Kyoto and Tokyo, Saturday 13 April

I woke at 0533 this morning as the building shook. The only thing in my head was "door frame, door frame" but by the time I'd got to one the earthquake had already settled. It's a mystery to me how strong the quake actually was: a North American building tends to amplify a quake so you're more likely to notice as your possessions crash into each other, but the isolation systems in modern Japanese buildings are so good that it's possible it was a moderate quake and seemed only mild to me. UPDATE: the Sunday paper I got at the hotel in Tokyo says it was centred on Awaji Island southwest of Kyoto, and they were hit pretty hard - magnitude 6.3. The paper had a map, and what I felt was "magnitude 4" according to that. And the picture on the cover of the paper? A librarian putting books back on the shelves.

I got to Kyoto Station at 0940, and even with the ticket line-up I managed to catch the 1006 Shinkansen to Tokyo with time to spare. That's another huge advantage over airlines.

The trains go with a clockwork precision that would make the Germans envious. I was Berlin in 2008 and was amazed how much better their train systems run than Canadian ones. The Germans have now officially been supplanted by the Japanese as my heroes of precision timing. I thought we might be late as the Shinkansen only pulled into the station at 1004, but everyone filed on and off we went - on time. And in Tokyo at 1225.

After lunch I headed for Honda Welcome Plaza, their showroom for new model cars ... and Asimo. I'm going to make you suffer through some car talk first: I'm kind of obsessed with the N Box and the N+ Box. They're incredibly ugly, but it looks like Honda have incorporated the lessons from the Honda Element into a specifically urban vehicle: this one has less ground clearance, smaller wheels, and much less trunk space. But it's retained the passenger space: I have a staggering 20cm of head clearance sitting in them. There's also the N One, which essentially looks like a uglier version of the current Mini. Apparently they also market a Fit Hybrid over here.

I saw the Asimo show at 1500 sitting with a group of travellers from California. Asimo is impressive. There's still a lot he can't do - I notice they've taken stairs out of the routine. If you look up "Asimo and stairs" on YouTube, I'm afraid you're more likely to see it falling than succeeding. But Asimo dances well (perhaps a bit Otaku), and it was almost as entertaining to watch one of the Californians who was in hysterics for a full minute while Asimo danced - he just kept pressing the photo button on his phone again and again. I actually made some video footage - something I almost never do, although sadly not of the dance routine. And at the end, almost everyone in the audience, myself included, got up and had their pictures taken with the star of the show.

Asimo and Giles

My next stop was to be the Bridgestone Museum of Art - apparently I walked right past it because I found the next subway station on the line. But here was the "Pilot Pen Museum and Cafe," and entry was free. I love a good pen so in I went. Unfortunately, it was every bit as exciting as you would guess a museum about pens would be - especially when restricted to one manufacturer. Another problem for me is that the favoured writing instrument of pen aficionados is the fountain pen - but I'm left-handed. Fountain pens are meant to be pulled, not pushed, and as such don't generally work for the left-handed. And they didn't even sell pens there: the manager of the museum had to call up a young man from the cafe to translate the instructions on how to go several blocks over to the pen boutique. Directions I ended up not using as I didn't have time after I visited the Bridgestone.

The Bridgestone Museum of Art is mostly a collection of Impressionist stuff. Their current temporary exhibit is "Paris Through Japanese Eyes," consisting of works by Japanese artists who went to Paris to study between about 1880 and 1943(?). The pictures weren't to my taste, but it was fascinating to see the differences in style that must have been at least partly influenced by culture of origin.

The permanent collection is quite nice. I was particularly taken by three mid-sized sculptures: Alexander Archipenko's "The Gondolier," Ossip Zadkine's "Three Graces" (bronze), and Pablo Picasso's "The Jester," which appeared to be a casting from clay(?). Who knew Picasso was a sculptor? I suspect I did at one point a few years ago, but I forgot. I've never liked his paintings, but I'd be happy to look at any more sculptures of his that I could find. He's not big on minor details like ears, and the eyes were just holes, but the face reminded me a bit of an Epstein: it was a bit rough but massively compelling and you felt like you really knew something about the person just by glancing at the line of the chin, the nose. Impressive stuff.

I also really liked Shiraga Kazuo's "Kannon Fudara Jodo" (1972), which is a big abstract, oil on canvas. It was interesting, sitting and looking at it: people glanced at it and kept on walking. With abstracts - and in fact, with all art - it's hard to know what's going to grab people. "I know what I like" is an interesting and often unexpected filter, and it's kind of the only one we have.

Unfortunately, while they had many of the works in the museum available on postcard (no photography allowed), they didn't have any of the four I've named. It's a pain having esoteric tastes. :-)

I returned to the hotel to meet Trine. We walked a short distance to a restaurant area in Akasaka, and eventually chose a restaurant that looked fun (the giant leaping flames might have influenced us). Nice decor, a good menu, and a large selection of sake - this was as close as I was going to get to a sake tasting. The specialty of the house was straw-grilled food, and thus the flames. Of course nothing gets hugely well cooked when grilled over straw as it burns out so fast. My squid was very good, the pork and burdock was a failure (not horrible, just not particularly good), and Trine's asparagus was fantastic. The first sake we had was quite good - served hot, full bodied, nice flavour, a bit sweet. Trine says the lower grades of sake (which means "what most people drink") are more often served hot, and the higher grades tend to be served cold. Our second bottle of sake was a sparkling sake - not bad, but the flavour was somewhat thinner than the first. But the sparkling part was a novelty - and it was served in flutes.

Our last stop of the night was a somewhat high end cocktail bar, where I had a hazelnut coffee cocktail, and Trine had a Cointreau chocolate cocktail. Both were very good (and kind of expensive). And then I said goodbye to Trine - we may actually see each other in something less than another 18 years, as she wants to visit Toronto this summer.