of Kyoto to the district of Arashyama, famed for its bamboo forests and monkeys. We didn’t have the time or inclination to enter the monkey park, but we did wander briefly through the bamboo forests.

We had to rush back to Kyoto (on the train this time), as our second night here was being spent in a traditional ryokan, and this time we had paid for an evening meal. This was served to us in our room on a low table. An endless supply of dishes was brought in, some tasty and some completely revolting (I’m thinking mainly of the bogey-coloured, bogey-textured mysterious blob that came wrapped in its own little inedible pouch).

The meal was served by the owner of the ryokan, an overwhelmingly friendly lady in a kimono. After a while, her unrelenting helpfulness slipped over the line into just being a bit overbearing. It feels mean to complain about somebody who, on learning that you’ll be heading out shortly, has your shoes neatly laid out for you by the front door, and a range of appropriate leaflets and advice on standby. Perhaps I’m just an ungrateful bastard.

Anyway, we didn’t take her advice to go to a local festival, instead heading to the bright lights of Kyoto station to book seats on the following day’s shinkansen to Tokyo. On the way back, we passed a raucous sounding bar and decided to pop in. The owner was a quite mad lady who gave us sweets and kept asking us to like the bar on Facebook. She introduced the only man at the bar as a sushi cock [sic] and served us a couple of beers. The raucous sounds were coming from a large group of colleagues doing karaoke at the far end of the bar. One was already fast asleep (although, to his credit, he did get up and do a song before resuming his slumber) and the others were well on their way.

It’s a stereotype that Asian people can’t take their booze, although it’s not without truth. Up to 50% of Japanese people have inherited a genetic mutation that affects their ability to break down alcohol, causing red skin and drowsiness. There’s a nice summary here:http://www.accessj.com/2012/03/why-are-japanese-such-alcoholic.html

The bar owner started to make suggestions that we should have a go at the karaoke, but (sadly) the ryokan had a 10pm curfew so we had to dash off to avoid offending our overfamiliar hostess.

Day 11 Tokyo

We had purposefully left our main visit to Tokyo until the end of the holiday, and day 11 felt like the start of a short city break, rather than the final days of a longer trip. After checking into a brand new hotel in the Akasaka district in which we had been able to get a room each for only about £45 a night, we headed to Shibuya.

Shibuya is the home of a famously busy pedestrian crossing and the surrounding area is known for its vibrant nightlife. We headed for a bar called The Lockup, which I found on an internet list of quirky things to do in Tokyo. When you enter the bar, you walk along a dark passageway in which various creepy cabinets light up and haunting sounds are piped. At the end we found a woman dressed in a novelty policewoman’s uniform. She spoke to us in Japanese for a while, ignoring our confused expressions, before taking Matt’s wrist and clamping a handcuff around it.

We were led down another corridor into a small ‘cell’. On the table were menus with pictures and some sort of homemade doorbell. After a while trying to figure out what was happening, we pushed the button and summoned a waiter. We ordered a test tube rack filled with coloured drinks and a cocktail each. My cocktail was served in a measuring cylinder and had to be poured into a glass beaker containing a brain-shaped ice cube. Matt’s drink was served with a side dish of sugary snakes. Although the novelty factor was high, unfortunately all the drinks tasty mostly of undiluted fruit squash.

Moving on, we decided to track down a karaoke bar. We thought it would be a bit weird if we just hired a booth and sang at each other, so we were looking for one in an open bar. However, this search came to nothing and we found ourselves sitting in a tiny room near our hotel trying to figure out how to make the TV stop showing football and start showing karaoke. Eventually a waiter came and helped us, then we sang badly for a while, drank a bottle of appalling wine (that cost six times more than the karaoke) and left.

Day 12 Tokyo

Akihabara is a brightly-lit district in the north east of Tokyo filled with electronics shops, amusement arcades and maid cafes. The area developed a reputation for electronics after the war when shops there began selling spare parts for radios. It’s now the place to go, whether you’re looking to buy a PlayStation or an extension lead.

Occasionally you’ll come across a shop filled entirely with vending machines, of the sort where you put in a couple of coins, turn a handle a few times and then receive a plastic ball filled with a slightly-randomised item. Matt’s watch was out of action, so he put 300 yen (£1.50) into one of these machines to receive an Adventure Time watch. I was less practical, and instead set out to find the weirdest things sold by vending machine. In the end, I spent a total of 500 yen on a tiny plastic toilet and a plastic model of some sushi, in which the raw fish has been replaced by a cat.

On the fourth floor of the building across the alleyway from the vending machine emporium was a maid cafe. As you may guess, the waitresses in these cafes are dressed as maids, and they spend your visit doing cutesy things like dancing, offering glowsticks and encouraging customers to wear bunny ears. The other visitors were a bizarre mix of dining families, Japanese lads days out and one solo male having lunch. Almost everything cost money: entry was charged by the hour and we paid 500 yen to have a photo with our maid, the delightful Miaow Miaow (we didn’t have the heart to tell her that her chosen name was also the nickname of mephedrone).

Since this day had descended into a non-stop rollercoaster of kitsch Japanese pop culture, we headed to Shinjuku for a visit to the Robot Restaurant. This is not a restaurant, it is a stage show that assaults the eyes and ears with a lively, confusing, brightly lit dance performance, featuring robots, giant dinosaurs and dancing girls. Nobody should visit Tokyo without seeing this, though have a couple of beers (ideally from a bar that only serves drinks in plastic horns) first to ease your sense of confusion.

We then went to karaoke again.

Day 13 Tokyo

If day 12 was a day of pop culture, day 13 was to be a day of queuing. After much debate about whether it was appropriate to go to the other side of the world to spend a day in an American theme park, we went to Disneyland Tokyo. If you’re a fan of either queuing or Disney, I highly recommend it. I’m not especially keen on either, but we went on three of the four “thrill” rides, enjoyed them, then headed back to Tokyo mid-afternoon. Top tip: if you don’t care about sitting next to your friends and family, you can bypass almost the entire (3 hour) queue for Splash Mountain by going down the single rider lane.

For our penultimate evening in Tokyo we found a well regarded sushi restaurant on TripAdvisor, only a couple of minutes from the hotel. In the spirit of Disneyland, we had to queue for around 90 minutes for a seat at the bar. This involved collecting a ticket from a touch panel (written entirely in Japanese) and then waiting for the number to be called (in Japanese). I Googled what 140 is in Japanese, but it didn’t help much. In the end, Matt displayed the ticket in his top pocket and eventually we were called through.

The sushi was exquisite. It was prepared right in front of us using fish so fresh it was almost wriggling. One or two of the items were not to my taste, such as a weird crunchy yellow fish and a raw prawn, and there was a little too much wasabi on some of them, but otherwise an excellent, clean, refreshing meal.

Day 14 Tokyo

The Tokyo Skytree was built in 2012 and is the second tallest structure on the planet (after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai). It has two viewing platforms, one at 350m and the second at 450m. We joined a long Disney-esque queue to ride the lift up to the first platform.

The views were incredible. Tokyo feels relatively compact when you’re shuttling around from district to district, but from 350m in the air you can appreciate that this is the biggest city in the world (or, more precisely, the most populous metropolitan area). In every direction it stretches out as far as the eye can see, with many high rises adding to the dramatic views.

On a clear day it’s possible to see Mount Fuji, about 100km away. We had missed seeing it on both train journeys between Tokyo and Kyoto, but sadly it was too hazy to make out anything other than a vague mountain range.

After a wander through the district of Asakusa (home to many cookware shops, including the places where restaurants buy their fake plastic food from), we headed to the Imperial Palace. This sits in the centre of Tokyo, surrounded by vast gardens. To enter the palace itself you need advance tickets, but the east gardens are free and apparently worth a visit. We’ll never know, as we failed to find them. Either that or they were closed.

Around the palace are many government buildings, including the National Diet Building. We kept seeing this building marked on tourist maps and on subway exit signs. Was this a building dedicated to dieting? Was it about preserving Japanese cuisine? No, it turns out the Diet is the name of the Japanese parliament.

For our final meal in Japan we wanted one more taste of their incredible beef. It really is a thing to behold: every cut of beef is so much more marbled than beef in the UK and so full of flavour. We found another self-barbecue restaurant and set about working our way through several trays of beef. A delicious end to an excellent fortnight. Go to Japan, it’s super.