General musings


Paul and I drew into Tokyo station, weary and laden down with heavy rucksacks full of omiage – gifts – for relatives and family friends. On our journey, the shinkansen had gradually passed from mountain valleys, rice valleys and isolated farms to villages, then towns spread about factories – then the buildings grew higher and higher until suddenly, there we were, in the middle of the huge, sprawling megatropolis of Tokyo. People were everywere and the basement shopping areas of Tokyo station stretched far out in every direction, as far as the eye could see. It took half an hour just to get out of the station and onto the correct undergound line to get to the office of our apartment rental company.

By the time we got there, we were exhausted. It has started to pour with rain again and too tired to negotiate rush hour trains with our heavy rucksacks and bags, we decided to grab a taxi. We arrived in Roppongi, our home for the next few weeks, huddling under our umbrellas from sheets of rain. The apartment was small, compact, immaculate, modern. Perfect. It was the most welcome sight. Although we loved the myriad experiences of our two week trip, now that we were ‘home’ we realised just how tired we were. We got in, unpacked, filled the Japanese bath full of hot water, had a soak. With a cold beer and our feet up, we felt ready to begin the next chapter of our adventures. Or chapters – these were going to be our Tokyo Stories.

For now, though, given that I am writing this by the poolside of our hotel in Siem Reap in Cambodia, I’ll be interweaving our Tokyo Stories with my tales of Indochine. It’s time to get to real time and tell you all what we’re up to right now, here in Cambodia, two days away from our flight to Vietnam.

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We let the shinkansen whisk us away from Kyushu and back towards the big island of Honshu.  Our time there had been much too short and we hoped we’d be back again before too long to explore some more.  Two weeks with a car would be a good option, to meander around the mountains in the interior and stay in some of the more remote hot springs.  We’d also want to bring our hiking boots and take the four-hour ferry to Yakushima, the wild island south west of Kagoshima, which has been designated a UNESCO Nature Heritage site and which inspired Miyazaki Hayao’s extraordinary animated film “Princess Mononoke”.
Our next stop was Kurashiki, in Okayama prefecture, about 600kms away.  Our friendly taxi driver, who drove us from the station to our ryokan told us that Okayama was the perfect place to live in Japan – temperate, even climates and hardly ever any earthquakes.  The town of Kurashiki was a prosperous, thriving trade centre during the Edo Period, about 400 years ago; the river and canals were the routes along which merchants transported and plied their wares.  Now it is a historical town, a genteel and popular tourist destination.

We were to stay in a beautiful ryokan in the centre of the historic centre.  About three hundred years old, it was the oldest place we’d stayed in in Japan so far.  Its traditional old stone-flagged entrance faced out onto a picturesque miniature canal, conveniently close to the tiny humpbacked Nakabashi footbridge.  We left our luggage at the inn to explore the Bikan area of Kurashiki – the oldest, historical part of the town, preserved so that it looked exactly as it would have done centuries ago.  With the bright sunshine, the place looked even more beautiful.

Our first stop was the Ohara Museum of Art, an elegant Palladian style buliding set back from the main street in the Bikan area.  This wonderful art gallery was established in the 1930s and houses a collection of exceptionally good taste with works by Gaugin, Picasso, Renoir, Monet and a various modern Japanese painters as well as pottery by Bernard Leach and other potters inspired by Japanese ceramics.  We spent a peaceful hour or so drinking all this in before continuing to stroll around the town.

As the sun began to set we strolled around until we found a steep flight of steps up to a small hill – climbing up, we discovered the entrance to Achi shrine – then descended back to the main street of Kurashiki’s Bikan area to have a long soak in the bath before dinner.

Our rooms in the inn were huge – a large tatami area, and another newly renovated room for sleeping in, surprisingly, with western-style beds and a huge plasma screen TV attached to the wall.  The bathroom was also newly kitted out, with a deep Japanese bath with jacuzzi jets and beautifully arranged cosmetics.  It looked immaculate.

 

Dinner was something else – the chef had made huge efforts with the presentation – dishes laid out like ikebana flower arrangements that were so beautiful it was a shame to eat them.

  

 The menu was printed in English and great care had been taken to make the food accessible to foreigners.  It was a curious sensation for me, being so used to staying in Japanese ryokan with my mother as a child and being treated as Japanese, to have a translator arrive in our room to explain all the dishes.  I felt grateful and excluded at the same time.  The rice course was a curious selection of cooked and vegetarian sushi – delicious – but very different from what one would expect in a ryokan catering to Japanese guests.  Later, the lovely lady who was employed by the ryokan to translate explained that the majority of guests at Ryokan Kurashiki were westerners.  They had made changes to the menu to cater for western tastes.  The dish they normally served at this point always came back untouched, which was why they had come up with a fusion dish instead.  I asked her what was normally served.

“Taichazuke”  she said.  Inwardly I wept.  A favourite!  I used to eat it when visiting my maternal grandmother’s family in Kyushu–? sea bream on rice, with green tea.  It is a delicacy I would have loved to have eaten.
The translator and I had an interesting discussion; the topic in question: how to cater for Western tourists and yet keep things authentically Japanese?  There is so much a foreign visitor needs to know before they can stay in such a place.   No slippers on tatami.  How to take a bath.  That dinner is usually served in your rooms – and often, you sleep on the floor in the same room after taking a bath.  On top of this, to those unaccustomed to Japanese food, some things can be a challenge, with new textures (slimy, for example), tastes (simmered sea bream eggs and pepper tree sprouts).  So do you serve up Western food instead?  Then, the authenticity of the experience is lost.

Many ryokan just go ahead and keep to the menu they would serve Japanese customers.  But as the translator said, a lot of food then goes to waste.  It is an interesting challenge.

Once we had eaten up our delicious food, we went to bed and I immediately fell into a deep sleep.  At half past midnight, I woke up with a start.  Paul was fast asleep and snoring and everything was quiet and dark.  I knew that we and another couple were the only guests at the ryokan and the stillness was all-enveloping.  At the same time, I felt inexplicably and completely spooked!  I couldn’t get back to sleep, overwhelmed with the strange sensation that I was being watched…. Like a six year old, I pulled the covers over my head, my heart pounding.  I switched on the TV at low volume to try and chase the shadows away and after a while I felt less alarmed, as if whatever was watching had gone away.  After an hour or so I switched off the TV and went back to sleep.

In the morning, Paul told me that he too had woken up suddenly in the small hours, hearing footsteps in our tatami living room on the other side of the door…. and I told him about my own restlessness.  Having scared me witless by looking through our camera pictures and telling me that the last photo on there was of us sleeping (a ghoulish joke), we went through to the dining area to have breakfast.

I asked our translator whether this ryokan, being so old, had any ghost stories attached and she said:  well yes, many people ask us if there are ghosts here and things have been seen and experienced here.  In fact, there are some rooms are staff will not enter alone…. goosebumps raised up on my arms.

You may poo-poo such things; whether real or not, Japan is full of fantastic ghost stories.  The idea might be, here, that this ancient inn, inhabited by generations of innkeepers and their families, is still home to generations past who are curious about the renovations and new customers, especially if they are foreigners.  Well, if you have lived all your life in the inn, running it as a place for travellers to stay, wouldn’t you want to stick around and see what became of it?  Although I’d been spooked, I didn’t feel, at any point, that I was under threat.  I just felt I was being watched – and in the middle of the night, that can seem alarming.

At breakfast, the sun was out, and things no longer seemed so ghostly.  We had a little time to explore some more, so we decided to visit the Japanese Rural Toy Museum.

 

This is a treasure trove, founded in 1967 and hidden in a series of old, black-tiled warehouses, displaying thousands of colourful folkcraft toys.  There are bells, whistles, tops, dolls, traditional Kurashiki Hariko (hand-painted, rustic papier-mache figurines) wooden toys, kites and masks covering every shelf, from floor to ceiling.  An enormous wooden spinning top is displayed along with its Guiness Book of World Records certificate for the longest human-powered spin of one hour, eight minutes and fifty seconds.  The top was hand-made by the owner of the toy museum, Hiroyuki Ohga, and the Guiness Superlatives certificate is in his name.  He guided us about the museum in very good English and explained that the world record had since been broken by someone else, using a custom-made top Ohga san had designed.  It seemed a generous gesture.

On our way out we bought a tiny daruma, a stylised, round Bodhisattva figurine made of colourfully decorated papier-mache.  One is meant to fill in one eye with black ink while making a wish for a successful conclusion to a project; the other eye is filled in once the wish has been granted.  Paul and I decided to get one for ourselves as a good luck charm for settling into our new life in Australia – to wish for good jobs and a comfortable home we loved.

Behind the counter I spotted some familiar pictures framed on the wall.  Professor Yunoki’s textile pictures!  He is a wonderful folk artist who is a friend of my father’s.  Yunoku Sensei is from Kurashiki and it made sense to see his work in the toy museum, whose objects embody the hand-crafted, child-like playfulness embraced in Yunoki Sensei’s art.  More of his work was hung upon the walls of a little cafe attached to the museum.  In the sunlight the bright pictures added to the light-hearted joyfulness of the place.  All thoughts of spooks and ghostliness were chased away.

Onwards, onwards.  We could have explored some more in Kurashiki.  But we needed to get back to Tokyo before our JR Passes expired and we still had more to see.  Picking up our luggage from the inn, we made our way to the train station for a shinkansen that would take us further east again, to Himeji, where we were to make a flying visit to the great castle there.  We were booked to stay the night in Kobe, so we would need to make the most of the four or five hours we would get to explore this historic site before we headed closer and closer back to our temporary ‘home’ in Tokyo.

Here we are, sitting in a beautiful ryokan in the countryside not far from Kagoshima on the morning of the 12th April.  Since Kyoto we’ve already been to Miyajima, Nagasaki and now Kagoshima.  But because I’ve been too busy eating, soaking in hot baths, travelling and enjoying the sights and because there hasn’t always been internet access when I needed it I’m about four days behind on my blog postings.  However.  It will all go up there sooner or later.

In the meantime, I’m making use of this lull while I sit here in gorgeous surroundings to say some heartfelt thank yous from Paul and from me.

When we were in Nagasaki, the receptionist put a phone call through announcing the caller as “Daddo-san”.  Well, that was my father, seeing how we were getting on.

So, Daddo-san – from the both of us, an enormous thank you for making this unforgettable trip in Japan possible.  We’ve seen so much in just the twelve days of travelling so far, and look forward to the rest.  Paul is just blown away and says he never thought he would have the opportunity to see so many varied and stunning places in just one little portion of Japan.  He says now that he wants to live here!

Heartfelt thanks are also due to some Japanese friends.

Michiko san, we met by chance at Great Queen’s Street restaurant, and how lucky I was!  It was just a short time we spent in London, but our friendship will go on – and you have introduced all these possibilities for us in Japan, for our trip, through your marvellous recommendations (Myoken Ishiharaso, where we are now, is just an extraordinary place, the food exquisite – more on a blog post later) and through your introductions to your friends.

At that lunch in Yauatcha, you and your friends – Asako san, Kondo san, Yuriko san and Akiko san were all so helpful and enthusiastic in your contributions to our itinerary.  Now everything is coming to fruition and we have been eating our way through your recommendatins!  Thank you for your two Kyoto restaurant recommendations Asako san – both incredible.

Last but not least, Okuda san from JNTO, who so very kindly stepped in and arranged accommodation for us for our final five days of travelling around Japan, thank you so very much for your time and enthusiasm – and for coming to our leaving party armed with pages of food recommendations!  We are looking forward to visiting your home city of Kagoshima later this afternoon and will be visiting all the places you suggest.  From this evening we will be staying in the first of the accommodations arranged by you and Ms Kubota from KNT in Tokyo.  We are really looking forward to it.

Daddo-san, Michiko san, Okuda san, Kubota san, Asako san, Akiko san, Kondo san, Yuriko san, kokoro kara arigato gozaimasu!

Sybil punished me for keeping her awake by calling the room at 6.30am telling me breakfast was ready when we’d asked for it at 7am. I’d had some trouble persuading her that yes, we preferred a Japanese breakfast, but when we went down there there was a table in the front room with a kotatsu blanket – a cosy traditional set up of a small table covered with what looks like a thick duvet, with another table top over that, on which the fish, rice, pickle, miso and so on were placed. We tucked our feet under the cosy table and tucked in. It was nothing to write home about, but not bad at all, just some good old home cooking, and it persuaded us to endure the grumpy weirdness, dirty sheets and dusty rooms for the duration of our three nights in Kyoto. We were told there was just the one bath for everyone and that we would have to wait until it was free for us both to go in together. We did, after breakfast, only to find that the bath – a Japanese style bath in the corner – had been heated up enough for us to be able to slow-boil eggs in it. Now I know from long experience how hot Japanese baths can be. This one was a no-go area. We could only just dip our fingers into it for a few seconds before they scalded. A great way to avoid guests spending any time in the bath! It’s a no-no to add cold water. We just ended up showering for the rest of our stay.

Paul was the tour guide for Kyoto; having looked through his Lonely Planet Guide, he chose for our first day a morning’s tour of Nishiki food market in the middle of the city. Excellent choice.

Nishiki market

We started early, as the stallholders were setting up. On the way there, we found a traditional yuba shop. Yuba is best described as soya bean whey skin; it’s made by hand by cooking up soya bean whey and skimming off the skin on top and hanging it out to dry. It can be eaten wet just as it is – it has a lovely fresh, creamy taste, or it can be dried and then cooked in broth or miso soup, or used to wrap all manner of small filings. Obachan loves yuba, so we bought her a small box as her omiage (omiage is “gift”. More on the complicated business of omiage in a later blog, probably when I hand out all ours from the UK to Tokyo friends and family when we get back there on the 17th April).

We spent a happy morning wandering up and down the extensive covered alleyway of the market. There were all kinds of foods new to Paul and he made the most of finding out what everything was – some wonderful grocers selling all the best local ingredients.

Pickle stall Charcoal roasted river fish

Bamboo shoot, the first of the season in Kyoto and reputed to be the best that could be found in Japan, was everywhere, and we were to find this and other seasonal ingredients cropping up in all of our meals here. We chatted to a lady who had a katsubushi shop specialising in the dried bonito shavings used to flavour Japanese stock, a base for almost all sauces, soups and flavourings in Japanese cooking. She also sold the whole dried bonito fillets which were dried into what looked like wedges of wood, a slow process of smoking and drying them over many days. We discovered that her cousin had moved to Adelaide and that she had visited the place herself. She wished us well on our journey and told us she thought we would have a great life there.

We had a brief stop at a very sweet little cafe, Kaneta Cafe, upstairs from a shop in the Nishiki Market. The theme for the cafe is what I call “folky funky Japanese” – traditional rustic Japanese style with a nod to the west – here, jazz playing in the background, and beautiful roast coffee fresh ground just for us. It felt homely, comfortable and cosy.

Having feasted our eyes at the market we were a little hungry by one o’clock so explored side streets until we found a little family-run noodle shop. I had soba, buckwheat noodles, with grated mountain yam and an egg, while Paul had a Jumbo Chicken Katsu – a huge deep-fried fillet of chicken which went down a treat. The soba was good, but not hand made, and this set off an idea for a mission – to find a real Kyoto soba shop where they made the noodles by hand.

Wandering towards the Imperial Palace gardens, we stopped at Toraya, a famous traditional Japanese sweet shop on the way. We bought some mizuyokan, a bean paste dessert, to have as a picnic tea. According to the season, there were cherry blossom-themed cakes too. Everything looked too beautiful to eat.

Cherry blossom sweets at Toraya

We lay in the sun on the grass of the Imperial lawns, drinking bottled hot tea out of a vending machine and wolfing down our mizuyokan. We whiled away a relaxing afternoon walking up and down the palace paths admiring the cherry blossom with the rest of the crowds.

Some lovely flowers Hello from Kyoto

Our wish to find a suitable soba shop was fulfilled when we found Uichiro. It was tucked away in a little side street and something about it just appealed to me. Looking traditional from the outside, a glimpse through the window showed a touch of the “folky funky Japanese”, something which was confirmed when we went in and there was jazz playing softly in the background.

A bowl of soba is usually something that is eaten at lunchtime. So we picked an omakase menu – meaning “leaving it up to the restaurant”, which came with a little dish of cold noodles at the end, dipped in a slightly sweet soya sauce dip with wasabi and shredded spring onion. It followed a dish of sashimi, another of tempura, which used all kind of spring mountain vegetables, stems and even leaves, then the noodles It was all finished off with a delicious cream mousse with spring strawberries.

The noodles were considerably superior to the usual reconstituted buckwheat soba noodles (which are tasty enough). These noodles were called hegi, flavoursome, and made with a higher proportion of white flour to buckwheat, and beautifully hand-made.

We sat facing a shimmering kimono on display on a dais, alterating shades of sand and dusty pale blue. We shared the large central table with five others; when I had a coughing fit (embarassing), one of the men got up to get me a glass of water from the kitchen. He was the owner. Once I recovered from the coughing, we all started to talk. The owner, Nakajima san, is also a maker of cloth and costumes for traditional Noh plays and collects antique Japanese costumes. He is also has a passion for soba noodles, so besides running his artisanal textile business, Kinsyo, he also had time to run his noodle shop.

As we all chatted, we found an extraordinary series of coincidences and connections between us.

One of the men sitting with Mr Nakajima worked for a major Japanese department store. He mentioned that he had visited the Victoria and Albert Museum in London three times in the hope of seeing a piece of the Gobelin Tapestry he believes was once a part of another that is in use in the niwatoriboko float at the Kyoto Gion matsuri, an annual festival. It was never on exhibit and stated that if he would weep tears of joy if he ever got to see the real thing. He believes a Japanese merchant bought the tapestry while travelling to Europe, long ago, but cut it in half for easy transportation back home. One half is now on the niwatoriboko and te other, he believes, is in the V&A. Well, my lovely godmother Vicki is an excellent volunteer guide there and has a particular interest in such European-Japanese art historical exchanges, so I’ll be emailing her with that puzzle later!

Another of the men was an art critic for a major Japanese broadsheet newspaper, specialising in Japanese art. He happened to know the gallery I worked for in Tokyo back in the late 80s, and the gallery owner too.

The atmosphere was so convivial that we hardly noticed time passing – even Paul, who couldn’t really take part in the conversation, felt the warmth around us and enjoyed what he could of the talk I translated for him. And so, armed with this human warmth and the knowledge that we had a private tatami room booked for us the next day so we could savour a proper bowl of soba noodles, we headed home prepared for another night at Fawlty Towers and a bath hot enough to boil noodles in.

We landed here on the first day of April, a crisp, sunny day, the full cherry blossom immediately in evidence as we bumped down onto the Narita airport tarmac.  An especially beautiful sight after the high winds made for a nauseatingly jolting descent and rough landing.  We made it!  All luggage accompanied us.  Thank you T5.

Everyone we see tells us we’ve arrived right at the peak of cherry blossom Prime Time.  It’s easy to see why.  From the window of our hotel room on the 29th floor, we gaze down at  swathes of pale pink blossom, spilling out of the traditional Japanese gardens below and crowding against the traffic-swollen expressway beside it. 

Tokyo cherry blossom 

Later, on the way to see my cousins at the family shop, we walk along the raised dyke along the edge of the old Imperial moat, the paths laid out with ground sheets, people toasting the blossom with sake and beer, cooking on their hot stoves and having a good time.

The thing that’s so fascinating about Tokyo is the juxtaposition of Japanese aesthetics and tradition with ultra-modern super sleekness.  Our Airport Limousine bus swept past great glass and concrete skyscrapers lining huge eight-lane boulevards, passing quirky little side streets full of hidden food shops of every variety, their location only hinted at by little signs; past the occasional temple –  one crouched like a tiny penguin chick at the feet of its skyscraper penguin parent towering above it.

Tokyo is home, the place I was born and brought up.  It’s changed a lot since my childhood.  No more dagashiya sweet shops (more on that when chewitover.net starts late summer), public sento baths or travelling storytellers on their bicycles, handing out prawn crackers and plum jam for the kids to eat.  And of course, the people I love and care about in it, my Japanese family, childhood friends and mother’s friends, have grown older.  Some important people are no longer around – my mother and uncle, for a start. They are terribly missed.  But there are new  little people too – Yosuke and Mitsue, another cousin (more on her and her husband Ron in later uploads) have both had children.  We all plan to have a big family get together just before we depart for Sydney, fifteen of us.  And Ben, Paul’s cousin, who’s living in Tokyo at the moment, will join us too.  A new family merger.

 At the family shop, Ariakeya (again, more on chewitover.net, in the meantime, see www.ariakeya.com) Paul tried out his “Pleasure to meet you, my name is Paul” that he’d been practising – and his bow – on my cousins Yosuke and Asako (Asako came to our wedding in London last year).   That can get you a long way in Japan.  It went down well. The last time Asako, Paul and I ate out together was in Notting Hill, where she ate rack of lamb (her favourite western dish) the night after our wedding.  This time, the three of us went out for Paul’s first Japanese meal, at a local tofu shop, Yonenaga, owned and run by a friend of hers, Yonenaga san.  We had fried tofu in bonito stock, tofu salad with Japanese dressing, black sesame “tofu” with wasabi (tofu in inverted commas, because it’s made from kuzu instead of soya beans) and chicken kara-age, all washed down with ice cold Japanese beer.  All the tofu is made fresh in the shop by Asako’s friend, who worked for many years in a famous kaiseki (traditional Japanese fine dining) restaurant. It was delicious. 

Fried tofu at Yonenaga

We went back to Asako’s flat for a while, but jet lag caught up with us.  We staggered back to the hotel, collapsed into the gigantic bed (as wide as it is long) and passed out.  I dreamed about packing.

My second posting comes to you from 39500 feet, somewhere over Siberia. Technology hasn’t quite advanced enough to let me upload it right this second, but I’m hoping I can do it in Tokyo and backdate it to the 31st which it still is, in the UK (just). You’ll all be getting to bed right about now – it’s five to eleven on a Monday night.

Thanks to my Moving Flight map on my little seatside TV screen I can also tell you that it’s minus 57 degrees celsius outside, we’re travelling at 563 mph and that we’re just over 1545 miles and 3hrs 2 minutes to our destination.

The flight’s seemed short so far; time hasn’t started slowing down for me just yet. That might have to wait until we arrive in Hakone, the first hot spring we’re due to stay in in three days’ time. I need to slow down.

Hugging Jocelyn and my father Miles goodbye in Cambridge on Sunday afternoon, I couldn’t stop the lump in my chest from turning into tears. My father and I have been used to living on different continents for most of our shared life, but Australia does seem so very far away. Their next door neighbour took some photographs of the four of us smiling in the sunshine and printed one off for us just before we drove away. So I have this picture with me, this happy, intrepid and melancholic moment captured before our departure. Thank you Jill, it’s wonderful.

Later, in a Heathrow hotel, we met with Jok and Jane, Paul’s parents. It was a lovely, delicious meal we shared, experienced through a surreal haze of exhaustion. On the Heathrow Hopper the next morning, not even the thought of what awaited us at the infamous T5 could push back another lump in my throat as I talked with Jane and the tears spilled again. In the end, they needed to leave us before we went through security so they had time to catch their train back to Derby. In a strange way it made the farewell easier – they were leaving us, not the other way round.

The reported horrors of T5 seemed to have passed by the time we arrived; the place was calm, empty and quiet. It’s quite some building, vast and filled with light, everything sparkly new. At security, a remarkable coincidence: there was Natasha, now working for T5 (that’s one for my flamenco girls). I didn’t dare ask her what she’d had to deal with the days before. All the staff we met in T5 were friendly and helpful. They must have had a horrendous time dealing with the chaos, poor things, and had to have felt some relief that all was going relatively smoothly by Monday – as were we. All our luggage was loaded, the flight took off, and here I am, hoping that our backpacks and suitcase are safely nestled in the hold below us.

I’ve just finished reading a book a friend recommended, a sweet little tale called Who Moved my Cheese. I liked this bit:

As he started running down the dark corridor he began to smile. Haw didn’t realise it yet, but he was discovering what nourished his soul. He was letting go and trusting what lay ahead for him, even though he did not know exactly what it was”

That kind of sums it up for me, really. Here we are, in limbo, way up in the sky, homeless, countryless, jobless, rootless. I don’t really know what lies ahead. And actually, it’s starting to feel tremendously liberating.

Flip over an hourglass and watch the sand. At first, the decreasing level in the upper chamber is hardly perceptible, but as more and more sand trickles through to the lower chamber, the faster it goes. Once it gets to the final seconds’ worth of sand, it takes…well, seconds to drop through.

 

The last seven months have been like that. P and I were married on 1st September last year in London (www.katherineandpaul.com). As soon as I threw away the completed checklists for that, new ones were drawn up. There’s quite a lot to consider when emigrating; sorting through decades of accumulated junk, selling stuff off, choosing a value-for money removal company, transferring money and pensions, going through the bureaucratic hoops required whenever anyone leaves the UK for good. For good measure we’d chosen to travel for on the way. Six weeks in Japan, four days in Cambodia and three weeks in Vietnam would need a little bit of planning too.

 

For a long time the impending departure didn’t feel real. The sand shifted imperceptibly and our lives in London continued as normal, P working his chef’s insane schedule at The Lanesborough’s Conservatory, me on the hamster wheel of the daily commute to a soulless skyscraper in The City. I squeezed in time with friends and family, a weekly fiction writing class at Birkbeck, and snatched the odd moment with my husband. The sand began to trickle through ever faster. My veil of denial began to lift, rather painfully, with the realisation that each time I met up with a dear friend, there wouldn’t be many more times we could get together before I took off to the opposite side of the planet. Every now and again, at the top of the double-decker bus to work, I’d see the pink sunrise reflected on the dome of St Paul’s as we headed up Ludgate Hill, steam rising from the buildings around it, and I’d be struck by the beauty of London, and how much I was going to miss it and I’d well up a little. Getting back on the Central Line at rush hour was a good cure for the sentimentality. But this was nothing compared to thinking about the family and friends we’d be leaving behind.

 

Alongside this occasional melancholy sat bubbling excitement at the adventure ahead, making for a peculiar emotional rollercoaster ride. The sand trickled faster still and the increasing busy-ness anaesthetised me from the pain of goodbyes that loomed. In the final two weeks, having given up our jobs, we rushed about like recently decapitated chickens, trying to beat the clock. But there we were, swept down into the lower chamber with the last dregs of the sand. Yesterday, our time ran out. Driving away from London, I waved goodbye to the place I’d called home for 18 years.

 

On Friday, P and I gathered with our friends and our family at The Prince of Wales pub in Holland Park, where we’d celebrated our marriage seven months before. It was a great night. I almost wanted to stay, then leave again so that we could have another party just like it. So many people there, wishing us well. It was hard to spend the time I wanted to with everybody; that was when the sand was trickling fastest of all, and I tried to pack in as much time with as many people as possible before the night ended.

 

But end it did, and waking from a surprisingly good night’s sleep on a wooden floor covered with sheets and blankets, we went to Mike’s in Blenheim Crescent for a full English breakfast. I ran off down a market-crowded Portobello Road with a camera to record as many of the memory-ripe places as I could. I’m steeling myself for the pangs of homesickness I’ll feel whenever I think of the neighbourhood I’ve loved and grown up with these last eighteen years.

 

 

The final goodbyes to our neighbours over, my father drove us up and out of London, to Cambridge, to spend our final weekend. And this is where I am now. The sand’s run out, we’re in the quiet eye of the storm, about to take off tomorrow from Terminal Five at Heathrow with – I hope – our luggage (impeccable timing), for a new future and a new life. We’ll have fun on the way. My long gabbed-about foodblog, chewitover.net, has been postponed until we arrive in Australia. Atchi Kotchi, in the meantime, has temporarily taken its place so that all those we know and love, and maybe anyone interested out there besides, can dip into the next two months of what will be a strangely rootless travelling life and see what we’re getting up to.

The clocks have gone forward today – spring is on its way. We won’t be here for it, but to all those we’ve left behind – enjoy the approach of the sun. Thank you for your friendship, for being there or us and for a fantastic leaving party. We’ll be thinking of you, we’ll miss you, but it’s really not ‘goodbye’, it’s see you soon. My next blog posting will probably be from Tokyo. See you then. I hope you enjoy Atchi Kochi.

 

Katherine