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Life in the big smoke

What to do if you only have one day in London

This weekend a couple of friends came over to London from Finland. Some of them had been in London before, one of them hadn’t. It got me thinking. What would be the best way to spend a day in London if you’ve never seen the city before? Here is what I would do.

Morning

Start at London Bridge. Check if Borough Market is open and grab breakfast and a coffee somewhere in the bustling food market. It’s worth going early as it can get busy in the afternoon. If it’s closed go to one of the chain cafés around Hay’s Galleria.

When fed and caffeinated start strolling west, follow the Thames along the southbank. Along the way pass The Globe, Tate Modern and the London Eye.

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Eventually the Houses of Parliament will appear on the other side of the river. Cross Westminster Bridge and explore the area. If the queue isn’t too long and you have money in your pocket have a look at Westminster Abbey.

Afternoon

Walk up Whitehall towards Trafalgar Square, passing 10 Downing Street on the way. Have a look at Trafalgar Square and keep heading north on to Charing Cross road. On the way there’ll be a chance to see Leicester Square and its theatres.

At Shaftesbury Avenue turn right and head towards the Seven Dials near Covent Garden. There will plenty of nice places to have lunch around there. I would go to one of the vegetarian places in or around Neal’s Yard.

There are lots of shops around the Seven Dials and Covent Garden. Many of these shops will be the same ones you’ll find on Oxford Street, but they’ll be less busy.

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Spend the afternoon exploring Covent Garden and Soho. Stop for a tea at Maison Bertaux on Greek Street in Soho. They have amazing pastries. If you fancy coffee instead go to Monmouth Coffee on Monmouth Street in the Seven Dials.

Evening

Take the 24 bus from Charing Cross Road to its final stop (The Royal Free Hospital in Kentish Town). From there it’s a really short walk to Hampstead Heath. The bus will go past Camden, which is great to see from a bus window, but less interesting to walk around (unless you’re a 14-year-old with stripy tights).

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Walk up to Parliament Hill at Hampstead Heath, admire the skyline, take a couple of photographs. Stroll around the park and then walk back down to Camden. If the feet feel tired stop and have a green smoothie at Inspiral or a pint at The Lock Tavern.

Take the overground from Camden Junction to Dalston, grab something to eat at The White Rabbit and then go for a drink in the nearby pub Farr’s School of Dancing. On an adventurous night take a bus to Shoreditch and sampel a few cocktails at Callooh Callay.

Top image by Alessia Clauderio all other pictures are mine.

Japan: My guide to Tokyo or some things I learned after ten days in the city

In April Gerry and I travelled to Japan to take photos for his next series of prints. Our aim was to do one photo shoot per day, which took us all over Tokyo. We spent a day following the expressway criss-crossing the eastern side of town and another day hunkered underneath an umbrella in Shibuya trying to capture people rushing past us in the rain. This was our sightseeing. And it was exactly the sort of sightseeing I enjoy – exploring and walking.

I didn’t shop, I didn’t see many of those places you’re supposed to see, but I tried to get to know the city, to meet local people and to understand what it’s like to live in Tokyo.

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During our two weeks in Japan we only managed to scratch the surface, if that. But here goes. Here is my guide to Tokyo.

Neighbourhoods

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Koenji

We stayed in a small apartment in Koenji, a district west of Shinjuku, during our first week in the Tokyo. Koenji is a slightly punky part of town, with lots of rock venues, tiny bars and vintage clothing shops.

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South of the Koenji subway station there’s a shopping mall, which eventually turns into a street lined with cute second hand shops. To the north is a slightly different high street, with cozy bars and nice restaurants. That’s where we also stumbled across a busy little supermarket with great take away boxes of sashimi and sushi. Trying to navigate through the isles of supermarkets abroad is one of my favourite things. We often ended up with a random basket of stuff and sampled a lot of noodles, rice cakes and green tea flavoured cookies.

Shimokitazawa

Shimokitazawa is a bit like the Hackney or Brooklyn of Tokyo. We stayed in the area during our last two days in Tokyo. It felt a lot more affluent than Koenji and the neighbourhood definitely had an alternative vibe, but compared to other places in the city it seemed a bit expensive. A lot of the restaurants and bars served up food that reminded us of home, burgers, salads and third wave coffee.

The area is great for independent shopping and you can easily spend a day or two there exploring the shops and restaurants. Just remember it might be a bit harder on your wallet than other areas in Tokyo.

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Shibuya/Shinjuku/Harajuku/Roppongi

We only spent a bit of time in the more central parts of town. You’ll find out most of the things you need to know about these areas in any good tourist guide. They’re the sort of places where you’ll find upmarket boutiques, big fashion brands and restaurants catering to tourists.

Shibuya

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After doing our photo shoot we rushed through Shibuya in the rain and had a quick look at the famous Shibuya 109 shopping centre with its many colourful concessions of womenswear. It was interesting, but a bit manic so we escaped the crowds and ended up in a pool hall around the corner where we played pool for a couple of hours and watched the local kids and amazing Japanese grannies at the tables next to us.

Harajuku

The back streets around Cat street felt like mix of Greenwich village and Camden, a mix of independent clothing shops and cheaper touristy places.

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The high point was an interesting art gallery called Design Festa, a building with lots of small cubicles where local artists can rent a space. In the courtyard there was a cafe where you could grill your own okonomiyaki on a hot plate, which we didn’t get a chance to do, but it did look very tasty.

We also visited the Ukiyo-e Ota museum and spent an hour walking around, looking at their collection of amazing woodblock prints.

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Yoyogi park in Harajuku was nice too.

Jimbocho

One of my favourite days was spent browsing through the second hand book shops in Jimbocho. Many of them had floors full of old knick-knacks, old wrapping paper and wood block prints. It felt like going through the contents of a dusty old attic. It felt quite strange walking through shops filled with these books I couldn’t read. If you love second hand book shops this is the place to go.

Akihabara

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This area gave me a bit of a cold sweat. The center of Akihabara is a big street lined with blinking signs, shouting out advertising, huge manga characters peering down from buildings and shops with floors and floors of cheap electronics.

This place is geek heaven and if you know your electronics you can definitely find a bargain there. All I managed to get was a mild attack of the panics on the top floor in one of the shops, when the random advertising tunes, the strange figurines of naked pre-pubescent girls and the weird yellow light got a bit too much and I had to get out.

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I braved the basement floor of a couple of shops as well and stumbled across a slightly weird side of Japanese society. I’m still struggling to understand how adult comics featuring very young looking girls can be sold so casually and openly.

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On a more positive note there is another good art gallery in Akihabara, in an old school tucked away on a small side street. Like at Design Festa in Harajuku, artists can rent a room in 3331 Arts Chiyoda. We walked around for a bit, slightly confused by the fact that the place still smelled exactly like a high school and that high schools therefore must smell the same the world over.

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Eating

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Even though both of us like good food Tokyo sometimes felt too big and confusing to make informed choices, often our hunger took over and we stumbled into the first decent looking restaurant.

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This meant we ate a lot of Japanese fast food, ramen and rice, which was mostly tasty and filling. We also bought plenty of stuff in the supermarkets and ate dinner in the apartment we’d rented. A cheap alternative to eating out, but often just as tasty.

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We also went to a restaurant in Shinjuku where you could grill your own food and had a lot of good sushi. Often we just chose the places randomly, but only had few disappointing meals.

Top tip

Tensuke in Koenji was recommended to us by some of the locals. There’s normally a queue outside this tiny tempura restaurant and only a handfull of seats next to the counter inside.

Because the food was so good we queued twice to eat there. The head chef speaks a bit of English and flamboyantly tosses eggs, shrimp and vegetables into a vat of hot oil. The tempura was salty and crispy and amazing. But the best thing about the whole experience was the bowl of rice with a fried egg on top. I will dream about that rice for months.

I can also recommend a cafe in Koenji called “Precious coffee moments”, not just because of the name, but because they do a sesame milk coffee with ice cream. Weird, but amazing.

Drinking

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Opposite Tensuke there is a small jazz bar, just big enough for seven people to cram around the bar disk. Jazz singer Hanako was working the shift one night when we strolled around Koenji, nervously looking for a place to stop and have a drink. These bars almost seem like living rooms and taking that step over the threshold felt a bit like intruding.

Luckily Hanako is one of those people who seems to make friends wherever she goes. She waved at us and we ended up joining the group of people at the bar. If you can’t find this particular jazz bar, I would recommend looking for your own, a small place where you can drink several glasses of wine and get to know a few people. Everyone seemed happy to practise their English with us and wanted to talk about their trips to Liverpool. Since Gerry’s Scottish, they also wanted to know what he thinks about the independence debate.

Top tip

In many restaurants you can pay a set amount and then drink as much as you want for two hours. Normally it was around 2000 yen (£10) for one person, the measures were quite small, but the offer is often worth it if you want to have a couple of drinks.

Getting around

The metro/subway in Tokyo can seem overwhelming at first, especially since the lines are run by different operators. The easiest way to get around is to buy a Suica pass, which works like an Oyster card, at any of the major stations. Just top up the card when you need to. It also helps to have a downloaded metro map on your phone or tablet, as the maps in the stations can sometimes be a bit confusing. Luckily for us non-Japanese speakers all stations have signs in English.

Extra

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If you’re interested in wood block printing check out David Bull’s studio in Asakusa. We did a quick wood block printing course with David, who took us through the process and techniques. He was very generous with his time and spent a few minutes after the course talking about printing techniques and his life in Japan.

Cost

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Tokyo was cheaper than we had expected. We paid less for food and alcohol than we would have done in London and we often ended up spending less than our daily budget. Even when we thought we’d splurged on dinner, the bill landed somewhere around £30 or £40 for a dinner for two, with drinks. Although one thing to keep in mind is that the more tourist-friendly an area is, the more expensive it will be.

Transport and accommodation were probably the most costly things about the trip, as was getting to Japan in the first place. I also thought the price of clothing and electronics was about the same as in the UK, so it’s not a great place to go for a bargain, unless you know what you’re looking for and exactly where to go.

A couple of things about etiquette

I could never remember when to take my shoes off and when to wear slippers. It’s confusing, but I think the key is never to wear anything else on your feet than socks if you’re stepping onto a tatami mat, if you do the locals tell you off.

Always hand people things with both hands. It’s a really nice thing to do actually.

Never tip. No one expects you to do it.

A lot of restaurants have bell on the table, press the button or ring the bell whenever you want to catch the waiter’s attention. They might not come up to the table and “disturb” you otherwise, so it’s up to you to tell them whenever you want something.

Japan: Hiking from Kibune to Kurama

I’m in the studio, wrapping up stories and wiping my nose, debating whether coffee or tea would be better for the cold I’ve managed to pick up somewhere last week. I’m taking a quick break from other work, going through some of the photos from Japan. I can’t believe we were there less than two weeks ago. Travel always seems to exist in a parallell universe.

For our second week in Japan we took the bullet train to Kyoto, not sure what to expect other than temples and tranquility. We’d done some research on Tokyo, spent a week walking around the city and being plunged into a new urban landscape felt slightly disconcerting. Suddenly there was a new bus system to learn and navigate and unfamiliar shops where we could forage for sashimi and beer late at night, a new flat to call a temporary home.

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Perhaps I was a bit tired of urban Japan, perhaps I never gave Kyoto a proper chance, because after about a day in the city I felt like I had had enough. We spent our first day walking around the temple district of Higashiyama, shuffling along amongst big groups of tourists. It felt like being pushed around by a crowd at a quite civilised music festival. Everyone was doing the same thing. Look at this, take a snap of that, have this ice cream, now move on to the next thing on the to-do-list.

After a week in Tokyo I needed some nature. The guide book we’d brought with us (Lonely Planet) had a small entry on a place where locals go to escape the madness of city life, two small towns called Kibune and Kurama high up in the hills. It was even possible to hike along a mountain ridge between the places. We didn’t need much convincing, packed some lunch and spent our second day in Kyoto escaping the city.

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We decided to take the train from Kyoto to Kibune and then hike to Kurama. It’s possible to do it the other way around, it just depends on what treat you’d like at the end of your hike. Kibune is a riverside town and in the summer all the small ryokans and restaurants build platforms on the river where you can sit and eat. We’d arrived too early in the year for this and decided to go for the other option of a post-hike treat, an onsen (hot spring bath) in Kurama.

The same train will take you to both Kibune and Kurama, which is the end stop. We got off at Kibuneguchi and then walked about 2 kilometers to Kibune, where the mountain trail starts.

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In Japan there were vending machines everywhere! I became particularly fond of a sports drink called “pocari sweat”. The “coffee boss” coffee tins were pretty good as well.

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The temple in Kibune.

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The trail.

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It seems to me the hike from Kibune up the hill is slightly more strenuous than starting from Kurama, where you can get a cable car half-way up. We walked up a steep path, sweating and panting, trying our best to say “konnichiwa” to all the chirpy children and grannies walking the opposite way. They didn’t look too impressed by our efforts, but after many days in dusty cities it was nice to walk. Along the route were hidden temples, gnarly trees and amazing views.

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After about two hours of hiking we arrived at Kurama-dera, an old temple, where there were a lot of other tourists and a groups of Japanese men in suits and shiny shoes (I’m guessing they must have taken the cable car).

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We stopped for a bit of lunch and then walked down to Kurama town, a small place with a couple of restaurants, tourist shops and the onsen. The baths were quite busy, but soaking in the hot water after the walk was one of the high points of the trip.

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More about Kibune and Kurama

Inside Kyoto, Japan Guide, Lonely Planet and Japan Visitor.