Heading to Japan, 2017 edition

You know, it’s never too early to plan our annual trip to Japan. At least that’s what we were saying when we started looking for flights to Tokyo on this cold and wet January Sunday morning.

After last year’s amazing trip, it was pretty much inevitable that we’d have to come back. So we searched for flights around the same time of year and, with @FrankDJS‘s usual skill and a gazillion BA frequent flyer miles, we have a two-week trip to Japan all booked. Well, the flights, at least.

Well, the flights, at least. At, due to some diligent and focused collecting of BA miles via every route known (and unknown) to humanity, we’ll be going and returning First Class. A guaranteed excellent start and end to the holiday – based on previous experience, at least.

While it’s not until September, that won’t stop me making lots of plans for where to visit. We fly in and out of Tokyo – literally my favourite place on earth – which gives us amazing opportunities to plan day-trips out of the city on the most fantastic form of public transport in the world: the Shinkansen bullet train.

Right now, I’d love to spend a couple of days back in Kyoto, but also visit Kanazawa. We dropped it from last year’s itinerary, as it was turning into a bit of a mission. Less holiday, more gruelling tour. So maybe we’ll get over there this time round.

The other key activities will obviously include:

  • Geeking out: on Shinkansen trains and Akihabara in Tokyo
  • Chilling out: in various onsen hot springs
  • Filling out: by eating far too much, but enjoying every mouthful

I’m determined to make 2017 another epic year of travel. So far, we have two trips to Spain booked (April and June), which will include Barcelona, Sitges, Mallorca and Alicante and now Japan in September.

That leaves plenty of space across the summer for some time in the sun. And plenty of time to pull together an exciting itinerary for Japan.

The views from above

I took a few photos from my flight home from Barcelona on Thursday evening. After my unexpected and very welcome free upgrade to business class (thank you, British Airways!) I got seat 1F and had wonderful views out the window.

In the right weather, you can get some amazing views over Barcelona as you leave. Flight ago out over the sea and then loop back over the city. While the sun’s still up, you get a superb panorama of the city and its surroundings.

I snapped the pics below as we left, then took a few more as we were on approach to Heathrow. Seriously – if you were designing a city from scratch, could you pick a better location than Barcelona’s?

Again, the lighting and the angle were just right and I could even see our apartment building as we passed over Canary Wharf. (Yes, I know – it’s a real case of ‘I can see our house from here!’)

I love how you can see the bends in the Thames as it snakes through this part of the city.

More than anything, though, I’m impressed with what the iPhone’s camera managed to record – given the speed we were traveling and the altitude.

2015: A year in travel

Yes, some people may view ‘end of the year’ posts as either boring, narcissistic or a combination of both, but personally I like to look back on the year gone by and focus on the highlights. A form of gratitude. Reliving the fun and the smiles. I travelled so much in 2015, I thought it would be nice to revisit some of these trips now the year is over. In fact, all of my standout memories from this year are travel-related.

In no particular order (except the order in which they occurred to me), I’d have to say my travel highlights were:

Japan

 

No surprises here! We enjoyed our third trip to Japan in October and, chicken pox aside, we had a wonderful time there. Just the right mix of relaxation and excitement. Tokyo, as ever, was a blast and Kyoto was still beautiful and relaxing. Our trips on Shinkansen were really memorable and my addiction to Japanese stationery was fuelled with too much time spent in Tokyu Hands.

Every time I pick up my Midori notebook, I’m reminded of the visit.

Due to the impact of chicken-pox, we’ve already booked our next visit for late in 2016. Which, if I’m honest, is just a convenient excuse. There’s so much more to see and do in Japan an we both feel like it’s the most relaxing place on earth. So I’d be heading back regardless.

Work travel

This year was also mega-busy on the work front. On the one hand, it was the first full year of running my own business (!!) and I wasn’t about to turn down even a day of work. This meant over 14 weeks away from home, visiting places like Amsterdam, Barcelona, Singapore and Kuala Lampur for weeks at a time. I met some great people, saw some amazing sights and learnt a lot on each visit.

Going to Asia on business class took a lot of the sting out of it, but a hotel bed is never (in my experience) a replacement for your own, so coming home was always a pleasure. I really enjoyed my time in Singapore and after my last visit, could find my way around no problem – even giving directions to others. I’d like to go back and maybe combine it with a trip to somewhere else in Asia.

Another positive side-effect of all this business travel was getting (finally) ‘Gold’ status with British Airways’ frequent flyer programme. This has helped with other trips, including free upgrades, speedy boarding and access to lounges galore. If you’d asked me five years ago how much I’d enjoy this, I don’t think it would have registered on my list of travel must-haves.

Now, I’m worried about when I’ll lose it! Talk about First World problems… There’ll be a lot less business travel in 2016 (by choice) as I’m not sure I’d enjoy another 14 weeks away from home.

Travel for fun

Not all travel was for work. We started the year as we meant to go on, with a long weekend in Paris. Later in the year, we spent time in both South Beach and Iceland (could they be more different?!) and really enjoyed both. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed South Beach – the combination of food, sun and high camp was great.

Iceland was just stunning from start to finish. Incredibly friendly people, delicious food and scenery that would blow your mind. I’ll definitely return to see more of the place and spend more time in the natural hot springs. Very different to my favourite onsens in Japan, but fun all the same. Once you get over the smell of the sulphur…

So what next?

Well, 2016 will see us back in South Beach for some Spring sunshine and in Japan (exact destinations unknown at this stage) later in the year, but I’m sure we’ll squeeze in some time in Spain as well. I’ll be in Dublin in February and a few quick trips to Barcelona in the first half of the year. I definitely want to make more of business travel and enjoy the destinations when I can.

I’ll probably take the Caledonian Sleeper to Scotland again and hopefully a few more weekends elsewhere in the UK. Yes, I love travel. It’s probably where the vast majority of my disposable income goes – and sharing the photos and memories on here helps keep it all fresh in my mind.

The above pics are only the merest glimpse into the ton of photos I took this year. Maybe I’ll look back over some more of them and share them on the blog in the coming year.

Anyway, if you’ve made it this far, well done! Wishing you all the best for 2016 😉 Happy travels!

A pox on this pox!

As I shared previously, I contracted chicken-pox during our epic trip to Japan. Not good. I went from having some minor flu-like symptoms to full-on body-covered-in-blisters chicken-pox overnight. And boy did I feel bad.

I never had chicken-pox as a child and had mentally filed it away as a minor annoyance. Some itchiness, some tiredness and then bouncing back to good health in a matter of days. For kids, maybe. But when it hits you as an adult, it’s quite a different story.

I’ve spent the past week veering between unable to sleep, then falling into deep sleep at a moment’s notice, running a high fever, having night sweats and aches in all my joints. Just like a bad dose of the flu.

But then there’s the blisters.

Mine came up overnight – I was woken up by the itchiness mid-night and could feel them on my scalp. Gross. At its worst, I had blisters going from the crown of my head all the way down to my toes. Nowhere on my body was spared. Nowhere.

I’ll let that sink in.

Continue reading “A pox on this pox!”

One does not simply walk into Japan…

A quick pit-stop here in the JAL Lounge in Tokyo Haneda airport. We’re waiting on our flight to Osaka, after which it’s an hour on the bus to Kyoto. And while the flight over was very pleasant, I only slept for about an hour. That means, it’s 0936 Sunday here and I’ve been up since 0630 Saturday.

Hmmm….

The flight was grand and I particularly enjoyed the fairly intense chat with one of the cabin crew about our shared passion for The Walking Dead. As I’m only on season two, she was whole seasons ahead of me, desperate to hint at what’s to come but anxious to avoid sharing any spoilers.

And it was a pleasant reminder of all things Japanese to land in Haneda, get through passport control fairly quickly and have luggage waiting for us the other side of customs.

It’s about now I’m remembering the battle to stay conscious all the way to Kyoto last year. I fell asleep on the flight to Osaka, and woke up with the kind of neck spasm that has to be felt to be believed. So I need to stay awake, at least until we’re on the bus to Kyoto.

Thankfully, the lounge here in Haneda has some form of neon yellow energy drink on tap, so I’ve been quaffing that since arriving. Who knows – maybe I’ll never sleep again. From what I can tell, it’s equal parts sugar and caffeine, so that’s most of the food groups covered.

The only other productive thing I’ve done today has been to pick up the portable wifi router we’re hiring for the duration of our stay. Unlimited 4G connection for mere pounds per day. Bargain. All the easier to share my photos of Japanese food with you all…

Osaka is calling….

Ready, set….go!

Bags are (finally) packed! Our of office notifiers are on! I think it might be time for a holiday…?

In just a few hours, I’ll be safely tucked up on a BA flight to Tokyo and then on to Kyoto, for what has almost become our annual pilgrimage to Japan. “Excited” doesn’t do it justice.

The last month has been especially hectic, even for me, so this is a most welcome break. I’ve started to picture Kyoto’s streets and parks, visualising myself wandering aimlessly and in a very, very relaxed state. It’s done wonders for my stress levels already.

So, the plan?

A few days in Kyoto, a few more in Tokyo. A possible day trip to Hiroshima and maybe a jaunt to Kanazawa. All courtesy of a week-long Japan Rail pass. So, plenty of Shinkansen action. We don’t have a fixed agenda, apart from the hotel bookings already in place.

I want food, walks, high-speed trains and lots and lots of time in an onsen or two. And more food. It strikes me that my recent burst of gym activity and resulting weight loss are going to be undone very soon – possibly even before we leave Kyoto. It matters not. I’d sacrifice a lot, including a tidy waist-line, for 10 days of top notch Japanese cuisine. And even some of the more delicious bottom-notch Japanese fast food.

I’m not that fussy.

So. Off to Heathrow T5 shortly, the obligatory visit to the BA lounge for free-range grazing at the generous buffet and then a 12-hour flight accompanied by an iPad full of comics and The Walking Dead, a Kindle full of great books and BA’s own onboard entertainment system.

In all honesty, I’ll probably sleep for most of the flight. A combination of insomnia and business travel over the last week have left me with quite the sleep debt to repay. So sleep is on the agenda. Especially if the food on board is as good as our last flights to and from Japan. This is one flight where it’s most definitely an investment to go business class.

Japan: brace yourself. I am on my way.

Big Japan countdown

A week from now, I’ll be in Heathrow’s Terminal 5, attempting to simultaneously wake up and take advantage of the hospitality of the British Airways Galleries lounge. And coffee. Mostly coffee. At the start of this year’s trip to Japan!

London to Tokyo, then straight on a flight to Kyoto. Four days there, including a trip to Hiroshima and then back up to Tokyo for a further six days. Despite this being our third visit, I’m as excited as I was before the first. Trips to Japan have been my best ever, most enjoyable holidays.

Untitled

//embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.jsAnd, despite having booked this all so long ago, I’m still slightly unprepared. My mind will be eased by the creation of a packing list (thank you, Evernote) and some sort of an agenda for the trip. We’ve learnt our lessons from previous visits and won’t attempt to pack too much in this time. I have a short list of things to see and do, but aside from that, it’ll be walking, exploring and eating.

I’m particularly looking forward to some trips on Shinkansen ‘bullet’ trains, as we got a week-long pass for unlimited train journeys to take us from place to place. And the calm of Kyoto will be welcome after a particularly hectic couple of weeks here, work-wise. And as we’re visiting in October, I hope we can stumble across some of the crazy Japanese enthusiasm for Halloween – we saw a Halloween parade on our last trip to Tokyo and it was superb. The Japanese really don’t seem to do anything by halves… 

Untitled

As per usual, I’ll be photographing everything that moves and hoping I can prune down my camera roll to something worth sharing online. No matter where you look, there’s something interesting and/or beautiful to take a snap of.  I’ll try to get a few updates on here and I’ve already hired a mobile wifi hotspot for the duration of our stay (unlimited 4G data for 10 days for a steal!) to ensure we can stay in touch. Having wifi calling on the new iPhones means we’re still contactable even with data roaming switched off. 

So brace yourself for incoming photos and comments about Japan for about a week!

Normal service (moaning about how short the trip to Japan was) will resume shortly after.  I also have to admit that one aspect of the trip I’m really looking forward to has nothing to do with Japan – it’s the flights to and from Japan with BA. Our previous Japan journeys have been fantastic and definitely represented an excellent start and finish to the holidays. Being able to sleep on a proper flat bed during the epic journey definitely makes for a less psychotic me upon arrival. 

All that’s left to do is complete about a month’s worth of work in five days, pack for all eventualities and switch off from work completely. Easy. //embedr.flickr.com/assets/client-code.js

Magical suitcase stacking

I flew to Barcelona and back yesterday, on one of my monthly day-trips for work. I’m getting pretty used to the journey – this is month seven of these visits and while it involves an early start (0430am!!!) working with the clients in question more than makes up for the lack of sleep.

Last night’s boarding was, however, one of the worst I’ve ever witnessed. It was as if the ground staff abandoned all standards of what was and wasn’t allowed on as cabin baggage. And as if ever objectionable and difficult person in Europe was on my plane.

I was probably person number 10 on the plane and sat down with my iPad, ready to listen to a podcast and chill the hell out after a long work day (a long work week, actually). So I got to see the majority of the boarding nonsense, which descended into farce in record time.

There was the surprisingly large number of passengers who could’t find their seats, despite it being marked on both their boarding card and above each seat. They wandered around the plane like lost souls, frequently trying to walk against the tide of oncoming passengers. It’s really not the entry exam for Mensa. It’s a simply matching exercise. Even if you’ve never been on a plane in your life.

There was the group of passengers who decided that they could bring on full-size (and over-stuffed) suitcases and somehow fit them into the overhead bins. They tried and tried, grunting and moaning, hoping against hope that physics would somehow warp around their need to avoid checking in a bag. All the time balancing these heavy objects just inches over other people’s heads.

The cabin crew were saintly in their patience, so kudos to them. I would have started to throw these idiots out of the nearest emergency exit within minutes. Two women in particular were indignant when told that they may have to move their unfeasibly large bags to the hold. That this would be done for them, and that the bags would be waiting for them at the other end. Not for them! Simply not good enough. Cue rant.

They somehow managed to jam their suitcases above me, during which manoeuvres, I had to move seat to avoid getting smashed in the face with suitcase wheels and straps. No apology, obviously – I was merely an object between them and suitcase satisfaction.

A middle-aged lady sat next to me, but only after getting a total random stranger to lift and pack away her bag for her. She sat down and gave me the stink eye before getting stuck into her (you guessed it) Daily Mail. Moments later, she was moved by the cabin crew, who had managed to reunite her with her friend at the back of the plane.

I stood up to let her out and she turned to me and said: “My bag, please.”.

I said “I’m sorry?”

“That’s my bag there. Get it down for me, would you? It’s heavy.”

Stunned into action by her attitude, I pulled it down and it was indeed heavy. She took it from me as soon as it was on the floor and walked away. No thanks, nothing.

Capital B to the atch.

Then there were the guys who boarded late, but who someone believed that a special piece of overhead real estate should have been kept aside for them. “But this is my seat – why is there no room here?”. Maybe if you’d been at the gate when we were boarding, you’d have stood a chance. But since everyone else here has decided to bring on every single suitcase they could possibly carry, along with a party-sized Duty Free bag, we’re all a little short of space.

You could hear them harrumphing all the way back to London.

For my part, my bag was under the seat in front of me and I was still wearing my jacket. No need to store or fold anything. That didn’t stop at least half a dozen people asking me to move my suitcase. The massive, neon pink suitcase jammed into the overhead bin above my head. I had to point out that it wasn’t my bag and that it belonged to the delightful ladies several rows behind me.

Some passengers tried to move it, but just like Tony Stark trying to pick up Thor’s hammer, the bag was going nowhere. And then some idiot thought it was sensible to empty his carrier bag of duty free champagne bottles and squeeze them in between various suitcases above and behind him. No danger of damage there!

And – you know where this is going – as soon as we’d reached cruising altitude, half the plane got out of their seats to take down various bags they’d only minutes before squeezed into the overhead bins. I just tried to keep my eyes closed, but it wasn’t easy when people moved massive bags mere inches from the top of my head, while others (I was by the aisle) just had to get in and out of their seat three and four times to check on their bag and remove several small objects from it.

Landing was, if anything, slightly worse. Seat belts were cast aside as soon as we hit the tarmac and people argued over their right to get their bags out from bins far away from their assigned seat. To make things worse, we had a 15 minute taxi to our stand as there’d been an error at traffic control. All this time, the cabin crew were asking people to sit back down, but they were ignored.

Despite being in row 9, the people next to me almost climbed over me to get off the plane – all passengers ahead of us where still standing and waiting for the doors to open. Maybe they possess the power to disintegrate and pass through solid objects, I thought to myself. Nope. They just wanted to passively-aggressively queue far too closely to the people in row 8.

In was hit in the face by backpacks, on the head by suitcases and in the back of the ankle by briefcases, all before getting of the plane at Heathrow. I was never so glad to see miserable Terminal 3.

But…Karma, right?

Many of these assholes had to join the “you’re not European, so get over there” queues at passport control. I sailed through in moments. They’re probably still queuing there now.

Also, when getting to the Heathrow Express, some of the particularly annoying men in suits missed the train by seconds as they argued among themselves whether it was the right train or not. I stepped on as the doors closed, watching their sweaty red faces through the glass.

The moral of the story? It’s not “don’t get on planes”, as that’s impossible in my job. I think the moral for me is to practice (even more) mindfulness meditation before getting on flights from now on. I amazed myself at how calm I remind – until the matron told me to move her magically heavy (carrying lead, are we dear?) suitcase.

Most of the morals of this story are for other people, actually. Namely: when flying, as on the internet, “Don’t be a dick”.

Surviving the flight

Unlike my last flight this direction, last night’s flight to Kuala Lumpur was a lot more bearable. Yes, I was missing the comfort of an A380 and yes, I was battling a cold when I got on board…

But there was no strange, obese man snoring in my ear all night and my travelling companion was actually someone I know. And she behaved herself impeccably. And kept me laughing for at least a couple of hours after take-off.  

  
I reckon I managed about 5 hours sleep on the way over, waking up as they out all the lights on to serve breakfast. My back feels like I was in a car crash – can’t imagine what strange positions I contorted myself into while asleep. 

I watched about 20mins of Avengers: Age of Ultron before curling up with a series of soothing podcasts playing in my earphones. Hence my dreams consisted of me reviewing new technology on live TV…technology I’d never seen before in my life. 

A shower, a meal and a long walk will sort me out. Plus the ready supply of cold and flu capsules I brought along for the ride. 

Brace yourself, Malaysia: here I come.