Kanpai, Kyoto and the Kindness of Strangers

Jet-lagged and fueled by coffee, this post is a little late in coming and leapfrogs others in the draft file, unfinished and requiring a couple of hours that never seem to come. Since my last post i’ve covered some distance through Italy and Sicily, back to London and onto Japan en route to Australia.

Japan has been an eye opener far beyond the expected cultural differences, heated toilet seats and piped lounge jazz on the street. It’s had me using the word “WOW” more than is bearable. It’s become a verbal tick. Most of all it is the people that have made me think that many places as great as they are (i’m looking at you London) could up their game.

In Tokyo, a lady wheeling her elderly mother around the neighbourhood stops us, asks if we need help, calls our hotel and walks us there. She gracefully nods her shoulders and head, smiles and continues on her way. A one off we think. Arriving in a Kyoto amid a downpour a driver stops in traffic, parks up and takes it upon himself to locate the hotel and offer us a lift. It’s a little overwhelming when you are generally used to a head down, I need to get from A to B attitude.

Kanpai, Kyoto and the Kindness of Strangers

Far beyond situations where we stand in the street orientating the map and pointing in all directions we have come across strangers who ask us where we have come from – on benches and in bars. Sat in a Yakitori bar language is no barrier. With a liberal amount of gesturing we communicate with a retired couple. They point at the wedding rings on their fingers and gesture that they have been married for over 30 years. We manage with help from the grill chef to communicate 2 months. A round of applause from the couple and the bar as a shout of HONEYMOON comes from the barman. Our new friends from Sapporo, shout to the bar and two draft beers arrive. 5 minutes later skewers of pork, rice and cheese. As they leave we pose for pictures with the shout Kanpai (cheers). Again Sapporo Man calls to the bar. His wife again claps and as they depart another two beers arrive.

A country where strangers literally go out of their way to help – show kindness through beer and pork – and leave you wondering what more there is to come. This, so far is Japan.


A Travellers Tale

I’m sent quite a few links and comments to beer related stuff which I rarely post. I enjoy it all but don’t re-post all as it doesn’t always seem relevant. I today received two that I will comment on.

First the news that the Aussies beat the Germans at their own game in San Diego with a grand prize for Burleigh Hef.

My future, Aussie-Dutch father in law sent me this info proving that you can be an out and out Aussie but still retain that streak of Europeanism (Is that a Bushism?).

Second is from my possible future brother in law (keep up people). I have been teaching him the ways of craft beer. This involves his massive hangover and the future sister in law declaring me a bad influence (me, a bad influence? Never!). I’m proud of my work with him so far and that this was his email today:

“I was tempted to a pub at Heathrow (terminal 1, the Goose) by their advert with references to “craft beer”. Like a space ship caught in the deathstar’s tractor beam I followed my nose. I thought to myself, “what better way to start a 3 day holiday to Iceland?… with a decent pint!?…. I sat down and requested a craft beer to be told, “sorry, we’re out”. My following three requests were also followed by “sorry, we’re out”. The waiter then shocked me with his next comment, “how about a Fosters?”… Ffs!!… I hope my holiday improves from here!!! I’m now drinking a Stella… 1 notch better than a pint of urine!”

Travel is supposed to be a pleasure! But there’s places peddling Fosters… Tell us your beer horrors and triumphs.

A Travellers Tale

Braderie de Lille

If your idea of hell is a pan pipe band on every corner then Lille’s annual La Braderie is not the place for you. I am tolerant to a point only briefly overcome by a most evil concoction. The James Blunt / Pan Pipe fusion… Oh sweet lord I can’t get it out of my head. If you can get through it then a weekend of moules & frites, beer and junk/antique shopping is ahead of you.

Yes that’s right. This post is about shopping. For dead people’s stuff. It’s one of many a guilty secret. I’ll baulk at the thought of Selfridges but present me with flea markets, junk shops or antique warehouses and I’m happy to wander, breathing in the must and dust hoping to find that mid century coffee grinder that I need in my life.

Ok before I lose the beery crowd I do have something for you. I know how you are obsessive. You like to collect. Beer mats, glasses and the like. Well this is your Mecca. Whether it’s branded ashtrays, pastis & whisky jugs, champagne buckets, beer mats, glasses, branded chalkboards, pumps and even the odd external sign then it’s all here. It took all my willpower not to pick up items for fear of starting a collection.


Refreshments are taken regularly from cafe’s and bars with a choice of sitting in or finding a makeshift bar setup for the weekend. A word to the wise would be to keep the majority of the alcohol for the evening as you may find yourself with that collection of 70s French Women’s Weekly you always dreamed of.


As trade tails off for the evening the bars an bistros fill, the moule shells are piled in the street for collection, such is the sheer volume and the bad schoolboy French gets it’s airing. I have an E in GCSE French in case you want a hint at how bad I am. The stereotype of sophisticated French society isn’t applicable in the places we visit with more Le Coq Sportif and Lacoste per square foot than in Croydon, Liverpool and Leicester combined. As the shells pile, glasses are constantly replenished, with only a brief torrent of rain, thunder & lightening to dampen spirits. In fact far from at as we race into the nearest bar and settle in until the rain stops. The perfect excuse!

Braderie de Lille

Englishman in New York: the Hurricane formerly known as Irene

So Irene has come and gone. By the time she reached New York City, CNN were telling us that she’d been downgraded to a tropical storm. All the same the rain was banging at the window and the horns on the fire trucks could be heard all night. Screaming in the street at 2am put me on edge and it made for a fitful nights sleep.

For 24 hours we were confined to the hotel without knowing for how long, whether the power would stay on, whether the water would stay on. We had food, bottled water, some beers and tap water in ice buckets (just in case we were talking days). We were issued with glowsticks and hand fans. If the power didn’t go off we could always have a rave was the thought.


The hotel staff at the Hudson were and continue to be great. Dressed in black I Love NY t-shirts they went about delivering service as if there was just a smattering of rain outside. Most guests took it in their stride while others were visibly distressed. One in tears as her flight had been cancelled was comforted by a receptionist with reassurance. It’s moments like this when I’m glad we didn’t go down the bargain route. The hotel bars for the most part were open, a cinema room and drawing station were set up and messages left on in room answer-phones from the exuberant General Manager. It took on a strange cruise ship vibe as you walk the common areas. I’m yet to find the shuffleboard.

After a few drinks in the bar, a Magic Hat #9 by candlelight, it was back to the room for a Barney Greengrass dinner of bialy, pickled herring, potato salad and pickles. A little bit of channel hopping before that fitful nights sleep. Strip away the news coverage and twitter and I think sleep would have been easier.


We’ve not ventured out yet but the streets seem to be returning to normal.


Englishman in New York: the Hurricane formerly known as Irene

Englishman in New York: Waiting for Irene

With a week in New York there’s always going to be new experiences, but preparing for a hurricane isn’t one you’d expect. After the earthquake which we didn’t feel, the talk of Irene took a while to take hold of our attention. Once the Mayor, the Governors of New York and New Jersey and finally the President had made televised addresses our attention was gripped.

New Yorkers seemed to go about their business in much the same way as Londoners. There’s a calm cynicism as mist people heed the warnings. Supermarkets were open throughout the night to meet demand but there wasn’t the crazy panic buying you’d maybe expect. Water and potato chips seemed to be the waiting for Irene staples but New Yorkers at Whole Foods on Columbus Circle supplemented the staples with sushi, Tibetan tofu rolls and coconut water.


In the beer aisle it’s just me and another guy calmly surveying our hurricane drinking choices. With the possibility of spending 72 hours indoors without the guarantee of any hotel services being available a few decent bottles were required. Having sampled the Coney Island Blockhead and Rogue Chipotle Ale earlier in the week I reverted to Californian and Japanese with Stone, Lagunitas and Hitachino with a Pretty Things thrown in for East Coast balance. It’s enough to ride out the storm but not be incapable should any evacuation be required.


Supplies in hand we head out to Columbus Circle. Queues are forming to get into the store and the missus has the satisfied look of I told you so. I was resistant to spending possibly hours in the Market. In the end I should have known she’s pretty much 95% right in most situations.

With the MTA (buses, trains and subways) shutting down on mass at midday on Saturday there was just enough time for breakfast and further stocking up at Barney Greengrass (bialys and herring being essential hurricane food) before heading back to the hotel to hunker down with a muted CNN and a good book.

Englishman in New York: Waiting for Irene

The Search Continues… Country Pubs

Last weekend was spent camping Thameside. Lou and I headed for Rushey Lock in Oxfordshire for a Bank Holiday of grey skies and occasional rain. Well it wouldn’t be proper camping otherwise, would it? The plan for the weekend was no plan. Just a few days of reading, wandering down the Thames and of course the odd pub. The Lock Keeper gave us the lay of the land which mainly consisted of his pub tips. Directions are easy on the river our choices being 4 miles one way and 1 mile the other.

First up was the Swan at Radcot. A large union flag flies riverside and the garden is taken up with ducks and geese. If the picture needed to be anymore British an E-Type Jag revs at the lights. The pub itself doesn’t live up to the promise. The interior lacks the warmth expected with prominent flatscreen tv, set dining tables and an uninspiring choice at the bar. Lou asks about the Rev. James. “It’s a strong dark ale.” There is a definite full stop. No more information will be shared, no further questions asked, just an unblinking stare that comes with years of practice.


Sat in the near empty garden we watch the boats pass and the geese chase the ducks. A YouTube classic in the making, but it only raises a brief smile. A group arrive and sit on the nearest table to us, despite there being an entire garden to choose from. As they salute and shout ahoy to each passing barge, guffawing each time, it’s a sure sign that there will be no second pint.

We make our way back towards Rushey Lock, saying hello to those who we pass. It raises barely a grunt from most. Lou reminds me we’re not up North and such things are not wise. She may be an Aussie, but she certainly understands the North / South divide.  The Trout at Tadpole Bridge is our second attempt at capturing the perfect country pub, which when right delivers more than great beer. It’s about local character and a  real sense of where you are. With roses around the door and a Chocolate Labrador stretched out on the stone floor this is immediately more appealing; as is the beer choice. Starting with Butts’ Barbus Barbus we settle into the small bar area. As with the Swan much of the pub Is taken up with the restaurant. Most country pubs wouldn’t survive without a strong food trade and in the case of the Trout this would seem to be it’s focus. The bar, as pleasant as it is, seems like a mere waiting area. Evening service starts at 7pm and at 6pm on a Bank Holiday Sunday we are among only a handful of punters. Service seems oddly schizophrenic with a warm welcome to some and the bare minimum for others.

The menu looks good but we have we food back at the Lock. What is required is something to soak up the beer. We ask for chips. The answer is firmly no. Chips are only served as a side. It is also 6.30pm and we are reminded the kitchen is closed until 7pm. A kind of no and even if we did the kitchens closed, so unlucky and unlucky again. We have a second round, this time of the Ramsbury Bitter which is the surprise of the day. With a smokey ashen taste it’s unexpected but more than welcome to take our minds off food. Orders start to be taken and we decide to go with the local cheese board. Now this would seem simple enough but I’m again told the kitchen opens at 7pm. Thoughts of Michael Douglas in Falling Down spring to mind but I keep the rage under wraps. It’s 6.50pm and orders are being taken in the restauarnt. Added to which it’s a cheese board. Hardly the most taxing of dishes to prepare. I persevere and with a sullen shrug I’m told to choose a selection of 3. There’s no mention on the board that the selection is limited and when raised I get a stare that says it all. A few years practice and it’ll be spot on. The Oxford Blue, Single Gloucester and Bath Soft are served on slate, the edges look like they’ve been cut well before ordering and it suffers as cheese boards always seem to from a severe lack of oatcake. That is unless you want to load half a wedge of blue onto each one.

We leave a little more satisfied than the Swan, thanks wholly to the beer, but still not having found the Country Pub I’ve been craving. It’s proof that bricks and mortar, roses around the door and an idyllic location don’t guarantee a great pub.  So back to the Lock to singe some more grass and uncork a bottle of Lagavulin 16 year old, hoping that in the absence of TV we will be treated to more of the simple joy of watching a goose chase a duck.


The Search Continues… Country Pubs

Whisky Galore!

Whisky until recently brought to mind the harshest of blends half inched from the drinks cabinet and downed neat with 10 B&H on a damp Pennine hillside. It’s no wonder that with these adolescent memories Whisky was a pleasure that had passed me by. Until an impromptu tasting of Islay Single Malts with Meister and O started me on a road which I only expected to end in appreciation (and slight inebriation) not Islay itself. But that’s exactly where I’m headed. The sleeper to Glasgow is booked and the Ferry awaits; as do the likes of Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Bruichladdich and Ardbeg. I have a few weeks to wait but in the meantime I’m revisiting the Ealing classic, Whisky Galore, accompanied of course by a generous dram of Laphroaig.

Whisky Galore!

2010: The ones that got away

While posting yesterday about plans and thoughts for 2011 I realised that there were a few posts that got away from me in 2010. Fellow bloggers will doubtless have a heap of drafts that for whatever reason don’t reach you pushing publish. For me it’s often that I just can’t quite do justice to a situation or simply that time passes and I have new posts in mind. I then months later kick myself for not persevering. So to save me any further self flagellation here’s a selection of 2010 highlights that for whatever reason got away.

Rosebud, 11 bis rue Delambre, Paris… We all have our view of Parisien waitrs whether from experience or stereotype. A quick round of Dirty Martini’s and Whisky Sours looked as if to reinforce the stereotype, until the nose came out! With the skill of a circus clown the nose went on. A round to be remembered and a bar which we will visit again and again.

Berlin was the scene of a Supperclub farewell to Meister, before heading off for Oz. Basically four days of lots of beer and meat with Captain English as our guide of the best of East and West. There was the odd Karaoke debut, which the written word just doesn’t do justice too, and I’m assured the video evidence will not see the light of day (or YouTube). My rendition of The Gambler, Meisters take on Wild Thing, English’s Edwin Collins are all safely held by Silvio (under threat of legal action). We may have to return to the Punk bar, the name of which was annihaliated by the whisky, for another performance. If just to hear Silvio sing Kylie again.

Schleusenkrug, Tiergarten, Berlin: If there is a better place to quench a thirst than a Berlin beer garden then I don’t know it. After hours of criss-crossing Berlin on a Fat Tire bike the Schleusenkrug offered everything you could want: beer and pretzel.

Just a few of those that got away…

2010: The ones that got away

2011: The List

I’m as guilty as most in making resolutions which don’t make it past the second week of January so this year I’m not calling them resolutions. They’re simply The List. I’m a great lover of lists. I can spend hours procrastinating over them, when I should be getting on and doing the stuff on the list.

I’m not going to share the full list (it may give too much away) but this will give a feel for how I want my year in blogging to pan out. In no particular order my focus this year will be:

Travel. Trips are already planned to Denmark, the States, Islay and a good few others. Not to mention a wealth of posts from a recent trip to Australia.

Training. For the Coast to Coast. Ok so this is kind of travel as well albeit at a slower pace. As someone recently said, it’s a great excuse to spend a few weeks in Pubs after a “bit of a walk”.

Tasting. This one goes without saying. Whether it be craft beers, ales, whisky or wine.

So pretty much the three Ts. Add to this a bit of homebrewing and this should be a busy year.

2011: The List