The tour of east Asia continues and I am nearly at the end, here in Tokyo. It is cherry blossom season and the branches are heavy with white and pink blooms; enthusiastic photographers aiming their expensive telephoto lenses at them from tripods in the park. Tokyo is a relief after Beijing, only three days there is enough for me.
This work trip has lasted two weeks and my first stop was Seoul, Korea. It wouldn’t be a normal trip for me if there wasn’t imminent doom predicted, and the tensions between North and South Korea are at a peak. All rhetoric of course and it was hardly mentioned during my stay. I worked solidly for 6 days, my only down time was at the gym and being taken out to Korean BBQ restaurants by clients. It is always a BBQ restaurant and you have to act as though it is something really special for you each time. After three nights of it, I was ready for something less time consuming and more western, but the BBQ kept coming. Some guidelines: marinated beef is best, followed by chicken followed by pork, which is generally really fatty and sometimes still has hair on it. They cook the skin too. The places with genuine charcoal are my favourite as the heat is homely and the popping fuel makes it feel more authentic. Grab a leaf, add some rice, a bit of spicy paste and some snipped up meat then shove it in your mouth. Wash down with local beer, makoli (fermented rice alcoholic drink that looks like milk. All the cool kids mix it with lemonade) or soju if you are feeling brave. Of course, it is accompanied with kimchi and pickles.
One exception was a trip to Korea House, a heritage site surrounded by traditional gardens and serving food made from centuries old recipe books. It is fine dining, Korean style and is quite an experience. Boxes with many compartments containing shredded vegetables, pickles and meats arrive for you to build miniature pancakes with. Baked abalone, seafood soup, meat patties, kimchi and sweetened nuts all make up an 11 course menu washed down with tea. The setting makes it a unique experience.
Then on to Beiijng, a city that is changing at an incredible rate. When I first went to China in 2005, I was still a little bit of a novelty, kids stopping me in the street to have their photo taken with me. There was 16RMB to the pound and I couldn’t spend money however hard I tried. A bottle of beer was about 30 pence and a hotel room in the middle of the city was about £40 a night. Now beer is £5 a bottle and hotels don’t come much cheaper than £150. I was staying in Haidian, a student district, and was struck by the massive increase in foreign students there – hundreds of American, British, Russian and Korean kids taking the opportunity to experience China and learn Chinese.
My hotel was hosting some snooker players playing in the China Masters, so I was eating breakfast next to sports celebrities (in the UK and China anyway) every morning.
I met up with a friend one evening and went to Hohai lake for dinner and drinks. We went into the hutongs behind the main drag and found Bed bar, a converted peasant house that now charges £4 for a mojito and you sit on beds to drink them. We ate some Vietnamese food and went to a bar owned by an American couple. Just shows how Beijing is now a very different city to a decade ago – truly international. We whinged about the dirty air, the traffic and the spitting taxi drivers, but it was fun.
I arrived in Tokyo last night and love this city. It’s efficient, convenient, massive and bonkers. When your mum and I first came here in 2002 we felt like we had landed on mars, but things are a little easier now. The subway has English signs for a start. As always, I’ve got a pretty packed schedule, but I’m looking forward to the food, maybe a run around a park and hopefully something cultural one morning.
The gardens at Korea House
Snooker players in Beijing
A funny sign at a university in Seoul
The view out of my hotel over Shinagawa station in Tokyo