Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The road to Stalintown

When visiting Georgia my mum's advice was simple:

"Don't cause any trouble"

"But wait...What if I go to Gori, the town where Stalin was born and is still revered and worshipped like a God and somebody asks me my opinion about him?"

"Say Stalin? I've never heard of him. Say you don't know who he is."

"Then how would I explain why I ended up in this smallish out of the way town in Georgia?"

"Just say you are passing though. Say it is lovely place."


Joseph Stalin was born in Gori in the Russian Empire (now Georgia) in 1878. The present day town has a population of around 50,000 people and is somewhat of a shrine and memorial to the genocidal Soviet dictator. Stalin is of course Georgia's most famous son to everybody in the world apart from Manchester City supporters.

A marshrutka in action
Getting to Gori from Tbilisi was to prove something of a challenge. By far the most common way of getting around Georgia is in the hot and stuffy transit vans and people carriers that operate as shared taxis called marshrutkas (or marshitskas if you are in a bad mood). You see hundreds of these around Tbilisi, all heading off in various directions around the city. In theory they are all pretty organised, with numbers and routes, but to someone who can't speak Georgian or Russian it can be pretty difficult to work out and understand.

It seemed that the best way to get to Gori was to go to the metro station Didube on the edge of town. At Didube we were greeted with a giant, chaotic and sprawling market. Picking though the stalls we eventually found the place we needed, a giant patch of wasteground filled with hundreds of yellow and white transit vans. Speaking none of the local language, the only thing to do was to walk around repeatedly saying the name of the place. Of course it took about five seconds for us to be identified as clueless tourists. From then on we received all kinds of offers for guided tours, personal chauffeurs and so on - all for astronomical prices. Finally someone took pity on us and told us that to get to Gori we had to go to the other giant patch of wasteground filled with transit vans (of course!), so we followed him through the rubble and the chaotic market and quickly found someone making the journey. A small amount of Lari were exchanged and we sat in the people carrier waiting for it to fill up. Quickly it seemed we were ready to go.

When the driver got in the car he did something very unexpected. From his pocket he pulled out a huge butchers knife, showing it to his mate who was sitting in the passenger seat - they both laughed heartily. He then placed the knife in between the two front seats next to the handbrake, put the keys in the ignition and we were off. Nothing was mentioned about the huge knife for the rest of the journey but the glint from the afternoon sun on its considerable surface offered a constant reminder.

Note large knife and prayer beads
I was somewhat concerned but had done my research from several sources. Although Gori was invaded and taken over by Russia as recently as 2008 as part of a war between the two countries, I had read it was now completely safe and the only two remaining areas of dispute were Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the Russian border. Two places I definitely did not plan to go.

Instead of sweating the chance of being attacked by Russian bandits I should probably have been more concerned about dying in a car accident. The man behind the wheel with the big knife was an absolutely terrible driver, even by Georgian standards. I should probably list the rules of Georgian driving that I picked up while I was in the country.

1. Never ever indicate
2. The lanes drawn on the road are for guidance only
3. Traffic lights are a hindrance. Stop only when there is a significant number of people walking in front of you that you wouldn't be able to plough through them. Do this by slamming on your breaks at the last possible opportunity
4. While driving enjoy the stripey patterns drawn across the road. These have no significance apart from aesthetic design.
5. Shout a lot.
6. Wave arms manically
7. Use horn liberally

Stalin enjoys a casual moment
We were driving on a three lane highway. The scenery was lovely but I couldn't help but notice that the driver had chosen a path directly in the middle of the outside and the middle lanes. We were going pretty damn fast, the car shook and the prayer beads hanging from the rear view mirror clicked and clacked together. He was also having a very animated conversation on his mobile.

Even so there were still cars that wanted to overtake us. They did this by steaming down the small gap between us and the barrier in the outside lane with the horn blaring. Our driver was apoplectic at the cheek of people blaring their horn at him. Clearly he believed he was driving totally fine. My hands clenched holding on to the seat in front. Occasionally we 'changed lanes' by swerving violently. Every articulated lorry up ahead was a heart in the mouth moment.

It proved to be a long 50 minute journey but we arrived without serious incident. Disembarking from the vehicle we gave our thanks to the driver for not killing us and wished him a good afternoon.

And there it was in front of us in all its glory.... The Stalin Museum

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

There's a guy down the kebab shop swears he's Hitler (AKA Döner Darts Hitler incident)

There's a certain kind of a moustache which is a problem. You'd know it if you saw it. I'm talking about a shaved top lip on either side with a patch of quite thick hair beneath the nose remaining. Particularly if it's dark hair.

There can only be two acceptable moments when a man sports this moustache. Firstly when shaving, when you do all the other bits and you leave that bit there to see what it looks like. Importantly you must make sure everyone is out and NOT take a photo. Secondly, when going to a genocidal dictator fancy dress party and you haven't got the depth or volume of top lip facial hair to pull off 'The Stalin', nor the scraggly beard to go for 'The Genghis Khan'.

I was in the kebab shop this evening.

This is not unusual.

Tonight due to extreme hunger and a diverted train I was in a new establishment. The signs were mixed but taking the queue inside as a good omen, we dived in to shelter and hopefully to enjoy above average food (hey, I aim high).

At the front of the queue and just about to order was a man who had the aforementioned moustache style. Of probable Turkish descent, he wore a darts shirt, with darts jauntily sticking out his his top pocket. Balding a little, his hair was swept over in a severe side parting.

And then on his top lip, there it was.

The odd thing is that I don't recall ever seeing this facial hair before in my life. However this is the second time I've seen this in two weeks in Berlin.

It's difficult to know what to do in such circumstances. Being brought up in Birmingham I've come to learn that speculative opening conversational gambits in late night take away shops do not always have pleasant consequences, particularly if criticising the beliefs or appearance of the other party.

I pondered the consequences of leaning over and with a casual shrug and "entschuldigung" enquiring "Das ist ein Hitler Moustache, ja?" I also thought about taking a cameraphone photo, but then I remembered he was carrying darts in his pocket after all.

I didn't get chance to think about it too much, because soon Turkish Darts Hitler had ordered his food and was on his way. Perhaps that is the look he is going for in order to attract darts sponsorship? (after all there has already been a viking and a vampire). Maybe he likes the look and people are too polite to tell him. Maybe he is simply a Darts Nazi and that's all there is too it.

Whichever it was, I made a mental note to start dressing like Winston Churchill when I embark on my stint on the Berlin amateur darts circuit. I can sense a rivalry brewing already.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The inebriated Russian has landed

There he was in seat three. Bull necked, broad shouldered, shaven headed and clad in an expensive biker jacket. Several scars decorated his face and a glassy, lopsided but frankly quite threatening grin was spread across his face.

The empty glasses half filled with melting ice by his side and the fact that he was loudly singing songs in Russian were a sign. This man was drunk. Very drunk indeed.

It was after midnight. Approaching the money bubble in a turbo side event at EPT Prague. Surely the graveyard shift for any tournament director. The lady in charge on this particular evening struggled to contain the people on the rail who were of course also heavily drinking, shouting and frequently getting in the way. One man in a tracksuit even tried to break and balance tables and do her job for her.

Several drinks had already been spilled, glasses smashed and a weary waiter with a dustpan, brush and mop was on permanent standby.

The game was Texas Holdem with deuces wild. The same as regular Holdem except all twos either in your hand or on the board could be used as wild cards. In theory – five or even six of a kind could be made. And of course flushes, straights and full houses were far more easy to come by.

I'd never played this game before but after about 10 minutes I'd settled on the strategy of never playing a hand without a deuce in it unless on a bluff. Powerful traditional Holdem hands went down markedly in value and at one point in this tournament I even open folded pocket kings. Ridiculous of course under normal circumstances in any tournament other than the bubble of a satellite. Some people adapted quicker than others and some people engaged in quite deep strategy talk at the table which was surely a mistake.

Our Russian friend was getting into the spirit of the evening by singing bawdy songs in English and Russian and occasionally just swearing loudly at nobody in particular. He exuded no aggression, just a general air of Tourettish bonhomie, so generally he was tolerated by the dealers and the floor staff. He also insisting on calling me Donald and became the third person at the poker table within a few weeks to say I was a spitting image of a young Donald Sutherland. We shook hands several times to confirm our friendship. He bought me a drink.

Donald Sutherland (mixed game specialist)

Surprisingly he was playing well, very well indeed. In a short time at the table I'd seen him run a couple of quite skillful bluffs and make one excellent fold. His grasp of the wildcard aspect of the game seemed good and the fact that he was hammered and could barely string a sentence together made him tricky to read. In between hands he sometimes confusedly asked where we were or what tournament this was.

The problem came when we were down to 18 players and the tournament director asked us to move to the other side of the room to and have a redraw to play the final two tables. The Russian player faced some issues including stacking his chips, understanding where to go and walking in a straight line. We made it just about, but it was a struggle. I learned that making a drunk Russian bear of a man move from his seat when he didn't want to was a tricky process. I also intervened to stop him putting his tournament chips in his pocket on several occasions for fear he would be disqualified.

At around 3:30am I was knocked out just short of the final table when my ten-two was unable to beat the ace-two of my opponent. I managed to quickly sort out my winnings and was chatting to a couple of people I knew in the corridor when I heard the shout of “DONALD”. I turned to see the Russian guy running out of the toilet towards me and then attempting to rugby tackle me to the floor. Luckily I was able to largely avoid the impact, although he did succeed in grabbing me in the testicles, much to his amusement.

“Are you still in the tournament?” I asked him. He looked unsure, “I don't know. Am I?” he replied. I told him he better get back and check because he would be blinded out of the game.“You're right Donald” he exclaimed, before bounding off to the tournament room.

The following day I got up early on a lack of sleep to play the next side event at 12 noon. There he was at the venue, bright as a button, more coherent today and with no trace of a hangover. He had a vague idea who I was and had little memory of the final table the night before. All I know is that he outlasted me and therefore won more money than me. I asked him how he was able to be still playing today after a night of heavy drinking. The answer was simple. A shrug of the shoulders and an concise explanation.

“I am Russian. It is easy.”

Friday, 20 July 2012

Five minutes

I try to urinate every hour. Usually this lasts from 56 past to 57 past the hour. My bladder knows when it is time to go, at 50 past it is getting prepared, by 54 past it is positively bursting. In the izakayas of Tokyo my name is called aloud for its slow steady stream.

In these times my life is compartmentalised into five minute windows. Sometimes I cook eggs, mostly I make toast. If I'm feeling daring I might run to the spätkauf (the corner store), but a queue there causes the mission to buy snacks to be abandoned. If I'm feeling organised I will eat cold Vietnamese takeaway food that I bought earlier that day, giving a rueful look to my broken microwave.

At midnight I start to wonder if I will finish work before the good kebab shop closes. By 1:30 I know that only the crap one will still be open. At weekends there is the late night bakery and one can always walk in search of falafel. On a good night in the summer the birds begin to sing. When the sunlight starts peeking through I know I am up late enough to probably be making some money.

When playing online poker tournaments you receive a five minute break every hour. At the moment I am in the United States where playing online poker is illegal. Therefore I cannot work.

My life is now composed of hours comprising 60 minutes rather than five, but somehow I achieve less.

The sense of urgency is replaced by inertia. The sense focus replaced by a muddy confusion.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Albums of 2011

These are my favourite albums of 2011. I'm not saying they are the best, merely the ones I've listened to and enjoyed the most.

1. Glasvegas - Euphoric /// Heartbreak \\\

2. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

3. Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will

4. Cold Cave - Cherish The Light Years

5. True Widow - As High As The Highest Heavens And From The Center To The Circumference Of The Earth

6. Austra - Feel It Break

7. Anna Calvi - Anna Calvi

8. The Horrors - Skying

9. Zola Jesus - Conatus

10. EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints

11. White Lies - Ritual

12. Chelsea Wolfe - Apokalypsis

13. Eddie Vedder - Ukelele Songs

14. WU LYF - Go Tell Fire To The Mountain

15. Lykke Li - Wounded Rhymes

And I don't really like the album that much, but this is my favourite single and video of the year

She Wants Revenge - Take the World


But mostly I've been listening to Tindersticks. Their five disc collection of Claire Denis film scores was released this year. This is Another Night In, which is not part of this collection, but I like this mix with clips from the movie 'The Girl on the Bridge'

Lest We Forget

2010: Crystal Castles - II
2009: Manic Street Preachers - Journal For Plague Lovers
2008: Foals - Antidotes
2007: Calvin Harris - I Created Disco
2006: Yeah Yeah Yeah's - Show Your Bones
2005: LCD Soundsystem - LCD Soundsystem
2004: !!! – Louden Up Now
2003: Yeah Yeah Yeah's - Fever to Tell

Saturday, 30 July 2011

Austrian scumbags

I close my eyes.

The aroma of cheap hair gel and cigar smoke fills my nostrils.

I feel my face being scrutinised.

I hear the familiar click clack of poker chips, the drag of a cigarette and then the exhale.

Did he just breathe his cigarette smoke on me on purpose?

I pull the brim of my hat to cover my eyes further, try to remain still and control my breathing.

My opponent is clearly frustrated and I know he is probably going to fold.

I want him to fold. I try not to do anything, even to move.

I don’t want to give him any ideas about making a hero call.

Eventually, after a painfully long time, he folds.


I had heard the poker games in Vienna were good, so had travelled to the Austrian capital to investigate. A nine hour train ride with Swedish backpackers later and I was in the suburbs of the Austrian capital.

The Montesino Card Club is located in a very odd leisure complex, the centre piece of which is four large gas cylinders which have been decommissioned and converted for modern use. A couple are apartments and the other two are a shopping/retail complex. The idea is GREAT and the structures look absolutely awesome, but the execution is not the best and the shops inside are an uninspiring mix of drab chainstores and generic restaurants. There is a cool looking tattoo shop though.

The card club is on the other side of the street where is also a table tennis centre where you can hire a table and play, though I see nobody in there the whole three days I am in town. Advertising the poker club are posters promoting the chance to play with several random and most likely awful ‘live pros’ from German speaking countries. Oh and one of Sandra Naujoks.

Playing poker can really bring out the worst in people, myself included, and the players in Vienna were mostly a collection of highly unpleasant individuals. They also weren’t very good at poker.

One evening I got deeply involved in a €2/5 nl Texas Hold’em game into the early hours of the morning. The game had broken down to be played five handed. There was me, three middle aged Austrian guys and a quite tight guy who wasn’t really a factor as I mostly folded every time he entered a pot unless I had a big hand.

Playing shorthanded means you are paying the blinds more often so you have to play more hands. As people’s hand ranges open up, you get into more interesting situations where the skillful player should prevail. My online experience is mostly in 6-max games, so of course I love playing shorthanded at the casino.

I was maintaining my ideal casino persona, aggressive and mute - and had worked my stack up a little when the following hand occurred:

I have €600 in front of me and my nemesis has me covered. An Austrian businessman fish open limps and my bête noire makes it 35 from the small blind, I look down at T9 diamonds and call to take a flop in position. My nemesis is very loose and can have a wide range of hands. I prefer to see a flop rather than bloat the pot and open up the action again for him to put in a further raise. My hand flops very well. By that I mean I will likely hit the flop hard or not at all. I know if I do hit one pair that I am prepared to release the hand and move on. The limper folds.

A note about my nemesis: He clearly fancied himself in the role of table captain. Other players seemed to respect and even be in awe of him a little and he used this to his advantage. He looked remarkably like the character of Reg Hollis from long running ITV police drama The Bill, only with a lot more hair gel and gold jewellery. I could already tell he didn’t like me. We had chatted a little in English and it was apparent that the the Hugh Grant factor* wasn’t going to work on this occasion. He was highly suspicious of my story of being a tourist and stumbling into the card club.

As something of a rules nit, I'd already called the floor on two occasions to get a ruling. This had caused some annoyance amongst my opponents as they were in the main, a bunch of angleshooting scumbags.

Angleshooting is something that I detest at the poker table. I'm a big believer in ettiquette, fairness and playing within the spirit of the game. Secretly I wish I was a 19th century cricketer.

An angleshooter is someone who uses tries to use the grey areas of the rules of the game to their advantage, creating deliberately ambiguous situations that they can exploit. If they have more experience than their opponent, if they know the floorstaff, if they can intimidate their opponent, it is often possible to get away with many things.

This takes advantage of the fact there is not one universal set of rules in poker throughout the world. If they get caught there is always the smile and, 'oh sorry, I made a mistake'. The thing is, most of the time it is really small stuff, and I wonder why people even bother. It's almost as if trying to get away with small-scale cheating is part of the game itself. In my eyes, people who play poker like this are lowlife scum

-- Back to the hand --

The flop is 478 with two diamonds, giving me both a flush draw and an open ended straight draw. A huge flop for my hand.

There is 75 in the pot and ‘Austrian Reg’ leads out for 100. It is an oversized bet, far too big in fact, but I didn’t think it was any indication of the strength of his hand as he had bet on the large side several times since I had sat at the table. The problem with his betsize was that it left me with only one way to play my hand. Folding was clearly not an option and calling was not desirable as he was giving me a bad price and could well bet again on the turn and I would have to fold if I didn’t hit one of my outs. The only choice was to go all in, therefore I would get to see the turn and river for sure. It was a big all in and if ‘Austrian Reg’ has one pair (let's say his hand was Ace Seven), then he might choose to fold and I would get to pick up the pot without needing to hit my draw.

So jam it in his face and go all in for €565 and this is where the evening took an interesting turn. From this moment on Reg refused to talk to me in English and began cursing me under his breath in German. It was clear I had put him in a tough spot and I began to think perhaps he did have a big hand.

At this point I was very relaxed because I really didn't mind either way if he called or folded. I would prefer the fold, because then I pick up the pot uncontested, but I knew that if he did call I would have a tonne of outs and would probably even be a favourite to win the hand.

Eventually Reg called and flipped over two black queens and even though I had ten high, I was a slight favourite as I could hit any diamond, any jack or any six. In a cash game you don't have to turn over your hand when you are all in and on this occasion I chose to keep my hand concealed. Firstly I could muck my hand if I missed my draw to avoid giving away information and secondly if I got there, I would be able to flip up my hand and triumphantly show the winner. (Like I say, being in a casino brings out the worst in you.)

The turn was a nine, giving me even more outs and I got there on the river, flipped over my hand and scooped a sizable pot.

As someone who has played hundreds of thousands of hands online, the way this hand played out is extremely standard. However, Austrian Reg was furious.

I am familiar with the term steaming, but had not even seen someone steam as much as Reg did over the next few hours. He was angry, played with reckless aggression and verbally abused the dealers and other players. He still had the most chips at the table and I saw this as my chance to make my wages for the week and much more besides.

Greed is an ugly feeling to have, but it is one that can't be avoided if one plays poker. It is something I struggle with. Chips are used instead of actual money, but it impossible to divorce the two and if someone has a lot of chips in front of them and is playing badly, well it is a chance for you to take their money (something you should of course want to do). I now wanted to take the rest of the chips that 'Austrian Reg' had on the table and perhaps he had even more cash in his wallet. He was a man, a human being, albeit a seemingly not very nice one with too much hair gel and a penchant for gaudy gold jewellery - but at this moment I tried to think of simply the money in front of him that I could win.

I would like to believe that basically, at heart, I am a nice person - but over the next few hours I was locked into this game and there was no way I was going to leave, I tried to turn off my emotions and simply to take his money. He and the other players at the table were also trying to take my money weren't they? Right?

At this point the layout of the table was such that I was seated at one end in the 'two seat' and the four other players were seated at the other end in seats 6-9. One player decided they would like to have direct position on me and switched to the seat directly to my left. Fair enough. Another player decided they would also like to sit next to me and moved to the seat directly to my right. This made less sense, but it did have the effect of crowding me a little bit. Perhaps they were trying to intimidate me?

'Austrian Reg' took the opportunity to sit directly opposite to me, the perfect position for glaring. For the next few hours he delivered a masterclass in tilt. He entered every single pot I played, threw his cards at the dealer every time he folded and muttered under his breath about my bad play. His mannerisms became more ragged, his actions with chips more pronounced and violent. I concentrated on playing in a measured and sensible way. I managed to hit a few hands and take down some pots by making him fold on the turn or river, thus further adding to his frustration. His stack fluctuated as mine grew, and eventually the delicious sight as he reached into his wallet to reload.

The slowroll cometh

It was almost inevitable that he would get me back and so it proved to be the case. His style of playing was highly aggressive, even though he was steaming. This meant that he was going to at some point put me to some tricky decisions. I don't remember the exact details, but I do know that I overplayed my hand somewhat, he suckered me in and I went all in and he called. After the river, as I had made the last aggressive action in the hand, I turned over my cards. He was clearly waiting for this moment.

A pained expression, a furrowed brow and a shake of the head as he stares at the board. Another check of his cards and another furrow of the brow. Then the show to the guy next to him, the classic move, as if to say 'can you believe how bad I run?' But wait! The guy next to him points out that yes indeed, he does have the winning hand! How could he be so stupid, his hand is better than mine. HE HAS WON THE HAND! About thirty seconds after I show my hand, he now shows his better hand and breaks into an enormous lizard grin.

I had been slowrolled in the most epic fashion.

As Reg stacked up the chips from the pot, he took the opportunity to again speak English to me. Ah yes, the classic rubdown to finish it off. "Now we are even" he told me emphatically, "this is what you deserve." It was now my turn to glare.

It seemed with every chip he stacked, his body loosened, his tightness uncoiled and a sense of calm and control returned to his body. It was time for him to light up a cigar.

As for me? Well I was still a winner for the evening but the game was looking less enticing. It was getting late, I was getting tired and Reg was almost unstuck. Added to this, a new player took a seat in the game, he was young and seemed fresh and savvy and knew how to handle his chips.

It was time to bank my profit for the evening and bid goodnight to the Austrian scumbags.


I find myself increasingly wondering if I want to spend any more of my life sitting around a smoky table with a collection of unpleasant individuals. As online poker continues to seemingly unravel and collapse, it appears that if I'm going to continue playing, then it will be necessary for me to play more in casinos rather than have the shield of my computer screen. I'm not sure that is something I want to do, but that is a post for another day.

*The Hugh Grant Factor has served me well dealing with official people and cocktail waitresses in the USA. In a smoky Austrian cardroom it was less effective

Monday, 27 June 2011

Let Lisbon shake


Recently I saw PJ Harvey play in Lisbon, Portugal. It was a most excellent show.

Having been unable to secure tickets for London (sold out) and Berlin (German bureaucracy), I had resigned myself to not seeing PJ Harvey on this tour. When a show in Portugal was announced, I logged on and checked the seating plan. It was mostly sold, but there was one seat free on its own, centre 4th row. Well it would have been churlish not to buy it.

The venue was great. On the university complex, the theatre was a beautiful Art Deco building constructed during the era of right wing control of the country, as it seemed did most of the buildings in the university.

Firstly I must comment on the high quality selection of pastries behind the bar inside (you wouldn't get that at the Academy), next on the reasonably priced beer, drank in very small glasses as elsewhere in Lisbon. My seat was more of an armchair, with a great view of the stage. The venue even had wifi, so I sent some email whilst waiting for the show to start.

For this tour, Polly Harvey was joined by long-term collaborators Mick Harvey and John Parish, as well as Jean Marc Butty on drums. It was an impressive line up of accomplished musicians and they produced a wonderful show. Of course drawing heavily on material from latest album 'Let England Shake', there were some good choices of old favourites.

The reaction of the crowd was interesting. A lot more muted than at a UK show but extremely warm and passionate. Respectful. Reverant.

Polly used an autoharp on several songs, which is an instrument that I can't quite work out but intrigues me all the same.

I really enjoyed the show and Lisbon as a whole. A most captivating city!

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Full house

Swedish poker players are the amongst the most fearsome opponents in the world. It seems that in the realm of apartment hunting, they are also not to be messed with.

My search for an apartment has taken me all over the city of Berlin. From the working class district of Wedding, where I wanted to rent a studio where the shower was in the kitchen, but was passed over in favour of a Brazilian lesbian couple. To the quiet streets of Kreuzkoelln, where I was very much into an apartment next door to a sex shop, belonging to an Irish roller derby girl - but sadly she chose to rent it to her friend.

One recent sojourn took me to the south side of Neukoelln - Berlin's Turkish district. The renter this time was an abrasive Irishman called Niall, who was going travelling and then moving to a different area of Berlin. The bonus for me with this one, was that he said he would make an introduction to his landlord, so that when his lease ends in June it can be taken over.

I was into that idea, so I took the train down to meet him at 7:15pm. Arriving a little early, I wandered around the neighbourhood in the early evening drizzle. It was quiet and residential with little of interest there. As I skulked about the area, I spotted an official looking man with a Manila folder doing the same. I wondered what his deal was?

When 7:15 came, I rang the bell with no answer. After trying again, I was about to give up when then man with the folder approached me "Are you Niall?". Then another guy approached and we both asked "Are you Niall?"

When it became clear that none of us were Irish or called Niall, we realised that we had all come to look at the apartment. Niall had triple booked us all and then seemingly not turned up. As the rain increased in ferocity, I was about to cut my losses and move on, when Niall appeared on his bicycle. Slightly dishevelled and apologetic about being late, he ushered us inside.

"Well I'm late but one of you is definitely early" he quipped as we crammed into the hallway and he put his bike away in the basement. Up in his apartment things were no less awkward.

Niall gave us the tour around the compact, unremarkable, but perfectly acceptable apartment. "I've heard rumours that this area of town is rife with drugs, prostitution and gangs" he told us, "and if that's the case, I'm disappointed, because I've not seen any of it and it would make this area a darn site more interesting!"

Nicely done sir, nicely done.

After he gave us the lowdown and a quite funny account of his neighbours, it was time to get down to business. The brusque Irishman wanted to get it all sorted it seemed and was about to leave the country in the next few days. He was all business and very precise about the details, which is exactly what I look for in a sublet.

The four of us stood in a quite cramped circle in his hallway and the awkwardness factor was turned up to 11.

I had been quite frustrated in looking for an apartment in Berlin. Whilst not amazing, this place would probably do me fine, plus I was tired of looking. But what was my move here? I would have to fall back on my poker skills to try and seal the deal on this one.

The American was in early position (by the front door) and was the first to speak. He enquired about the lack of washing machine in the apartment. Niall somewhat unconvincingly told him that the water bills from the washing machine were too big. "I do my laundry every two weeks" he proudly announced. "I just go to the place down the street. It is cheap and takes an hour or two."

My opponent seemed unimpressed by this situation and muttered something about being in touch before stepping outside into the hallway. In other words - he folded preflop. It was now left to me and the Swede to battle it out for the pot.

Next to act, I opened with a raise by telling Niall that I liked the apartment and I would be interested in taking it. The Swede, inscrutable and calculating, called my bet by also informing Niall that he liked the place and would certainly be interested in subletting it from him.

It was time for Niall to deal the flop.

Niall reiterated that he was about to go away and he wanted to get it sorted out. He was looking for someone solid that wouldn't be any trouble to his landlord and that could get the rent and deposit sorted out with in the next couple of days. He again mentioned that he could perhaps arrange possibly taking over the lease when his contract finished at the end of June.

It's fair to say that Niall had dealt quite an action flop there.

First to act, I decided to make a play for the pot. I told Niall that I was living nearby, so it was no problem for me to sort it out in the next few days. I informed him that I would like to sublet for the full two months and that a deposit was also no problem.

Unfortunately, it seemed the Swede was in no mood to be forced out of this pot. Using his positional advantage (by the lounge door and therefore closer to the table where business transactions might take place and further away from the front door), he explained that he had been receiving disability payments after an accident. He then rolled up his shirtsleeve to show a perfectly fine looking wrist.

I eyed him suspiciously.

He continued by adding that he was moving to Berlin because he really liked the city, he was happy that spring was here already (using the weather as a conversational piece - a classic move that I had overlooked on this occasion) and that he would also rent for the full period and had the financial means for this to be no problem.

It was a healthy raise from the Scandinavian and he gave me a sideways look as if to say 'well what are you going to do now then, huh?'

It was time for me to get serious and bring out the big guns. I told Niall that I could sort all of this out with him tomorrow, whenever was convenient. I could pay in cold hard cash and it would be no problem paying the deposit and rent upfront, before he went to Rome. I would be able to move in next week. I could provide references from previous people I had rented from to confirm my reliability. Niall nodded and turned to the Swede. Surely he wouldn't be able to compete with my healthy re-raise?

Cool as a cucumber, the Swede countered my play with ease.

He told Niall that he was currently staying in a hotel and therefore could move in as soon as possible.

Mightily impressive by my Scandinavian opponent, but surely Niall wouldn't give him the apartment just because he would move in first by a few days?

But there was something that I had forgotten in the tension of the negotiation...

~The Manila folder~

The Swede claimed that in the folder were all his documents, bank statements and references that Niall could examine. He also flashed a glance of some money in his trouser pocket, saying he could pay Niall the full amount right now, so he could have it all sorted this evening.

The Swede had made the ultimate move. He'd gone all in.

There was nowhere left for me to go. I'd been defeated by the ultimate Scandinavian weapon. Efficiency.

I made a vague and perfunctory promise to Niall that I would email him in the morning to discuss things. But we both knew the deal was already done and this was to save face on my part.

I hadn't seen the contents of the folder or the full extent of the euro shaped bulge in pocket of my Swedish foe, so he could have been bluffing with a folder full of newspaper clipping and a pocket full of monopoly money. And was the claiming benefits line all some kind of elaborate ruse?

Whether he had a real hand or not, in this uncomfortably cramped hallway he had played his hand strongly and aggressively, leaving me with no way to win the pot. I was faced with only one possible decision.

Stepping out into the stairwell, I bid them both good evening and went on my way.


Phill: folds
Sw3d30nB3nef1ts78: wins pot uncontested

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Rock, paper, scissors pwnage in Yokohama

I spent three days couchsurfing in Yokohama with Hanna and Atsushi. They proved to be most excellent hosts.

The first night we sat on the floor around a table Japanese style and ate a homecooked meal prepared on a portable stove. But not just any table! Japan seems to be a nation that doesn't understand the term 'central heating' but they compensate for this in several ways. One of the most interesting being a heated table. A small circular table covered by a blanket. Underneath an oasis of warmness! So wrap the blanket around your legs and let the warmth wash over you (Well your legs at least)

The meal was delicious. Sukiyaki - Beef, vegetables and noodles cooked on the stove and then dipped into raw egg. Yum.


I stayed in Hanna and Atsushi's guest room complete with tatami mat, futon and Japanese style slide doors. The apartment was pretty huge by Japanese standards and I felt very comfortable and at home. They were great hosts! We watched some Japanese TV and I was exposed to enka, a traditional style of Japanese singing. This style seemed to involve two key ingredients - blazers and crying. The songs were so emotional that several of the singers were simply overcome and burst into tears, either whilst chatting with the host before they sang, or preferably during the songs themselves. The singers and audience were largely of the 50+ category, with many of the males clad in Alan Partridge style blazers. Back of the net.

The next day it was off to something I was looking forward to a lot. The Ramen Museum! Inside we were straight into an educational talk from a man in a white scientist coat about the history of ramen and how it was made. He frequently quizzed the audience in the manner of a university lecturer testing slightly disinterested pupils. We got to try several of the ingredients that make up ramen and got to see several quite excellent graphs and visual aids. In fact I'd have to say visual aids seem quite an important part of presentation in Japan. Watching the news the evening before with English translations, we got to see a variety of props to help illustrate the erruption of a volcano earlier that day. Several of them were somewhat amateurish in their appearance, but to me that added to the charm.

Downstairs was a couple of fake streets from 1950s Tokyo, complete with sound effects and people in period dress. It was quite a fun diversion, but there was something I was here for.

Must. Eat. Ramen.

Eight different shops from around Japan were represented and you could even buy a small bowl, giving you the stomach space to sample more than one.

First, on Hanna's suggestion, we tried a Miso Ramen. It was my first miso ramen of the trip and I liked the little added kick to the taste. This one also came with some nice spice and was an enjoyable bowl.

Next was onto a bowl from the town of Kawagoe in Saitama. It was somewhat of a coincidence that this shop was represented as I'd visited their main venue the week before. The shop was called Gangya and was run by Japanese rasta guys. I'd visited the shop with Brian, a man who loves ramen and who's knowledge of the food and Japanese food in general is extensive. I'd become a big fan of Brian's Ramen Adventures blog and had mailed him to ask if I could join him for lunch sometime.

The shop in Kawagoe was interesting. It was tiny, seating only 11 people and servied meals in sittings. 11 people gave their order at the door and were then seated. Whilst they were eating, the next 11 gave their order and all went in together when everyone had finished. The popularity of the shop and its small size meant that we waited perhaps 45 minutes to be seated, but it was worth it. I asked Brian to choose and he selected the tsukemen, a bowl of thick noodles that you dip into the broth yourself. This particular broth was extremely fishy and absolutely delicious.


I ate as fast as I could, but I was still the last person to finish in our sitting. As Brian describes on his blog, he had to rush to another part of town to give an English lesson so wolfed his bowl down in record time before running to the train station.

Afterwards I had a chance to wander around Kawagoe and check out some of the old buildings. It had a nice old town with some peaceful temples, graveyards and a wooden tower that reminded me of playing the computer game Age of Empires.


I was delighted to get another chance to try the tsukemen. And whilst not quite as good as I remember the bowl tasting out in Kawagoe, it was still delicious.

Belly full, it was time to think about moving on. In the fake town square, a group of people gathered and standing on the periphery, I was drawn in.

It seems there was some kind of rock, paper scissors championship about to take place. A trophy appeared to be on offer for the winner and I wanted to win it and take it back to Europetown. We were split into three teams. The leader of my team was a homely looking lady in a kind of chef outfit. The two other leaders were a schoolgirl and a scary old clown man. An MC stood on a box directing proceedings and we were away.


I was expecting this thing to be over in a few minutes but it turned into an endurance fest. We went through several rounds of matches trying to gather as many small flags as we could. Occasionally there were double or even triple flag rounds, but I was getting my arse kicked. Hanna later told me that people play rock, paper scissors in Japan from a very young age, so I was clearly at a disadvantage much as a Japanese person would be if they played me at conkers.


I did not win the trophy, but at the end of the game (which probably lasted half hour), I felt like I'd had a physical and mental work out!

One of the things I'd wanted to do on this trip was to visit Cosmoworld - A small theme park in the centre of Yokohama that featured in one of my favourite music videos of all time. Motorcycle Emptiness by the Manic Street Preachers.

Sadly, for a reason that I do not know, the park was closed so I didn't get to have the chance to be a geeky fanboy and try to recreate scenes from the video.


I consoled myself by walking through Chinatown. Yokahama has a pretty large Chinatown and it was cool to take an early evening stroll and enjoy the atmosphere. A TV news crew were filming something there so I snapped a picture.


Later on that evening, Hanna and Atsushi took me to somewhere that I'd have never found myself. The entrance was non-descript. It looked like a garage. Well it was basically a garage.

Inside was a bar, but a bar with a difference. This particular joint was run by two 80 year old ladies and it was a bar serving only one drink - SAKE! And to add to the lack of choice, only one kind of sake was on offer. This was my kind of place!

The premise was simple, you were allowed up to three glasses maximum - which were poured out of a large teapot by the waiter. As you were drinking, you could enjoy snacks - I don't think you got to choose which ones. After three drinks, that was it, you weren't allowed to drink any more. The place also closed at around 10pm. This was responsible drinking and we sat on the tatami, enjoyed our snacks and sake with the business guys and other regular customers. It was pretty awesome and something I will remember fondly from my trip.

Thanks Hanna and Atsushi!

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Sweaty Dutch men in latex

It started normally enough. I met a guy called Ben through Couchsurfing and we got talking about a venue I'd been to called Superdeluxe.

"I'm DJing there in a few weeks. There's some kind of Dutch electronica, it should be interesting..."

The seed was planted and then this morning I remembered it was on. I emailed him and he put me on the door for half price entry. What a nice guy.

I'd been Superdeluxe before, to see a man play a 30 minute improvised organ solo, so I knew this wasn't generally a mainstream venue. Little did I know the delights that were to come though.

Upon arrival it became clear that this was some sort of Dutch cultural showcase, there were people there from the embassy and it appeared that a lot of the acts had been funded in some way by the Dutch government.

First was a rather dry presentation about some kind of interactive 3D virtual art. So far so good and no hint of the oddity that was to follow.

Ben was DJing in between the acts and he was really good, mixing up styles and dropping in samples. I enjoyed his work.

Next was the token Japanese guy for the evening. His act was simple. A backing tape of speed metal, which he shouted and screamed along to for about 25 minutes. It was quite exceptional!

After another DJing slot it was on to the next act. A musical duo with a different. The first guy was on decks and samples, so far so normal. But the second guy had a fluorescent tube light that he had some how rigged up to a set of effects pedals and could produce different sounds by touching different parts of it and touching it to different surfaces. Kind of like an extreme version of a theremin, with added lighting.

It was a pretty cool set and the visuals from the light flicking on and off were also great.

The guy next to me was really into it. A middle aged guy, he looked very Dutch, kind of a Dutch hipster, or a hiijpster if you will. He grooved along to the music, his dancing augmented by excellent choice in knitwear.

Next were a series of very odd videos, but before that a simple summary of Dutch history that is probably not endorsed by the tourist board.

"In the 17th and 18th centuries we were famous for exporting slaves. Now we are famous for drugs"

One video in particular triumphed in the oddness stakes. Several sequences featuring characters from Renaissance artwork hanging out with business guys in suits and skinheads, all drinking and taking lots of drugs. Oh and the soundtrack was a cover version of 'No Limits' by 2Unlimited. As a way of promoting the Netherlands to the population of Tokyo, it was somewhat of an alternative vision.

But the crowning moment of the evening was to come. Somehow I was distracted and didn't see people setting up on stage. Then when Ben the DJ stopped, I saw the middle aged dancing hiijpster guy up there, only now how was wearing what can only be described as a latex jogging suit. The white tennis shoes were a nice touch.

He was joined by another guy in latex and a person of indiscriminate gender in a pink wig, pvc, fishnets and one boot.


The music was an relentless techno/metal mix and latex jogging guy danced like a maniac. To me he resembled Bez from the Happy Mondays, only how he is now, and on a bad acid trip. Oh and in latex obviously.

His male bandmate handled most of the vocals and the pink wigged androgynoid handled samples. Latex jogging guy concentrated on what he did best, very enthusiastic dancing.

The performance was backed by video screens flashing up various images and selection of words that a 13 year old boy might consider dangerous. SEX, GREED, MONEY, FUCK, MURDER

During the course of the set there was lots of writhing around, screaming and the pink wigged lady spanked latex jogging guy with a plastic AK47 assault rifle. Awesome!

The music, if we can describe it as such, was pretty tuneless and bad. But the visual act was something that cannot be adequately described by this humble writer.


To all Dutch taxpayers reading this, I'd like to say thank you for funding my excellent evening of entertainment.

And next time you pay your taxes, think about how 0.0001% will be going towards the cleaning costs for a very sweaty latex jogging suit.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Lost in the supermarket, nasal (rites of) passages and the pensioner police

I've been a long term critic of supermarkets in Berlin, so it is time to redress the balance. Supermarkets in Japan are awesome!

Mainly I've shopped in 'combini' stores. These are small corner convenience stores that are open either really late or 24 hours a day. In the UK or the US this would probably mean they were stocked with booze, pringles and cigarettes, but here there is a wide variety of food on offer, some of it even fresh and healthy.

My favourite is Lawson, but there are 4 or 5 different chains literally all over Tokyo. For the traveller it is pretty great.

Tokyo blogger Kevin Cooney gives his opinion on 'combinis' below. TokyoCooney is my favourite source of information about Tokyo. He has made tonnes of videos about all aspects of life in the city. Recommended!

In Yokohama I grabbed lunch from as small supermarket and I was pleased with my haul.

Hot weak lemon drink £1


Baked sweet potato cooked on hot coals inside the supermarket £1.20


Tasty sushi with a sachet of soy sauce, pickled cabbage and a dash of wasabi £2.50


Not bad I'd say, but there is a problem. I've read and been told, that it is actually quite rude to eat in the street in Japan. When you are buying most of your food from supermarkets and don't have anywhere to live then this proves to be a problem. I have generally been trying to find a discreet bench on which to munch my bounties, but benches and places to sit down also seem to be sparse.

On this occasion I was able to find a suitable spot and cracked open the hot weak lemon drink (a habit that is eating into my poker profits as I am drinking one bottle of this per hour when I play).

As I eat I observe another Japanese city phenomenon. The pensioner police! This particular guy is wearing a green armband, a peaked cap and some kind of ID badge. I'm not sure what his official role or title is, but it seems he is there to preserve order in this sleepy Yokohama suburb. In this case, order means that making sure the bikes in the bike rack are exactly symmetrical. I have to say that I thought the standard of the bike parking in this rack was quite high in the first place, but it is not good enough for him, and he adjusts several bikes so they are aligned. People generally don't lock up their bikes in many parts of town (with the pensioner police, your cycle is safe!), so he has a free reign to rearrange the cycles at his will, making the streets of Yokohama a better place. I know he instantly clocked me the moment I sat down, and I'm sure he is watching me like a hawk to make sure I don't leave rubbish.

And that isn't as straightforward as it seems, as there are absolutely no trash bins in Tokyo and nobody seems to know why. Some say it is because of terrorism, others because they want people to take their trash home. Some people just shrug at me when I ask. I've walked around for hours, pockets full of rubbish and nowhere to put it.

I have been suffering from a cold the past few days and again have faced another etiquette situation. It seems it is highly rude to blow your nose in public in Japan. I guess this makes sense but it begs the question, what are you supposed to do if you have a cold? I see a lot of people around with the face masks, especially on the subway train and considered getting one. Sadly people only seem to have them in white and I'd prefer black myself.

Instead what I have been doing is going down dark back alleys to blow my nose. The shame of it!

This time I thought I'd found a good secluded spot. I pulled my tissue out of my pocket, took one last glance around to make sure the coast was clear, before letting rip with my nasal excretions. Unfortunately, just at that moment, an old lady walks straight around the corner into my path. The look on her face was priceless. You've heard the phrase 'she looked daggers at me', well in this case it was samurai swords. Horrified! Her expression was akin to her walking around the corner and seeing me defecating onto a picture of the Japanese Royal Family. She hurries off muttering under her breath.

I have no desire to offend anyone, but what's a guy with a cold meant to do in this town?

Of course it is pretty much impossible for me to avoid standing out here. My friend John said he felt like a monster when he was here. I tend to agree. And of course it is impossible to follow every part of Japanese etiquette, no matter how hard I try, but I am thankful to receive a 'gaijin pass' from time to time.

Certainly there is no way I would ever be able to get away with a crime in Japan:

Police chief: "So, we are looking for a tall white guy with long blonde curly hair"
Officer: "Well there are only two people that fit that description in the whole of Japan"
*Shows him the files*
Police chief: "uh huh"
Officer: "I checked the alibi of Thor the Norwegian blues guitarist. He had a show that night"
Chief: "RIGHT! Case solved! Bring Huxley in. We'll show him the error of his noseblowing ways..."
Officer: "No problem Sir. Right after I've given directions to this queue of tourists. Where's my big, red pointy glow in the dark stick?"

Monday, 31 January 2011

A random evening and a very brave dog

I have been meeting people from Couchsurfing most days here in Tokyo and it has been a real lifesaver. From my experiences so far, Japan is a very difficult society for a foreigner to penetrate. I am constantly aware of my outsider or 'gaijin' status as I tower over everybody on the street and am faced with the language and cultural barriers.


Saturday sounded promising. Someone posted on the messageboard that she was going for a night out and did anyone want to come? Of course I did and she told me to meet her at 8 at the Hachiko statue. It is worth mentioning Hachiko for a moment, as it is not every day that a dog gets a statue in a prime location in the middle of a major city. Hachiko used to meet his owner every day after work at the station. When his owner died at work suddenly one day, Hachiko continued to wait at the station each day for him to return. This lasted for nine years! Very impressive and ranks him up there with Bobbie The Wonderdog of Silverton, OR as one of the bravest dogs of all time, earning him a place as one of the eight most faithful dogs in history. Incidentally I've now seen statues commemorating three of these dogs!

Well our guide for the night couldn't make it, so meeting at Hachiko I found a mute Frenchman (MF) and a seemingly slightly agressive, though friendly Russian girl (SATBFRG) - Not really a recipe for a great night out in Tokyo, but I was determined to press on.

Of course, none of us knew anywhere to go and faced with a wall of indecisiveness, or in the case of the mute Frenchman, a wall of silence - I took the lead and led us to Freshness Burger, where I could enjoy a ginger milk tea and a 'Beans Burger'

Well I only knew one bar, so it was back to the Beat Cafe I had visited the previous weekend. The Beat Cafe is the size of a large cupboard, but we managed to grab a seat at the bar before it completely filled up. In the corner a group of boorish Brits played drinking games and I tried to ignore them. The DJ was an be-hatted older guy who played some great music from his laptop, strongly stipulating - no requests!

As the night progressed I talked to the French guy a little in a mix of English and French. In turns out he's recently been ranover and used his compensation to come to Japan and learn Japansese and he was a very nice guy. That's the second coolest story of what to do with compensation I've heard - The first being my friend Dean who used a chunk of his to buy a load of kickass CDs to donate to his local library.

I was really enjoying myself at the bar, it was packed and fun, and struck up a conversation with two Japanese girls, one of whom who had just flown in from Stockholm that afternoon. A group of Canadian English teachers from Seoul also befriended me and began to buy me a few drinks!

The one unfortunate thing about Tokyo is that it doesn't have 24 hour public transit. It seems quite an omission in a city of this size and dynamism. So approaching 12, people are faced with the decision, go and grab the last train or stay out until the early morning.

Well I was having a great time, so I decided to go for it and stay out for the first time on this trip. MF decided to join me, but SATBFRG, frustrated that I didn't know anywhere else for us to go (I hate being in charge of a night out), and was ignoring her a bit, bailed and went to get her train leaving me with my new 'friends'.

I guess there is a danger when you do this of your night going south and soon the Japanese girls left and the Canadians got progressively drunker. They decided to go to another bar and we followed them. It turns out that Japan were at this moment playing Australia in the Asian Cup final (the equivalent of the European Championships) and we got to the bar just as extra time was starting.

Well Japan grabbed a late winner and the bar went crazy (in a polite Japanese way) - Now somewhat regretting my decision to stay out all night, MF and I hit the streets and found ourselves in the midst of quite hearty celebrations. Awesome!

I was looking for somewhere to hang for the next few hours so set off to find a 'Manga Kissa' - a 24 hour internet cafe where you hire a booth with dvd player, computer and all the comics you could ever want. Oh and the key is it is a darkened room with a very comfy chair, ideal for snoozing. MF and I hit our respective pods and I told him to give me a knock at 6am, before dozing for a few hours.

On the way home there was limited carnage on the streets and the early morning trains were a mix of people going to work and people on their way back from a night out. I slept most of the next day, blowing my plans to go to the Parasite Museum.

À bientôt!

Sunday, 30 January 2011


Most tourists go to Asakusa, but it is actually the area of Yanaka that has the highest concentration of temples in Tokyo. Perhaps it is the fact that they aren't quite as beautiful as the ones in Asakusa, perhaps it is because the area is largely unremarkable and is wedged in between the railway tracks. But during my visit I saw very few other tourists.

Previously I'd picked up a walking tour guide from the central tourist office and planned to follow it. But first, it was time to go to the graveyard. The cemetery in Yanaka is pretty damn huge. Next to it is a temple which I had a look around before going to hang out with some dead people.


Some of the gravestones were pretty massive, standing at around twenty feet high. A tad excessive I'd say!


In the spring this is a prime cherry blossom viewing spot, but now it was a bit barren and chilly. That didn't stop three old guys just hanging out, one of them playing some kind of flute.



On to the temples and shrines and it was cool to just walk around what is mainly a residential area and check them out.


One in particular though, I won't forget. I heard some chanting as I went towards the building and it soon transpired there was some kind of ceremony happening. About 15 guys in suits sat one one side and on the other were the two people conducting things. Of course I don't know the exact words for what was going on, so I will just try and describe.

Well I was mesmerised by what was going on and stayed there, at a respectful distance, for about half hour. It seemed the two guys in robes were blessing each person in turn, there was a very lengthy and precise way of doing this involving chanting, flowers and some kind of font at the back. It was awesome to see.

The whole time I was the only person watching. The area was silent, save for the hum and noise from Nippori railway station below.


Further along, the map took me through the centre of a school where it just happened to be time for sports. Gangs of kids ran around, some sprinting, some doing a long run, some doing press ups and sit ups. There was baseball practice going on, so I watched for a while, being English and all. One kid sat on his own, somewhat disconsolately. I wasn't really sure why or if he was waiting for someone but I did manage to get him to crack a smile.


Then I went on to the shopping area of the district. It seemed quite a working class and old fashioned area, far removed from the neon of Shinjuku and Shibuya. There were lots of stalls selling different types of food and people doing their shopping.

Turning the corner I saw a sign saying 'Tourist Information - English". Wow! I'd hit gold here and I went to enter the building. Sadly it appeared to be closed. As I was about to walk away a guy ran up to me and explained that this shiny new tourist office wasn't open yet - it was actually opening tomorrow! Talk about a bad beat.

All those leaflets and brochures taunted me from behind the glass.

He was very nice though and we chatted for a few minutes about this area and the UK. He gave me a tip as to where to get some sushi, which I ate on a bench enjoying the mix of tast fish and the chilly winter air.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Sunday in Tokyo

In Tokyo it is statistically more likely you are going to run into a giant pink cat pulling a suitcase, than in any other city in the world. FACT!




Saturday, 22 January 2011

Tokyo nights - 7, 8, 9 and 10

As my sleep schedule has adjusted I've been going out more in the evening. Four nights in a row I went out to different parts of Tokyo to meet people from Couchsurfing.

On Wednesday I meet Yuki in Korea Town and she gives me a tour of the neighbourhood. There is tonnes of merchandise for the latest Korean pop artists that seem to be pretty big over here, as well as the smells from Korean food.

I soon discover Yuki has similar taste in music as me, as well as being a big football fan. She is going over the the UK in March to catch a Premiership match and of all places, she has chosen to spend a few nights staying in West Bromwich. Now I think it is safe to say that West Brom puts Tokyo to shame when it comes to a plate of faggots and peas, but I'm struggling of thinking what else? I'm certainly experiencing cultural differences here in Japan, but I'd love to hear how Yuki gets on with the Black Country accent.

We take a lift to the top of the Tokyo Government Building where you can see great views over the city. On a clear day you can see Mount Fuji and by night the city is illumiated below us.


We eat Japanese pancakes and then go to a meetup with about thirty couchsurfers from all around the world The bar is a kind of lame cowboy theme bar, but the company is good and I hang out for a while and swap travel stories.

Thursday sees me take the train over to Roppongi. This is known as the district where westerners congregate in Tokyo and contains a lot of bars and developments. I meet J Lee and Sumit from couchsurfing and we go for ramen (of course). Next it is on to Superdeluxe to see a man and his organs.

Morgan is an eccentric old British guy who has been playing at the venue every month for the past seven years. His show consists of freestyle improvisation on keys, organ, percussion and vocals - sampled and looped, distorted and made into what is actually a great show! I managed to get about 15 people from Couchsurfing to come to the show and I think they all enjoyed it!

There is no time to stick around and we hotfoot it across town for an English language comedy night. Sadly the venue is a pretty crappy ex-pat bar with overpriced 'English food'. Even more worryingly, as we get there late, there are only tables free at the front, always a danger for a stand up show.

It is a mix of open mic and more established performers and the quality varies wildly. There are a few Japanese guys performing and their mastery of the English language is also variable, however they more than make up for it by the visual style of their humour and sheer unbridled enthusiasm!

Friday night I organise dinner at one of the most famous ramen shops in Tokyo. It is a small joint in the district of Ikebukuro - which translates as 'pond bag'. It's a mixed area, with lots of discount shops, department stores, cafes and slightly ugly urban sprawl. It is not really on the main tourist trail, but it does have one amazing attraction - the fire station.

Ikebukuro Fire Station is home to an interactive museum about dangerous things. You can practice putting out a fire, learn to escape from a smoke filled room, and the reason I was there, experience a force 7 earthquake!

The instructions were all in Japanese of course, but we got to watch a video of what to do before we moved on to a fake dining room. The drill was simple, as soon as you feel a tremor, rush to turn off the cooker, prop open the door and hide under the table with a cushion above your head. The room shook, A LOT! It was even a little scary, but not quite as scary as the formidable Japanese lady shouting instructions at us and telling us what to do!

After that drama it was onwards for some filling ramen. I've learned that the way to tell a good ramen shop is by the size of the queue outside and Mutekiya had a big queue! We waited for about 45 minutes to be seated but it was totally worth it. The big bowl of ramen was delicious and the bonus was sitting at the counter and watching the staff rush around the cramped restaurant.


Next it was off to a traditional Japanese bar or izakaya. The bar itself was really great, with dirt cheap drinks and many tables of drunk Japanese business guys, but this was a bar with a difference.

I've often wondered what the gaming company Sega would do in response to the latest next gen consoles. Well it seems they have decided to respond to Nintendo literally and come up with... well... the wee!

Four bars in Tokyo are being trialled with the latest in gaming, a computer game in the toilet, the twist being that you control the game with your stream of urine!

The game I played was this one here:

There are three others which measure power and accuracy. In one game you compete against the guy who pissed before you and two characters on screen squirt milk out of their nose at each other (!!!!!). Another and slightly more disturbing game is where the more you hit the target, the more the skirt of a schoolgirl like character on screen is raised. So wrong and so very Japansese.

I'm proud to say that I trounced my male drinking companions and posted the highest score. Sadly ladies cannot take part as they are only in the mens toilet.

Saturday night I had instructions to meet at the police box outside Shibuya Station at 6:45pm. We were going to something involving robots, but that is all I knew.

A note about the police in Tokyo. The reality is that there is very little crime here and it is quite possibly the safest capital city in the world. Therefore the complex address system here means that police spend most of their time giving people directions. In every neighbourhood there is a police box with one or two cops and invariably they will spend most of the day handing out maps and showing people the way to various locations.

When we get to the robot place, it becomes apparent that disappointingly there are no robots there, just a photography exhibition with a fun name. Still it was a good exhibition with five photographers having five photos each, taken on the streets of Tokyo. I liked the enthusiasm of the photographers, some who were exhibiting for the first time and the cafe was a cool veggie spot in an interesting neighbourhood.

Next a few of us go to Shibuya and the Beat Cafe - this is basically a Britpop bar in the middle of Tokyo and I really liked it. It is tiny, seating maybe 25 people and you have to go up a non-descript stairwell to get there. But inside it could be 1996 all over again. Repeats of Later with Jools Holland play on the TV, Britpop music is on the stereo and there is all manner or items around the bar. It was a really interesting crowd mix and I will go back for sure.

On an evening out in Tokyo you tend to go home about midnight and get the last train or have to stay out until the first morning train about 5:30am. There are no night buses and taxis are extortionate. What people do when they miss their last train is to go to a manga cafe. Here you get your own little booth with a comfy chair, internet access, snacks and pick of the comics library. You can relax and sleep whilst you wait for sunrise. Some of them even have showers. I've not had to do this yet, but maybe before I leave I will get to experience it.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Tokyo Day Six - Sumo!

One of the things I really wanted to do when in Japan was to watch some sumo wrestling.

There are six big basho (tournaments) each year, three of them in Tokyo. Fortunately one of them is on right now and I got the chance to go and see it.

Seats at the front are in high demand, but they keep a small amount of back row tickets to sell on each day of the two week event.

Early in the morning I took the trip out to the sumo suburb of Ryogoku and got in line. There actually a lot of foreigners in the queue, probably the most I've seen in one place so far and I chatted to some other Brits whilst we waited for the line to move. Ryogoku is known as sumo town and lots of 'sumo stables' are in the area where the wrestlers live and train. On the way from the subway I walk past a couple of wrestlers on the way to the arena, wearing traditional dress and wooden sandals.

On a large tower outside the arena, a guy sits at the top banging a traditional drum signalling the beginning of the sumo for the day. He plays it again at the end of the day.


From talking to people, it seems that sumo is not as popular right now as it was a few years ago. There have been a few big scandals involving gambling, violence, drugs and organised crime, that led to several top wrestlers being forced out of the sport. Therefore I had no problem getting myself a ticket to see the event.

Starting just before 9, the matches continue all day, beginning with the trainee wrestlers and progressing up the ranks. As the day continues, you can see the improvement in both physique and skill until the top division matches later in the afternoon. Some of the early matches are size mismatches, with one wrestler having bulked up a lot more than the other. However, just occasionally the small guy manages to win which always got a big cheer from the crowd.

For lunch the cafe on the ground floor was serving chanko, a traditional stew eaten by wrestlers in large quantities late at night to help to put on weight. Well as I was in the home of sumo, I considered it rude not to try some and got a small bowl for less than £2.

This particular 'chanko' I found not very tasty at all. The broth watery, the vegetables overcooked and with a lack of any real discernible taste whatsoever. I thought to myself, how do sumo wrestlers manage to eat enough of this to put on enough weight?

After my disappointing lunch I took a stroll around the merch area and checked out the vast range of sumo products available. There is also a sumo museum which educates about the history of the sport.


As for the bouts themselves, before and after each one there are a series of rituals that the referee and both fighters go through before they begin. Plus a guy comes on and sings before each fight. After watching for a while I got into the flow of the way it all worked and sat back with a book, a bit like as if I was at a cricket match.

Most matches were over in less the twenty seconds. Occasionally though, a match lasted longer with both fighters evenly matched and in these matches the crowd really got into it, cheering and shouting and getting quite excited (for Japanese standards at least!)


My favourite part was when the wrestlers were grappling at the edge of the ring and got a bit unsteady. The judges and crowd sit really closely, so there is always a moment when the wrestlers are unbalanced and seem about to fall, when the crowd and judges quickly scatter out of the way! Even better though is when one guy seems certain to lose, but somehow manages to turn the tables and hang in there. These are the most exciting matches of all.


Later in the day, the professional guys in the top two divisions fought and there was a service to hire a radio to listen to English language commentary. Well I have to say that I've never been so entertained as when listening to an Australian man called Gary rambling into the microphone. Gary reeled off endless statistics, talked about the different fighters, their strengths and weaknesses and explained some of the technical terms of the sport. It certainly helped me to understand what was going on. Thanks Gary!


The most famous wrestler at the moment is the Mongonlian, Hakuho. He had a 9-0 record in this tournament and quickly dispatched his opponent.

It was really great to get the chance to watch sumo and I'd certainly recommend it for anyone who visits Japan.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Okonomiyaki (cabbage pancakes)

There is one kind of Japanese food that as far as I'm aware, has not really made it over to Europe. Okonomiyaki is probably best described as a cabbage pancake, or perhaps pizza. It is a very odd thing indeed. Okonomi means favourites, so I guess you are meant to put all of your favourite things in the mix.

I went to an Okonmiyaki cafe in the Shibuya district. It was a small place with perhaps eight tables. Each table is fitted with a hot plate, a bit like at a Korean or Mongolian BBQ place. The radio pumped out 80s hits and Yuki (my culinary tourguide) and I, got on with the task in hand.

First you start off with your bowl of ingredients. Cabbage, an egg and batter type stuff that you have in tempura. It is customary to have a meat, so I went for pork.


You mix up the ingredients in your bowl and then put them on the hotplate using your mini chisel, creating a patty type structure.


With one side cooked, it is time for the flip, as if you were making an omlette. There is a certain skill involved but I passed with flying colours.


I would say you probably do four or five minutes on each side before it is ready. But wait, here is the strange bit, before you eat it, you need to add some more things. Firstly you spread mayonaise on top. Then you add something which is similar to Worcester sauce. Then finally sprinkle on some finely chopped seaweed


Basically I liked it, the cabbage, egg and meat mix was tasty and I certainly enjoyed the novelty factor of eating a cabbage patty to the soundtrack of New Order. However, the somewhat bizarre mix of Worcester sauce and mayonaise was something that I didn't understand and to me, they really didn't go together. If I had it again, I would choose one OR the other - but I'm not sure if this would be in the full Okonomiyaki spirit.


Monday, 17 January 2011

Tokyo Day Five: More temples, maids and a great view

Monday morning I wake up at 5:45am to play poker. Sunday is the big day for online poker tournaments and here, 14 hours ahead of the American east coast, that means Monday morning. I grind poker on my netbook whilst drinking a hot can of coffee, today choosing the 'Super Relax Blend' (some may be pleased to know that my obsession with canned coffee is now past its peak) and eating a tasty instant noodle snack.


Poker doesn't go very well today and I finish disappointingly early. It usually happens that way.

After freshening up, I head out to Asakusa, the area I got lost on the way to a few days earlier. This time I take a direct train. This area contains several preserved shrines and temples and is firmly on the tourist trail. The temples are beautiful and I wander around and hang out. It is much warmer today and more pleasant to be outside.


There are several rituals going on which I observe. Firstly people can purify themselves with ladles of water. Then there is a small fire which people add to, creating smoke. People waft the smoke on to parts of their body. Wafting actions vary from the halfhearted, to the intense and concentrated. You have to get the smoke all over you and that includes your legs, face and so on - at least if you are dedicated to it and not just making some half hearted attempt to purify yourself.


There is a street market and I wander around and find a most excellent hat stall. Now I've already discovered that my head is larger than almost any Japanese person, but this shop has it covered with sizes progressing s, m, l, ll, lll and llll. With a trial and error I discover I am lll size and pick out a nice new hat. The old lady running the stall is, well lets say overbearing, hovering an inch behind me and making an audible intake of breath when I take one down from the shelf. She issues me with a piece of crate paper to put in the hats when I try them on and watches very closely to make sure I use it. I make my purchase and head back to take another look at the temples before heading back to the station.


Next stop is Akihabara 'electric town'. This is the place you come to buy every single computer or electrical part you can think of. There are shops dedicated to telescopes, fridges and much much more.

A worrying trend in this neighbourhood is for 'Maid Cafes' I've read about this, and sure enough, on the street every so often there is a girl in some sort of maid style outfit, handing out flyers and trying to tempt you into their establishment. I believe they are just cafes where the staff dress as maids and nothing untoward goes on. Even so, I find it all a little odd and don't partake, with the young girls who dress to look even younger, making me feel more than a little uneasy.

Instead I go on the hunt for food. I've marked down the addresses of a couple of noodle shops I'd like to try, but after pounding the streets for 15 minutes or more, I know they are really close, but I simply can't find them. Finding somewhere specific is so confusing here in Tokyo. I do however find the Post Office which is the only place foreign bank cards work in the ATM machine.

I end up opting for Freshness Burger, one of the most popular Japanese burger chains. Upon entering I spot the guy at the counter swiftly flips the menu over to the English side and he greets me with a cheery "hello". I order a veggie burger, pay and he tells me to "take a seat and I'll bring that shit over to you Sir!". You don't get that in Wetherspoons.

After that it is on to my third and final neighbourhood of the day, Shibuya. Well I don't really go exploring around the area too much, instead I go upstairs from the station to Starbucks, order a smoothie, take a window seat and spend a couple of hours enjoying a panoramic view of THAT pedestrian crossing. It is an awesome view and a great place to people watch to end the day.