Planning for Japan: 2017

It looks like we have a bit of an itinerary for this year’s trip to Japan! To avoid overloading ourselves with too many destinations, we’ve narrowed it down to splitting our time between Tokyo, Kyoto and Kanazawa.

I’d like to take advantage of the JR Rail Pass and arrange some day trips out of both Tokyo (Mt. Fuji, maybe?) and Kyoto (Arashiyama and its marvellous monkeys!). Last year’s visit to the snow-monkeys of Nagano reminded me how much I like to watch primates at play – always mindful of the slim chance they’ll attack an idiot tourist who gets too close, while I capture it all on camera.

Kanazawa is brand new to us, so I’m looking for how to enjoy it and not over-commit to venues and activities.

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Kanazawa Station

This morning’s win was finding a new (to me) onsen to visit in Tokyo. It looks amazeballs and very, very luxurious. Over the years, I’ve experienced onsen ranging from the very basic to the quite modern and interesting. Every one of them has been a pleasure, one way or another. And seeing as we’re unlikely to every replicate the onsen experience here in London, I’ll rely on my brief visits to Japan to take advantage of the facilities.

I may also get another item off my bucket list by arranging a brief stay in a capsule hotel in Tokyo’s Haneda Airport before we fly on to Osaka and then bus it to Kyoto.

Let me explain: I’m only human. After 14 hours on a plane – even going First Class – I need a shower, some clean clothes and a lie down. This will make the onward legs of this outbound journey so much easier. And I’ll be less likely to act like a toddler needing a nap by the time we get to Kyoto.

I’ll be honest – I’m also thrilled at the thought of staying in a quintessentially Japanese capsule hotel. It helps that I’m hobbit-sized and have no fear of shared bathing facilities. I’m also aware of how much my mental state is dependent on adequate sleep along with the extent to which jet-lag utterly rips my wellbeing to shreds.

Hotels are arranged for Kanazawa and Kyoto, while we look for the best possible bargain in Tokyo. I don’t think we’ll get the same awesome free upgrade at the Hilton again (but you never know), though Tokyo isn’t short of excellent hotels. It’s all about getting something central and close to a Yamanote Line station.

I tell you what, though – you can tell Sterling as taken a hammering when you check Japanese prices online. But who knows what state it’ll be in come September – maybe we’ll experience another rebound and Tokyo will once again seem cheap compared to London.

Maybe not. Though I’ve realised that the best things about Japan are the experiences, not the shopping. Even though I seem to do quite a bit of the latter every time I visit 😁

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.

That “Japan” feeling

joanna_lumley_on_japan___i_wanted_to_try_to_get_behind_this_most_mysterious_country_

We watched the first episode of Joanna Lumley’s new series on Japan last night and really enjoyed it. She’s touring all the way from its very northernmost tip near Russia to its southernmost islands over three episodes. @FrankDJS and I both had several “remember that?” moments as we watched, thinking back to our visits to Japan over recent years.

I think I enjoyed it most because it wasn’t particularly touristy and definitely wasn’t ‘dumbed down’. Yes, she goes to a snow festival to see incredible snow sculptures and yes, she travels on a Shinkansen from Nagano to Tokyo. But she also visits a ‘dead’ town, abandoned since the Fukushima nuclear disaster and meets its lone resident, who stayed behind to look after all the animals. She goes bird-watching for rare cranes and hikes into the snow-covered mountains to visit an ancient pagoda. It was overwhelmingly a human-centred show and didn’t seem exploitative at all.

Not a Mario, karaoke bar or Cat Cafe in sight (yet!). 😀

I was particularly excited to see her visit the snow monkeys outside Nagano, as I’m heading out there myself (with @FrankDJS, of course – my own little monkey) at the end of October. Counter-intuitively, we’re hoping for cold weather, to increase our chances of seeing some of the cute Japanese Macaques who come out from the trees and stay warm by getting into the natural hot springs.

Ah… memories of my last meeting with Japanese monkeys. I’m obsessed, it’s fair to say.

The first episode ends with Joanna (we’re on first-name terms, it’s okay) arriving into Tokyo and disappearing into the crowds at Shibuya crossing. Can’t wait for next week’s episode, which promises more Tokyo and Kyoto.

(Though Joanna and I will have to agree to disagree over the quality of ‘Boss’ coffee from the drinks machines that litter Japan. Warm sludge, if memory serves. And heavily promoted by Tommy-Lee Jones, bizarrely).

I’d no idea the programme had eve been made, much less was going to be on TV last night. I’m not an big ITV viewer and most of our TV is consumed via Netflix or Amazon Prime these days.

A happy coincidence, then. Any other Japan-related TV shows I should be watching here in the UK? (Given several hours each week are already given over the NHK TV!)

Memories of Japan: Monkeys!

Back in September 2014, we visited the Arashiyama monkey park in Iwayatama. I’ve been obsessed with monkeys for as long as I can recall, so seeing them up close, wandering free on the mountain top, was an absolute delight.

And this morning, I came across a bunch of videos I took on this trip, all safely backed up on Dropbox. I shared one of Arishiyama this morning, but laughed out loud when I saw the following clips of the moneys in action.

They’re both adorable and ever so slightly sinister. No fear of humans – quite bored by us, actually – but giving off the vibe that they would take off your finger if you were stupid enough to reach out to them.

Mind you, when I actually got to feed them, they were so incredibly gentle. Such soft little hands. And greedy! They just couldn’t get enough apple.

Yet more excellent memories from our trips to Japan. Looking forward to gathering more this October. Maybe next time, we’ll go to see the snow monkeys!

 

 

 

Memories of Japan: Arashiyama

A very quick panorama taken from the bridge in Arashiyama during our visit there last October. I found the file as I was tidying up my Dropox!

It was such a lovely diversion from Kyoto – calm, green, warm and fantastic scenery. We wandered from one scenic spot to another and soaked up the atmosphere. We both have such lovely memories of our visit there, we’ll definitely be back some day.

Right now, we’re planning our return visit to Japan for later this year, but Kyoto is unlikely to feature. Tokyo for sure, but we’re also thinking about traveling to Kanazawa. So much easier to reach now that there’s a new Shinkansen line linking it to Tokyo.

If you’ve ever visited Kanazawa, I’d love to hear your thoughts and recommendations!

Memories of Japan: Shinkansen!

I’ve been lucky enough to take a few trips on Japan’s excellent Shinkansen trains. Last October, we went on a day trip from Kyoto to Hiroshima and the trips there and back were fast, comfortable and – for this train geek – exciting. I’ll admit that going all that distance (about 360km!!) and back in a single day is a bit of a mission, but the trains made it all worthwhile.

As I was taking some of these photos (and the video below), I noticed the new signs dotted around the station, warning of the dangers of the now-ubiquitous selfie-sticks. I’ve yet to hear of anyone actually getting electrocuted while taking picture next to one of these trains, but I wouldn’t be surprised if selfie-sticks contributed to a few more minor injuries along the way.

Super-fast, super-comfortable (though I confess we went First Class, in Green Carriages, using our Japan Rail passes) and incredibly efficient, the Shinkansen trains were a real highlight of the trip. Not just a means to an end.

I was going to compare the experience to other rail journeys I’ve taken, but decided there was no point. Shinkansen are head and shoulders above Eurostar between London and Paris (faster and more reliable!) and anything cross-crossing the UK. I wonder if the planned high speed routes in the UK will ever come close to this service. Somehow I doubt it.

Here’s a quick video I took in Kyoto, watching trains come and go. Arriving and departing on time, smoothly and silently moving like something from the future!

 

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!”

Japan: not how I thought it would pan out…


So. Guess who woke up with chickenpox this morning?

Yep. And so far away from home. And with a flight back to London on Wednesday morning. And a ton of work responsibilities waiting for me when I get there.

I’m so frustrated I could scream. I thought I’d picked up the flu or just a nasty head-cold. I had a couple of days of sniffles, aches and night-sweats. Took some over the counter meds and was fine by last night. Really enjoying myself again, if a little tired.

But then I woke up this morning covered in vile blisters from the top of my head to my ankles, looking like a plague victim from the middle ages. I don’t feel particularly ill, apart from the itchiness and tiredness, but I know I could spread this like Typhoid Mary if I’m not careful.

So, we arranged for a doctor to come to our hotel and he confirmed it (as if we needed it confirming): I have chickenpox and am now on anti-viral medication for the next week. ARGH! This is the holiday I’ve been looking forward to all year and now it’s in a shambles.
No trip to the onsen now (they’d never let me in!) and no shopping for toys for my nephews and nieces. I don’t want to be responsible for spreading this all over the place. It’s basically going to be bed-rest and staying away from other people until I fly home.

Sigh. One thing at a time.

I have a letter from the doctor stating that I’m okay to fly as long as a) I’m not running a temperature (which I’m not, anymore) and b) my blisters have cleared up. I’m hoping I’ll feel a lot better by Wednesday, otherwise no flight and a few extra emergency days in Tokyo. Which is not at all as fun as it sounds.

I’m trying hard to focus on the bright side of all of this. On the upside: this holiday has been a delight up until now. Kyoto, Hiroshima and Tokyo have been fun and relaxing in equal measure – despite all of the epic long walks and train journeys.

On the downside: fuck you chickenpox.

I never thought I’d be so eager to get on a flight away from Japan. But this is an illness where you just want to be in your own bed, however nice your hotel is. I’m now achey, annoyingly itchy and thoroughly pissed off. Of all the lousy times to get ill with something this incapacitating and contagious…

So. How’s your Sunday been?