February 2017: This month I have mostly been…

Feeling: Like I have a plan

After spending a while feeling a bit like I was floundering and not making any progress with the big things in life, you know, like buying a house and that sort of thing, I feel more like I have a plan. Because I do. For the first time in our relationship (nearly nine years) my boyfriend and I have a joint budget and there is an end in sight to us being basically overgrown students, footloose and fancy free. It means we might be in our little one bed flat for a bit longer, but I’m ok with it as long as it’s not something that will last forever. Plus, I’ve been making our flat feel a little more homey now I know we’ll be here a bit longer. That’s the thing I hate about rented flats, you move in and think it might only be for a year or two and so don’t spend any time or money on them and yet you find yourself still there five years later and wish you’d made yourself at home earlier.

Reading: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I have picked this up loads in the past but somehow it never made it home with me until a few weeks ago when I used a book voucher from Christmas to pick up some new reading material to add to my newly colour-coordinated shelves.

I’m just over halfway through at the moment and enjoying it, although as with any non-linear book, I find myself just getting into one storyline and character and then they change time and/or character. Winner of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, it is the story of a blind French girl and a young German boy in the grips of the Second World War.

Watching: Search Party

We’ve been watching season 1 of Search Party this month. It hasn’t taken us long with only 10 episodes. It’s a very modern mystery set in New York and well worth catching. Plus, each episode is only 25 minutes long so it’s perfect for either bingeing or for slotting in quickly in an evening. I often find that by the time I get home from a long day of work and then have had dinner, I don’t really have the enthusiasm to sit down and concentrate on an hour long episode of something new. Small, bite-sized dramas are my new thing.

We’ve also been watching Pls Like. Now, I blog and have always read blogs (from my early days of reading I am Fashion, No Good For Me (now see Strawberry Fields Whatever) and many others I’ve since forgotten, although sometimes I do still hear the voice of The Manolo in my head as I stroll through a London arcade and pause outside a fancy shoe shop), however, maybe because I am just that bit too old, I have never understood the appeal of vlogs or of vloggers. It might be partly that I am always watching TV or listening to something else which means that watching vlogs doesn’t appeal but I think the truth is that, unlike with reading, it’s difficult to skip through the inane and pointless to get to something useful. And, to me, so much of vlogging is inane. I know many will disagree with me, but I have no interest in getting ready with someone or seeing what they bought from Primark, I don’t understand the appeal of watching someone play a video game and I feel patronised by the chirpy tone of many vloggers. Sorry vloggers but 15 minutes of watching someone waffle on about anything and everything that pops into their head whilst sat in front of a cookie-cutter background of a bedroom draped with fairy lights sounds a little bit like my idea of torture (eek, </unpopularopinion>). So I find the concept of Pls Like hilarious, it’s a Youtube vlogger satire and pokes fun at the ridiculousness of the whole thing, the first episode in particular is genius.

Planning: To getaway


Photo by Softeis – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28008461 

Ordinarily we might have been on a minibreak/weekend away already by this point in the year, but as we’re trying to cut back a bit in order to get ourselves into a better position for buying a house at some point and so although I’ve visited three countries this year already for work, April will be the first time I get away with my boyfriend. I’m also conscious that I have a dissertation to write and that I’m not a full-time student anymore so I can’t do what I used to do as a student which is to do everything at the last minute, so I will probably need to take holiday for researching and writing.

However, in April we have two getaways planned, both using the Bank Holidays so I maximise my annual leave. First we’re off to Germany. We are spending two nights in Fuessen so we can visit Neuschwanstein Castle and then we’ve got three nights in Munich itself. At the end of April we’re off glamping again for my birthday, in slightly more luxury than last time (inside kitchen), staying at The Saltbox in Kent. I can’t wait to wake up to a view of Elmley Nature Reserve.

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Icing Class at Biscuiteers

I am the worst person. I don’t text people back, I keep meaning to respond to emails but rarely do until I get berated for not doing so (mostly by my mum, bad daughter award) and every time I receive a blog comment I’m so happy when it’s insightful or useful or funny and I do have the best intentions to reply but rarely do. Which means that it shouldn’t be too hard to believe that it took me an actual eternity to get around to using a Biscuiteers Icing Class voucher that my nan and grandad bought me for Christmas maybe two years ago now.

I love Biscuiteers biscuits, their biscuit tins are the perfect presents and their biscuit cards are the ideal way to say congratulations for anything from an engagement to a new house. Shamefully thought I’d never made it to their monochrome biscuit-stuffed boutique in Notting Hill until the other week when I traded in my voucher for a Love Birds biscuit icing class.

After arriving we were escorted downstairs in the shop and sat ourselves down in front of bowls of icing bags and bottles along with a selection of un-iced vanilla Biscuiteers biscuits.

With two tutors for a group of around twelve of us, we were shown how to pipe lines in icing – straight first and then circles and other simple shapes. Once we’d got to grips with the basics we were let loose on half of the biscuits. We outlined hearts and little bird bodies in royal icing, to be filled in with runnier flood icing once dry. We had a picture of the official Biscuiteers ones to take inspiration from, but were free to freestyle.

Once the outline was dry we coloured in the shapes we’d made with runnier icing. We were shown how to make dots in flood icing and how to make little hearts using those dots. It’s actually much easier than it appears from the end result (which I think is pretty impressive).

That first lot of biscuits went into the oven for a while on a very low temperature to harden the icing and we all got cracking on the other half of the biscuits. It’s a pretty good system, the first set of biscuits are put in the oven and you start on the second set of biscuits on which you use the flood icing to make designs in itself, once the first set come out of the oven, the second set go in and you then ice designs using the piping bags on top of the first set. Once you get a little beak and eye on the birds they really do start to come alive.

Once our biscuits were dry we ‘glued’ them to sheets with icing so that they could be layered in a presentation tin. As you will see from the biscuits below, the pale pink icing was not my best friend (the green behaved much better).

I definitely need more practice with a piping bag, I was definitely the worst person at it, although that was not helped by the fact that the woman sat next to me had attempted similar biscuit icing before on her own so she had a really steady hand. I saw the other day that Biscuiteers are hiring, I think it’s safe to say that I won’t be switching careers any time soon. However, I did enjoy my class at Biscuiteers and will be practicing at some point on my own – watch this space and my Instagram for more ropey icing!

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Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens

A day on which it’s snowing in London might not seem like the obvious choice on which to go and see orchids, a notoriously finicky plant. Safely encased in a glasshouse in Kew though are perhaps thousands of them (well, hundreds at least). Kew’s Princes of Wales Conservatory is usually home to a variety of weird and wonderful plants from ten different climatic zones, but until 5 March it’s playing host to the Orchid Festival, a celebration of India’s plants and culture.

Dotted throughout the Conservatory are floral displays made out of orchids, including a peacock, a national symbol of India…

and a rickshaw pulled by a moss man…

Orchids adorn supports, hang from the roof and reflect in pools of water. The tropical atmosphere and sights, albeit not sounds (the promised Indian soundscape wasn’t playing when we got there at 10am) of India filled the glasshouse.

Indian flower garlands dangle above lily ponds containing circling catfish…

and friendly tigers with petal teeth and claws lurk in the bushes…

The most established of the orchids were in the orchid room, the ones below were my favourite – aren’t they gorgeous?!

The Orchid Festival descends upon Kew each year but with a different theme. If you want to catch this year’s Indian-themed display, you have until 5 March to get over there, it’s a visual feast. Plus, it’s included as standard in Kew entry (or free if you’re a Friend of Kew, as we are).

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Another day exploring Tokyo

It’s really strange for me to think that I have been to Japan not once or twice but three times now with work, my most recent trip being in the middle of January. I’d barely adjusted to being back at work post-Christmas but there I was jetting off on my first trip of 2017. Of course it sounds glam, but there’s always a lot of work and not a lot of sleep involved (yes, I know, the world’s tiniest violin is playing just for me…).

This time we were staying in The Marunouchi Hotel which is right across from Tokyo Station. Ideal for train spotters and I enjoyed watching trains snake their way into and out of the station from my 17th floor room. We had a jam-packed week of meetings and work and started each morning with eggs, which apparently the Japanese like square… weird, but not the weirdest thing I ate over the course of the week.

I always remember when I was a child and a somewhat picky eater that my grandad would tell me about the times he would go for business dinners and have to eat things he didn’t like (cheese) because it was served up. Whilst I didn’t not believe him, at the time I couldn’t really put myself in that position. However, after a few work trips to Japan, I now can. This trips culinary delicacies included chicken *mime action for joints* – basically small crunchy balls of what tasted like kneecaps but which can’t have been because I’m not sure that’s really a thing (is it?), chicken sashimi (yes, raw chicken, which tastes exactly as you would imagine raw chicken tastes) and jellyfish, which tastes like a particularly flavourless rubber band. So, in short, square eggs, the least of the weirdness when it came to food.

Where we could, we snatched moments of Tokyo between meetings, including a quick walk around Hama Rikyu Gardens, somewhere I visited on my first trip to Tokyo. This time we were there at a time when the plum blossoms were starting to emerge, pretty and something which made me even more keen to return to see the cherry blossoms at some point.

We lunched a lot with clients and contacts, one of my favourite meals being a great bento box at Nobu. Seriously good.

We also spotted this street on our wanderings…

I had Saturday to myself and as I’d managed to get to Kappabashi Street on Friday afternoon to shop for ceramics and so I rejigged my plans for Saturday to start with a trip to the Meiji Shrine. I had also intended to wander around Yoyogi Park but whilst I’m sure it’s pretty in cherry blossom season, summer and autumn when the leaves are on the trees, in the middle of January it seemed bleak and full of crows, the homeless and joggers. So I made a beeline instead for the Meiji Shrine.

To say it’s located in what still feels like central Tokyo, the Meiji Shrine is surrounded by forest and nature, it’s very calming. A Shinto shrine, completed in 1920, it was built to venerate the Emperor Meiji.

When I visited, the walk up to the shrine was lined with ice sculptures. The biggest downside of not knowing any Japanese is that when I come across something I have no idea why it’s there or what it’s about. So I don’t know if it was part of a competition or a regular thing or something else. Either way, tjere were some pretty impressive carvings.

Much of the shrine itself seemed to be being used for various ceremonies. I saw one newly married couple and entourage and there were also a number of what seemed to be business men partaking in some sort of ceremony. Again, I have no idea what what going on because of the complete lack of Japanese language skills, but it was an interesting place to wander around. There were clearly preparations for Chinese New Year in place and the ema were already themed, even though the start of the Year of the Rooster was a good few weeks away at that point.

In the gift shop I spotted Konpeito, which fans of Spirited Away might recognise as the candy that Chihiro throws to the soot sprites. Of course I couldn’t resist buying a packet.

From the Meiji Shrine, I hopped practically just across the road to the shops of Takeshita Street, the heart of Harajuku-culture shopping.

I was there relatively early and so shops were still opening, but I was quite tempted by some of the food on offer, including some huge rainbow candyfloss (way too early for me to have pure sugar) at around 10am and crepes, which I assume were delicious as even their plastic counterparts looked yummy.

From Takeshita Street I headed along Omotesando, lined with its designer shops and ducked into Kiddy Land just to browse for anything that took my fancy for my nieces.

From there I decided to head over to Shibuya to check out the scramble crossing and to catch the Yamanote line one stop down to Ebisu where Hannah had recommended the yuzu ramen at Afuri Ebisu.

From Ebisu I headed back to the hotel to both drop off a few things I’d bought on the way and also to stop by Les Toiles Du Soleil where I’d spotted, but hadn’t had the chance to buy watermelon-style fabric which I intend to use at some point to make a summery table runner, it just needs hemming off at the ends.

After dropping off my stuff and a little sit down to rest my feet, I headed off out again up to Nippori Station where I intended to head to an area known as Yanesen, made up of a mash-up of three different areas (Yanaka, Nezu and Sendagi). I’d heard it was a quieter, more traditional area of Tokyo.

Leaving Nippori Station you come almost immediately upon Yanaka Cemetery. I’m always interested in wandering through cemeteries, especially of different cultures, so I spent some time strolling around. I spotted the odd cat here and there and it seems like cats (both real and symbolic) are a part of Yanesen.

The main route down to Yanaka Ginza (a little pedestrianised shopping street) is lined with little traditional-style shops and also temples, it’s a nice little walk, even when it’s starting to get dark, as it was when I visited. Although it was getting late I still had the chance to browse the small shops lining the streets.

Although by this point my feet were killing me, even in sensible shoes (by the end of the day my fitbit clocked me in at over 12 miles), but I hadn’t yet made it to Akihabara on my travels to Tokyo and so I was determined to explore just a little bit more and willed my feet to keep going.

Akihabara is famous for its shops selling electrical goods, manga and anime paraphernalia and also for its general otaku culture, including arcades, maid cafes and more.

Although I didn’t try any of the hundreds of claw machines, I did delight in the many vending machines, ostensibly for my nieces, of course. There were Sylvanian Families machines selling Japan-exclusive tiny fake baked goods (to supplement the tiny Sylvanian walnut squirrel family and silk cat family we bought our nieces for Christmas) and a whale that lit up and flashed when it hit the water. All were delivered in tiny little capsules and cost around 200-300Yen each (around £2 or so).

Of course I couldn’t resist the lure of Purikura and so found myself hunting out machines in Sega Gamecentre. Of course it’s a bit weird doing Purikura by yourself, but that’s what happens with work trips. When I finally go to Japan for a proper holiday with my boyfriend, I’m totally dragging him into every booth I see!

And so the bright lights of Akihabara marked the end of another successful work trip. I’m getting to know Tokyo a little more with every trip and I can’t wait until 2020 when my boyfriend and I have planned to visit Japan properly for a holiday. I look forward to showing him the things I’ve seen and know and also to discovering new things with him.

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