29 January 2015

"Where's me coconuts?"

Part 2: On the Trail of the Yellow Fingernail

The sun was shining into my room the next morning and as I opened my eyes this horrendous vision greeted me. Beady eyes and strange curly things dangling from graying hair, bright red lips and bad breath. It was Mother shaking me rather violently for some reason.

 "Get up, get up" I heard her saying. 

I rose quickly bashing my head onto her chin. "Get up, get up" turned into words best not described in these pages but lets just say she wasn't pleased. Having recovered and given me a wrap around my head, she ordered me to go downstairs as someone had come to see me. She stormed out the room, leaving me to ponder this strange, early morning request.

Deciding to dress later I threw on my dressing gown and bounded down the stairs and into the kitchen. I was greeted by a smug looking Mr Kiln (head Parish Councillor) sitting at the table drinking a cup of tea. Without talking he threw that mornings edition of the Leyhill Echo cross to me. I looked down at the headline and then looked across at Mr Kiln.

"Shock, Horror - Coconut Stall Goes Missing
Messieurs Kiln and Pickles are said to be disgusted at the latest crime to hit the streets of Leyhill." More to follow...

I stood contemplating the implications of the headline. He stood up, thanked Mother and just as he was leaving turned to me.

"Get yourself dressed properly and come to the my office."
"What the shed at the bottom of your garden?" I replied. 
"Just be there", and with that he stormed out of the kitchen. 

I headed upstairs, slightly confused by what had just happened. 
I got changed and headed out, as I walked down the road towards Mr Kilns shed (office) I bumped into the local tramp Mr Partridge, who was also one of Mr Kilns henchmen. 

"You smell" he stated. Charming I thought.
"So do you" I replied, regretting the comment as he brought a smelly fist up to my throat. 
"Listen, if I say you smell, you smell. Got it?" 
"Ok, look I'm just off to see Mr Kiln as someone has stolen the coconut stalls".
"Yeah I've heard that, strange business if you ask me, something not right about that", he said lessening his grip.
"Why" I asked, thinking he was not telling me everything, what with him being one of Mr Kilns henchmen.
"Not telling you because you smell!" And with that he started to walk off, dragging me for a moment until he realised he still had hold of me. He let go and turned, shook his head and walked towards the pub. 

All rather bizarre I thought and with that I continued down the road. This was a catastrophe for the village. No fete, no money for the pubs! The village would lose its credibility amongst the surrounding villages. Leyhill would become the laughing stock of the county. 

As I arrived at Mr Kilns shed, PC Bob Pig was standing outside, picking his nose. He opened the door and I was greeted by Mr Kiln sitting behind a makeshift desk of a plank of wood balanced on a lawnmower and a chair. He again threw a newspaper at me with a new headline (they print them quickly I thought). I looked at the latest headline and then looked back at him.

FETE TO BE CANCELLED - now reports suggest all the stalls have been taken. Messieurs Kiln and Pickles said to be utterly disgusted. More to follow....

This was shocking, truly shocking, but what did they want from me?
"Sit down Wilson. What we are about to tell you is confidential between me, you and Mr Pig out there. Pig stop picking your nose." he shouted. And with that he explained everything....

Find out what happens in the next installment ...Pub brawls and fete stalls


22 January 2015

Vending Machines - why they can be a travellers saviour

Why vending machines can be a travellers saviour

Come to Japan and you really can't miss them. They are on every street corner, at every station, close to attractions, in every hotel, inside department stores, on top of mountains (its true), on trains and oddly outside convenience stores! But don't dish them because they are not only essential but also incredibly convenient and saviours to locals and tourists alike. Japan can be a difficult place to travel around, its very busy and unfamiliar. The variety of products they sell and the food you can eat can make for difficult decisions to be made. The vending machines therefore can be your saviour, helping you out of a sticky situation. Mid summer, perhaps hiding from the midday sun in a park and you fancy an ice cream! No problem there will probably be vending machine that has them close by. Walking in the hills in the middle of an icy, cold winter? Need a hot drink? Grab yourself a warm canned coffee at the vending machine, even perhaps at the top of the mountain! When I climbed Mt Fuji there were vending machines at the top (along with a picture of David Beckham).

And they don't just provide drinks or chocolates or other confectionery delights. I have seen (only once mind) the infamous underpants vending machine. Hidden in the depths of a suburb of Shinjuku. You could, if you fancy buy a DVD or magazine. I'm sure there are many more, but I can't currently think of any. So please let me know if you have spotted unusual vending machines. Lets build up a world picture of these taken for granted machines.

Now I know that most countries have them but I can honestly say that I have never seen or indeed used as many as I have when visiting Japan. So lets rejoice and celebrate these wonders of modern technology and also be thankful because they fulfil a key role and can be a travellers saviour. All hail the mighty vending machine!


16 January 2015

5 reasons to visit miyajima

The Famous Torii Gate on Miyajima Island

The Islands Where Gods Dwell - Why you should visit Miyajima
History and tradition, blue sea and mountains and greenery..reads the guide map. Choice and relevant words for one of Japan's must visit places. From the iconic o-torii gate image to the surrounding mountains. Miyajima is a wonderful place to explore. 

Easily accessible from Hiroshima and is the perfect place to visit as a day away from the humdrum of the city. It is certainly a place anyone visiting the area should take time out to visit. And from the number of tourists heading there on the day we went, then its very much prominent in peoples travelling agendas.

Upon arrival it's fair to say you are in solid tourist territory. Souvenir shops and restaurants line the seafront, along with the roaming wild deer that are all to happy to greet you. A visit to Itsukushima shrine is a must and depending on your fitness levels heading to the summit of Mt.Misen should also feature on your agenda. You can either walk, which takes at least 2hrs or jump on the rope way (notice the humour in the sign that directs you to the station). At the top you won't be disappointed with fantastic views across the Inland Sea; Hiroshima on the horizon (see below). Once back down at sea level head to the shopping arcade where you must try some of the local cuisine, especially the (deep fried) Momiji Manju, a bun filled with a variety of fillings; bean paste and walnut for example. Its shaped into a maple leaf and is a 100 yen delight. The queue for these delicious treats testament to their popularity.

Other shops vie for your cash, selling cheap gifts to expensive foods. Unlike some places you don't feel pressured to buy and you can happily browse away. There is plenty more to see and do (temples, a museum of folklore and an aquarium). So you shouldn't get bored and why would you when you are at one of Japan's national treasures?

Views from Mt. Misen
So here are five reasons for visiting Miyajima

1) See the iconic O-Torii gate and visit the Itsukushima shrine
2) Eat Momiji Manju (maple leaf shape buns that come with a variety of fillings, bean paste and walnut amongst others). Top tip - try the deep fried version. They taste amazing. 
3) Take the ropeway (or walk) up Mt.Misen for fabulous views across to Hiroshima and beyond.
4) Enjoy Misen Primeval Forest (if not taking the rope way) -  there are plenty of walking routes.
5) Browse the gift shops 

If you have been to Miyajima, what were your thoughts about the island? Did you find it as inspirational as we did? 

Next time from Sketches in Travel we will look at something that can be found on every street corner that can be a travelers blessing or curse! Find out next week. 


13 January 2015

On the Trail of the Yellow Fingernail - (Bored, Bored, Bored)

Case 2: On the Trail of the Yellow Fingernail - Part 1

Day 1

The Case of the Missing Turnips and the episode with the parrot had literally taken the stuffing out of me. Life had somewhat slowed down. My detecting taking a back seat. I was a little older, none the wiser. Since those cases Leyhill had become a place of tranquility and I continued to be a jobs worth, mainly mucking out the pigs on the local farm. I had achieved some notoriety by winning the local "Muck spreader of the year" award, strangely there was only the judge in attendance and no other contestants, something to do with the smell? Mrs Wilcox still lived next door and there were rumours of her being behind a bung deal between Leyhill and Ashley Green cricket club to throw the final game of the season to allow Ashley Green to at least win a match. Muck spreading had prevented me from doing any investigating. 

My mother had married Jock the Block, who had opened up a chain of underwear stores called Jocks Strap. And the only other excitement to have hit Leyhill was the proposed motorway extension that would have cut through the middle of the village, but when the contractors came to canvas the area they had mysteriously disappeared. Mrs Wilcox was spotted digging holes near the local chapel that very day but once again muck spreading had intervened and I was unable to substantiate those reports. I was bored. 

Today was the day before the day before Leyhill's annual summer fete. A big event in the annual calendar of the village which ran alongside the annual Flower Show. In fact the two committees rather despised each other and had wanted to move the shows apart, but both events attracted large volumes of villagers and townsfolk, who came with pots of cash, so the committees decided to bite their tongues and keep things as they were. For now at least. 

Mr Perth (the village councillor) had announced the fetes and flower shows events a week before, so the hype was building. Various stalls and sideshows would take centre stage and the Leyhill dog club were going to do a obedience demonstration, something they did every year. Last time out they lost two dogs because they saw a cat and gave chase. Their owners still attached. They were all last seen heading over the nearby hill. None returned apart from a very sly cat. Everyone was assured that this wouldn't happen this year. Fat chance most people replied. The flower shows centre piece was to be Mrs Hardwicks cake demonstration. Last year she blew up the village hall having left the gas on after she had forgotten to take out her scones. Let's just say the scones were burnt!

As I sat at the dining table eating my porridge I had the realisation that all was rather to good. The weeks preparation for the fete had gone very smoothly. I hoped that something would happen at the fete to release the boredom. Perhaps an accident at the coconut shy or one of the dogs would disobey their owner and bite Mr Perth or PC Bob Pig? Or at least something that would allow me to put my muck spreading spade down and get back to investigating. And do you know what? Something unexpected did happen and it would take me on my greatest adventures yet and introduce me to a new master criminal, The Yellow Fingernail.

Find out what happens next time in Part 2 of On the Trail of the Yellow Fingernail - "Where's me coconuts!" 

8 January 2015


Hiroshima - A city rebuilt

Hiroshima is a fabulous, laid back and beautiful city that will unfortunately forever have an underlying dark side. It's remarkable to think as you walk the streets that it was once a place of devastation, fear and utter chaos. Its truly a city rebuilt.

The starting point for anyone visiting the city (and was for our visit) should be at the Memorial Peace Park and Museum. As you walk through the museum you learn about the events leading up to the dropping of the bomb, what happened during those fateful minutes and the aftermath. The museum gives you a timely reminder as to why an event like what Hiroshima experienced should never happen again. The museum is fascinating and gut wrenching, educational but somehow inspiring to boot. For a small charge you can hire earpieces and its well worth the outlay as it fills in any of the gaps the displays cannot and gives you a real sense of the impact it had on the people. A walk in the park and then to its most famous landmark (see opposite) should follow. Visiting these kinds of places really emphasizes that travel is much more than just about getting a tan, seeing amazing structures and views or taking a boat down a famous river or whatever inspiring or fun filled activity we all do to make our travels more exciting. Travel is also about education and the Peace Museum and Park certainly ticks that box.

Away from the museum and park, Hiroshima has other treasures to explore including the castle. Although rebuilt, having been devastated in the dropping of the bomb,  it's still a must on anyones visit. Its collection of samurai swords and outfits, the history of its existence, plus the panoramic view from the top gives you a sense of just how much the city has redeveloped and also allowing you stunning views of the distant mountains that surround the city.

Hiroshima is a bustling, busy city like many others in Japan. Shops and old style parades (Hondori street) give it an almost European feel. One of its great joys however are the trams. There's something joyful about travelling around by tram and its a great way to explore and see the city. Its also very convenient as it connects the main railway station to the tourist areas and hotels. Conveniently it applies a flat fare of 160 yen for the inner city journeys, but beware they only accept the exact change, so make sure you save your pennies. Hiroshima is the kind of city that you can happily spend 2 or 3 days wandering its streets and parks, experiencing its food and culture. So here are my top five things to do in Hiroshima (based purely on what we could do in the time we were there.)
  1. The Memorial Peace Park and Museum http://www.pcf.city.hiroshima.jp/index_e2.html
  2. Hiroshima Castle http://www.rijo-castle.jp/rijo/main.html
  3. Take the tram - explore the city 
  4. Visit Hondori street with its covered walkways and plentiful shops, cafes and restaurants
  5. Eat Hiroshima style okonomiyaki - a pancake mix with meat, seafood or vegetables and soba or udon noodles.
If you have visited this city please let me know your thoughts and share your favourite places. 

Coming Soon: In Part 2 we'll look at a destination you can visit an hour away by train from the heart of Hiroshima, Miyajima and talk about the food!



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