In an English Country Garden

The Japanese have long had a fascination with English gardens. For a country where few properties have enough space for a private garden, many people indulge their passion by visiting one of the many gardens and parks laid out in what is considered to be the English style. 

Although, like many of the so-called British pubs here, the attempts to recreate a little bit of England, don’t always work, I was very impressed by the Barakura English Garden near Chino in Nagano Prefecture. Co-designed by horticulturalist Kay Yamada who has won medals for her garden designs at the Chelsea Flower Show, Barakura was opened in 1990. Under the care of Head Gardener Andy Fisher, originally from Cumbria, there really is an authentic English atmosphere. 


Even more so as when I first went this weekend a background of light rain created the perfect setting for the autumn festival with displays of vegetables not normally seen in Japan.


But they were not only on display as on the lunch-time menu was butter-nut squash soup and a Cornish pasty as well as a selection of home made cakes and desserts. 


And after that lot time for a rest in the garden


 This weekend was even more special with the Royal Marines Concert Band playing a series of sets of mainly British patriotic music as part of this year’s celebrations of Her Majesty’s 90th birthday with well-known music from the shows such as ‘Oliver’ and TV theme tunes ‘Black Beauty’ and ‘Sailing’. The latter was not the only nautical number as they also played some well known sea shanties. The finale on the last day of course included Vaughan Williams’ Sea Songs; a rousing ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ brought their annual ‘English country gardens’ visit to Japan to a close.









Today (3 February)   is Setsubun (節分) in Japan, the day before the start of spring and a day in which it is traditional to cast out the devil and encourage good luck for the year ahead. This is celebrated in many ways throughout the country.

One of the most popular is to gather at a local shrine for mamemaki where small packets of roasted soya  beans will be thrown in to the waiting crowds to cries of Oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi (‘Out with the devil, in with good luck’) and the more beans you can catch the greater your luck (or so they say). At the more famous shrines, the bean tossing is often carried out by well-known sportspeople such as sumo wrestlers dressed in traditional garb, as well as TV personalities or minor celebrities (known, incongruously, as talent-o in Japanese).


My local small shrine at Yoyogi Hachiman does not warrant such exalted attention, but the crowds gathered there all the same for the ceremony. This is taken very seriously, and as they waited I could see people demonstrating their catching techniques while others were content to hold open large carrier bags to collect the lucky beans.


A safety talk preceded the event, and then to a drum roll on the traditional taiko drums,


the line-up of local officials and politicians assembled on the podium and were introduced to the crowd before they launched the lucky packets.


It seemed to me that the older and smaller one was, the more determined one became in trying to grab a piece of seasonal luck; for once Japanese traditional decorum and discipline were abandoned. Perhaps Eddie Jones, the former coach of the Japanese ‘Brave Blossoms’ rugby team who did so well in last year’s World Cup, should draw some lessons from the scrum techniques of Yoyogi’s Grappling Grannies, as he now hopes to take England to success in the forthcoming Six Nations Championship. Certainly they need more luck than I had today as I had to be content just with a few photos of this cultural curiosity.



In Japan, dogs don’t go “woof woof” they go “wan wan”. So on 1st November,   1.11 or ‘one. one one’ with some allowance for pronunciation, it’s not surprising that it was a day for celebrating one’s pooches. In the late 1970s when I first came to Japan we English were known as, or accused of, being dog-lovers. However since I returned nearly 10 years ago I’ve noticed a proliferation of facilities for man’s best friend. Or should that be man’s best wan? Yoyogi Park even has a dedicated dog run where those who register their pets can let them run free and socialise with their canine cousins. They are segregated according to weight though to avoid playground bullying of the dachshunds by the Dobermans (or vice versa maybe). Near to the Sangubashi entrance to the Park is a row of poodle parlours and hound hotels for when your pet needs pampering.


Most Japanese dog owners are socially responsible citizens and always take their plastic bags when out walking their ‘wan-chan’ (the diminutive term). As well as the bags, often disguised in more decorative canvass containers (don’t air your dirty stuff in public) many also take a bottle of water with them to sprinkle on their spaniel’s sprinkle or pour on their poodle’s piddle. But, in a country where guidance and instructions are all important at the park entrances visitors are reminded:

“In a lovely pet for you (owner), the animal of the dog etc. comes and feeling that it is scary hated one also comes. Tie firmly by the leash (dragrope) etc., and never pasture it in the park”!

The following sign is probably easier to understand though:


I was also told that 1st November was national sushi day. So let’s hope the two occasions were kept firmly apart.


Mid –October and a weekend outdoors .On Saturday we took part in our first walk organised by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. with choices of distance ranging from 8km through to 45km. We played safe and signed up for the B course at 15km. Held out in the suburbs along the Tamagawa river, we had an early-ish start (for a Saturday) for the 30 minute train ride to Shimomaruko station from where a10 minute warm –up took us to the start and registration to face card stamping, form filling and collecting bags filled with copious amounts of advertising material.

 The first half of the walk was through the town and on to Denenchofu. Despite the fact that it was a quiet morning traffic wise and there were very few cars on the side roads the Japanese walkers obeyed every pedestrian light without fail. They preferred to bunch up at a car-free crossing waiting patiently for the lights to change rather than nipping across an empty road to avoid breaking their stride.

With few public toilets along the way we had to have an extended break in a very crowded convenience store to use the conveniences, and I bought an appropriately named Slow-bar to boost my energy while queuing.

The Japanese also conform when it comes to dressing for an event as well; it is now autumn and therefore your wear autumn clothes. On a mild day with a light breeze and just a hint of early morning drizzle, I must have been the only participant among a few thousand on the day who wore shorts and was comfortable doing so. No wonder we foreigners are often known as ‘crazy gaijin’! Seen here in the commemorative photo ‘Tokyo Walk 2015’


This morning was a much more sedate event with the Japan Bird Society’s monthly outing to the grounds of Meiji Shrine. About one hundred binocular and telescope bearing twitchers turned up to wander through the forests and lawns trying to spot something eye-catching or just unusual. For the former we were blessed with a couple of sightings of a kingfisher. A grey-streaked or spotted breasted, depending on which book you consult, flycatcher created great excitement as they’re usually only found in Hokkaido. I was told that this one was probably migrating south to escape the colder weather which has already arrived in the northern island. And, yes, I was still wearing shorts, but not seen here.




Five months ago today I slipped in the rain and twisted my right ankle quite badly outside Yotsuya Station in central Tokyo, one hour in to an 80 minute walk to a cherry blossom viewing party. Being a True Brit I got up and carried on for the final 20 minutes to meet former colleagues at the British Embassy. With hindsight that was not sensible as the ankle became very painful and swollen as the party progressed.

The next day I went to the local sports injuries clinic to be told I’d fractured my fibula and that it would probably need surgery, so was referred to the local JR General Hospital. A day of X-rays and tests revealed that to be the case and I was admitted the same week.


An existing medical condition meant that I had to spend five days in hospital before the op which I was told could be performed under epidural and that I could listen to my iPod during the procedure. Of course I chose Eric Clapton to see me through. When the op was under way, and I was in to his Greatest Hits, Dr Iwashina asked me if I wanted some sedation. I’m not sure how serious they thought I was when I joined in with the refrain to ‘Cocaine’!!

A few months of rehabilitation and periods in a wheel chair progressing to crutches followed, and finally in the middle of June I was allowed to walk unaided again. I must admit though to choosing to use a walking stick initially for support and stability, to get a priority seat on crowded trains, but mainly because it enhanced the elegant Englishman image.

This week I celebrated further progress as Dr I told me I could start jogging again. “OK, I’ll start gently” I reassured her. “No, you can do hard” she replied.
So this morning my first trial around Yoyogi Park. I confess to walking the slopes both up and down, and to not tagging on to the back of the packs of Club runners out enjoying the unseasonal slightly cooler weather. When a pair of speed-walkers shimmied past me I realised that I have a lot of training in front of me before I’m back up to full fitness again. I’ll also have to work off those extra kilos gained eating too much English food during my summer holidays back home.


But the euphoria of actually being out again had me wondering whether I could actually do another marathon before I hit 60? Watch this space!


There’s an obsession with flying things in Japan at the moment. The drones have landed – but not where they should! It all started when one landed on the roof of Prime Minister Abe’s office. That one was worrying as it had a container attached with the radio-active symbol on it and actually contained contaminated soil from the Fukushima area. The perpetrator has now been arrested and charged with ‘forcible obstruction of business at the Prime Minister’s office’. He said that he was protesting about the Government’s nuclear policy and was inspired to use a drone to make his protest after seeing videos of pizza deliveries using drones.

My former workplace was also the scene of an unauthorised landing when a drone from the nearby Tokyo MX TV studios mistakenly touched down in the grounds of the British Embassy offices and houses. No offence committed or intended so I believe; it was just a case of pilot error on final approach.

It is festival season again in Japan with many local shrines and temples staging events where locals dressed in traditional garb carry portable shrines through the streets and ceremonies are performed in the sacred sites. A group of formally clad priests in Nagano prefecture were very surprised when their procession was interrupted briefly by the arrival of a more modern invention skidding to a halt at their feet. But with typical oriental imperturbability they carried on.

In Yoyogi Park, which was last year closed due to an influx of dengue fever carrying mosquitoes, there are now signs banning the use of the mechanical pests.

Where will it ever end?

Blowing hot and cold

Sankan shion’ means 3 cold days followed by 4 hot days, which is very typical of the weather patterns at this time of year in Japan. In England we just accept it as being ‘normal weather’. Snow is still falling in some parts of the country, bringing with it avalanche warnings for the warmer days. Yet, on the day of the spring equinox (a public holiday), in a country renown for punctuality and efficiency, the first cherry blossom sightings were being reported.

In the parks the spring parties are building up already with the earlier plum blossom already in bloom, and the ubiquitous photographers searching for that perfect shot.


For a nostalgic and often homesick Englishman the sight of boxes of more familiar flowers such as pansies, tulips and daffodils always brings me a little closer to home.


In the week of seasonal changes, technological change has also happened with the very last journey of the ‘hokutousei’ (twilight express’) train. It has always been difficult to get tickets for this very popular 16-hour sleeper train service that connects Sapporo in Hokkaido to Ueno in Tokyo, so happy that we were able to have had the experience at least once 5 years ago. On that occasion there were not crowds of train-spotters and well-wishers seeing us off as there were this week for this iconic train’s final journey as it gives way to the equally iconic, but built for the 21st century, shinkansen (bullet train).

A Christmas Cut

A Christmas cut.

With December 25th being a normal working day in Tokyo what better way to spend it than getting all trimmed up for tonight’s concert at Tokyo Opera City. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a seasonal favourite here so it will be that followed by dinner in a local restaurant.

My local barber is a 40 minute walk away through the grounds of Meiji Shrine and then cutting across Shinjuku Park. Last week we renewed our annual season ticket for the latter, so decided to put it to good use. At Yen 2,000 (just over £10.00) we can go into the park as many times as we like for the year (compared to the normal entrance fee of Y200).

At this time of year the grass has all died off to a dull brown, and most of the autumn leaves have now fallen. However, there is still a stark beauty to the Japanese ornamental ponds.


Going to the barbers is an interesting experience. First you have to buy a ticket from a vending machine. Being Christmas Day, I decided to treat myself to the ‘full set’ which is the button at top left for a mere Y2,200 (£12.00). As I carry a point card from the shop which also has my chosen style drawn on to it, all I needed to do was to agree to the question “Your usual, sir?” and sit down for a shearing, shampoo and head massage. After which the seat was reclined and a hot wet towel laid on my face. One could be forgiven for thinking that this was a Japanese form of waterboarding, but it was just the preparation for the third element of the set; a shave and clean up of all extraneous hair, much of which I either forget to remove myself or would have to be a contortionist to do so.

That was all the trimmings done. Next for a quick lunch back in the Shinjuku Park café making very good use of my season ticket, and again coincidentally the top-left button of the vending machine which was ‘deer meat curry’ with rice,a side salad and a bowl of soup. Not too bad for £3.30.

Merry Christmas to all my readers!


Running a Fever

My running always takes a bit of a back seat during summer here in Tokyo (roughly July and August) due to the extreme heat and humidity. This year has been no exception with temperatures often hitting 35C. My rule of thumb has been to run up to 30 and after that to walk. Regular warnings about heatstroke on the news broadcasts mean that you can never say you haven’t been warned. But seeing as it’s like this every year I do wonder why we need to be told every day to drink plenty of water, wear a hat and keep in the shade. Fortunately in Yoyogi Park, my favourite running course, there are plenty of trees and water points so I’ve been able to take precautions as I try to keep fit

But this year’s also been a very wet one with mainly the west of the country being hit by typhoons, and heavy rains. The latter have caused floods and landslides with many lives being lost.

We’ve also had some wetter, cooler days in Tokyo so I’ve taken advantage and headed out round the Park again as often as possible. Until last week that is, when the wet weather proved to be an ideal situation for mosquitoes carrying the dengue fever virus. Last night 76 cases had been reported in Japan – the first “domestic” cases of the disease for nearly 70 years. All the victims reported having been bitten by mozzies in Yoyogi Park. So with the Park now sealed off I need to find a new virus free route, as obviously DEET and covering up will not be enough to defeat the little blighters if I can’t outrun them.

Not much jigging around

I went to the monthly free lunch-time recital in Tokyo Opera City yesterday attended mainly by the retired gentlefolk of the area. Usually these are fairly sedate events  with a short  30 minute programme of baroque chamber music and no calls of Bravo or enthusiastic encouragement of encores. So yesterday with a programme of Irish music on the agenda I was looking forward to something different.

A talented trio playing violin/fiddle, Irish flute/tin whistle and guitar took the stage  and immediately launched in to a lively set of “The Lark in the  clear air”  and “Tripping up the stairs”. Despite the guitarist marking the beat with some enthusiastic foot-tapping and my own leg picking up the rhythm, the audience remained stony faced  and applauded  lightly at the end. “Danny Boy” was much more to their liking as they recognised it compared to these unknown Celtic tunes. Another set described as “Jigs” also failed to get much response  and the man sitting next to me was dozing by this stage. I just wanted to join in with a tabor or even spoons to transfer some of the energy from the performers to the audience.

The finale was “Amazing Grace” – which is played at many concerts in Japan; so this got some “ahs” and knowing nods indicating that most of the audience were still alive.

I guess Japan is just not ready for something different yet – but if this had been played in an Irish pub then maybe – just maybe – the trio led by Mari Yasui might have generated a more appropriate appreciation of their talents