Inching closer to Japan…

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In 11 days, I’ll be hopping on the first of our flights to get us to Japan (with a lovely little stopover in Seoul on the way!). Yesterday, we got one step slower when we picked up our JR Rail Passes here in London.

These passes are fantastic – we’ve used them before and can thoroughly recommend them to anyone considering doing a bit of travel in Japan. We can basically go anywhere in the country by rail – even using Shinkansen – with makes for lots of day trips out of Tokyo, as well as covering our journey from Osaka to Tokyo.

The pass also includes use of railways within Tokyo (as opposed to metros), including the extremely handy Yamanote line. It’s a massive circular railway line that takes in several of Tokyo’s most interesting neighbourhoods.

YAMANOTE-LINE-MAP

We found it incredibly useful on the last visit, as our hotel was located really close to one of the stations (Meguro) and it made it very easy to get to Shibuya, Harajujku and Akihabara – to name just a few places we visited.

We still need to pick up the actual passes once we get to Japan. You have to buy them before you arrive, while proving that you’re not Japanese or a resident in Japan, and then exchange a token for the real pass once you get there, in one of the main stations.

I still have my last one, pasted into a page of my Midori Traveler’s Notebook from last year. That and a bunch of ink stamps from some of the stations on the Yamanote line.

There’s still a lot to be done before I’m definitely ready to leave, including making a packing list, a shopping list (duh…), a plan for Seoul (the last-minute decision to fly there still makes me smile) and actually pack some bags. But Japan is once again within sight and I’m getting really excited at the prospect.

 

I’m Seoul excited!

And I just can’t hide it…

Sorry for the terrible pun, but it couldn’t be avoided. As of this morning, our trip to Japan has been updated and we’re including a visit to Seoul, South Korea as well! We’ve never been, despite discussing it quite a few times in the past.

So why the late change to the plans? Two main reasons:

  1. I was determined to retain my British Airway gold status for another year and @FrankDJS (henceforth know as King of Aviation Geeks) calculated that this was indeed possible. But only if we cancelled and rebooked our flights with some changes. And added a couple of extra flights. More than a couple, actually…

This sounds like a lot of extra work for something ephemeral, but I can hand-on-heart say that the last year of BA Executive Club Gold status has been a real help on my many, many business trips. Several free upgrades, extra baggage allowance and the comfort of a business lounge to get work done (or simply slump, head-in-hands at the end of a very long day).

  1. We’d be re-thinking how we’d spend our time in Japan and considered changing our plans to visit Nagano and Kanazawa.

Cancelling the BA flights was at minimal expense and we’ve rebooked with FinnAir. Not as crazy as it sounds! We fly from Heathrow to Helsinki and after a brief stopover, go from there to Seoul. Why via Helsinki? Well take a look at the earth – going to Asia via the north makes for a quicker journey.

After a few days in Seoul, we fly to Tokyo and immediately on to Osaka. At that point, we’ll start using our First Class JR rail passes and make our way back to Tokyo.

We’re planning a series of day-trips out of Tokyo to take advantage of the passes, as well as doing some of our favourite things within Tokyo. This will include a trip up to Nagano to see the snow monkeys, which is definitely do-able with travel via Shinkansen. We’ll once again be in town for the annual Halloween parade (amazeballs!). That aside, everything’s up for discussion.

It’s all a bit mad, really. We still fly out on October 20th, so this is a relatively last-minute change to the plan. Also, we usually plan our trips in some detail – reading up on where to go and what to see. The decision to add Seoul to the itinerary went something like this:

“How about Seoul?”

“We’ve never been there, have we?”

“Look, it’s only two hours flight from Tokyo.”

“Done! Let’s book it.”

I don’t think we’ve ever made a travel decision that quickly before. There is so much to do and see in Seoul, 48 hours will only let us scratch the surface. But I’m sure I can eat my fill and take a few thousand photos of the city and its people in that brief time.

So now all we need to do is find a hotel in Seoul and a hotel in Osaka. Our hotel in Tokyo remains unchanged (especially as it was prepaid!). Oh and @FrankDJS has to learn Korean, which I’m sure is totally doable in three weeks. It’s only fair as I’ve been studying Japanese.

Right?

Memories of Japan: Dotonbori, Osaka

We last visited Osaka in the Autumn of 2014 and one of my standout memories of the trip is the nightlife around Dotonbori. This compact neighbourhood is just buzzing and characterised by its brightly lit and fairly eccentric restaurant frontages. Many indicate was the restaurant is famous for, but some are harder to decipher if you’re not local!

Many of them move, albeit slowly, and some even make noises. Walking down the street is an assault on the senses when you add in the aroma of food coming at your from all directions. It’s a little overpowering at first, but we soon got used to it.

We spent time there in the evenings, after long days exploring the city and its region, so we possibly didn’t take advantage of all it had to offer. If memory serves, we had a few early nights while there. Especially after my afternoon at SpaWorld, where I was soaked and boiled into a state of pure relaxation. Onsen heaven.

But it left me in a state of consciousness that wasn’t great for wandering brightly lit and busy streets. It was all I could do to stay awake and pop conveyor-belt sushi in my mouth.

I’d definitely go back to Osaka some day, even though it’s not on the agenda for our next trip to Japan in October. There are too many other places to see! I’ll just have to get my fix for neon and nightlife while we’re in Tokyo.

Japan: Day one

So, as predicted, I was absolutely wrecked by the time we got on our flight from Tokyo to Osaka. Despite the energy drinks consumed in the JAL lounge, I fell asleep on the plane almost as soon as we took off. Then woke up feeling like I’d had a one-hour Vulcan neck pinch. I must have been sleeping in such a strange position…

The flight was marked by a) efficient boarding by the ever-polite Japanese fellow-travellers and b) a shed-load (dozens) of Japanese school kids. They’d received a lecture from one of their teachers pre-boarding, which was so ferocious it even scared me into behaving well. Seriously. It was scary. No wonder they were so well behaved.

The bus journey from Osaka to Kyoto was lovely. The sun was out and the scenery was a nice distraction from the combination of neck pain and exhaustion. We then had to transfer from that bus, at Kyoto rail statin, to the free transfer bus to our hotel.

Seriously, it felt like an epic quest, not a holiday. But we got there and the welcome was as lovely as ever. Despite arriving at about 1pm, our room was ready and we’d got a free upgrade. Luck of the Irish! We’re facing out onto the garden, not the hills in front of the hotel. But it’s still very pretty. Here’s a quick look at the hillside view. Really lovely in the morning sun.

After a ‘brief’ two-hour nap, we showered, changed and wandered into town. We’re a 15 minute stroll from the centre of Kyoto, which takes us through a very quiet neighbourhood. We hadn’t had lunch, so basically went for food in the first place we stumbled across. It was the Japanese equivalent of a UK fish and chip shop… except it spcialised in katsu curries of varied kinds.


You had to order your food from a machine in the lobby, recive some tokens and then exchange these for actual food with a waiter on the floor above. It was extremely tasty and the portions were excellent. Haute cuisine it was not, but it was exactly what I was looking for.

We then went for a wander around town, reacquainting ourselves with the street layout. The weather had been lovely and it remained warm even after sundown. A quick green tea frappuccino at Starbucks and a stop in one of the many Lawson convenience stores to pick up drinks and snacks for our room. By the time we walked back, I had more than hit my 10,000 step count for the day.


I then managed to find a live stream of the Ireland versus Argentina rugby world cup match, and propped myself up in bed to watch the carnage. Kick-off was 9pm Kyoto time. Despite the terrible result, it was a cracker to watch, even on an iPad via shaky internet stream. Then sleep until 4am this morning.

We’ve popped along to the gym and now to graze at the breakfast buffet downstairs before a trip to Arashiyama on the other side of town.

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….

2014: My Year in Review

So, the end of another year. While I’m not a huge fan of celebrating New Year’s Eve – people do tend to go over the top in making rash life-changing promises, while others get quite maudlin – I do find it useful to look back over the year and reflect on what I’ve really enjoyed about it.

The rest? It gets filed under “useful life experiences” and I do my best to move on. A fresh start and all that.

For me, 2014 was a superb year. It wasn’t a daily walk in the park, but I had some superb experiences, made some tough decisions and survived some challenging situations – knowing more about myself and others.

I left my job, set up a new business and (so far) made a go of it. I finally got over my knee surgery and completed another half-marathon. And just days ago, I secured a place in the 2015 London Marathon!

Just like I did last year, in no particular order, these are my standout “2014 things” that I’d like to share. And in doing so, I know I’m missing out lots of equally important things, probably offending many in the process!

Book of the Year

3985This is a tough one for me. So I’ll begin this by immediately breaking my own rules and highlight two books I’ve enjoyed more than any others this year. The first is The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon. It covers two of my favourite themes: creativity and the comics industry.

Set just as comics were taking off prior to World War II, it tells the stories of two cousins who write and draw their own characters and make it big as creators. It covers their experiences in life, love, dealing with loss and living through the war. You don’t have to love comics to enjoy this book, but I’ll admit the references to real world artists and writers were fun.

Chabon created some amazing characters in this book. It was so absorbing, I was genuinely sad to finish the book as I just wanted to see how their stories panned out.

The second book I’ll highlight is The Martian by Andy Weir. It’s a really absorbing story of how an astronaut survives a disaster during a manned landing on Mars and has to attempt survival until he can be rescued. There is a lot of physics, maths and chemistry in the first couple of chapters. I’ll admit I found it a little challenging at first, but it’s worth getting through these and into the narrative.

It’s being made into a film, so if it sounds interesting, I’d recommend reading the book first. They’ll inevitably have to cut lots of the content to make it palatable to a general audience.

Movie of the Year

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A few months ago, if you’d have asked me to choose my favourite film of 2014, I would have screamed “Captain America: Winter Soldier” from the rooftops. I loved every minute of it. And I’ve watched it three times this year.

I know people who don’t even enjoy comics or know who Captain America is who enjoyed this. Think of it as the Bourne Ultimatum with super-powers. And Nazis.

However…the Marvel went and released what seems to be their sleeper hit for 2014: Guardians of the Galaxy. Wow. Just wow. It had everything: spectacular special effects, space battles, improbable action scenes and really likeable characters. Not to mention some very laugh-out-loud moments.

The film’s writers had their work cut out for them – the origins of the Guardians of the Galaxy are complex and, to be honest, a bit impenetrable to the non-reader. But I think they did an excellent job of bringing the characters together into a pretty cohesive story, setting them up perfectly for the planned sequel.

Superheroes aside, I really, really enjoyed Interstellar – well worth the numb backside after sitting in the cinema for well over three hours.

Comic of the Year

This really has been the year of the super-complex crossover in comics-land. I’m pretty much a Marvel-only reader, but have dipped my toe into the Image universe when something has been overwhelmingly recommended.

But for all the cosmic battles, identity-switching and grand reveals, my favourite comic of the year has once again been Marvel’s Hawkeye.  To be fair, I’ve been flagging this as a must read almost from the beginning of the series.

The creative team have focused on a non-super-powered individual whose personal life is a bit of a shambles. He hasn’t got the money and charm of Tony Stark, the healing abilities of Wolverine or the clear unambiguous morales of Captain America.

Hawkeye

But Clint Barton – the Hawkeye of the title – is all the more interesting for it.

Living in a pretty shambolic apartment, his life centres on pizza, an adopted mutt of a dog, helping out his neighbours and battling Eastern European organised crime. All with a bow and arrow. While getting the living crap beaten out of him on a regular basis.

I think, in light of all the epic and cosmic stories Marvel is telling right now, his humanity and (relative) realism made him a more interesting character. That and the stellar art and dialogue provided by the very excellent David Aja and Matt Fraction.

Other honourable mentions go to “Sex Criminals” (which, despite the title, is really hilarious), the new reboot of “Fantastic Four” and Kelly Sue DeConnick’s ever-excellent “Captain Marvel”. The latter is being made into a film, so get on board now so you understand it all when it hits the cinema.

Trip of the Year

No surprises here: it’s our trip to Japan in September. It. Was. Epic. Every day spent in Japan was a delight, regardless of the city we were in. I learned a ton, ate more than two tons and took in more visual beauty than I’m used to.

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Highlights on the trip were seeing the monkeys, visiting an onsen spa and eating the best sushi I’ve ever had in my life.

Two weeks spent across Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo was simply not enough. I’ll definitely be back. I loved the fact that almost everything is different to London: the food, the language, the nightlife, the etiquette.

If I could bring anything back from Japan and implant it here in London it would be the Japanese ability to board planes quickly and quietly and the whole concept of the onsen.

Really. I’ll pay serious money to access hot springs and a clean sauna experience. If it can be combined with Japanese manners, then all the better. Although, I’d prefer not to be stared at quite so much. I’m going to put it down to the hairy chest and not think about it too much…

Moving on!

App of the Year

Across all of my very many gadgets, one app has stood out both in terms of how much I’ve used it and how much I’ve enjoyed it. It’s not overly complex, but does what it does very well. It’s Pocket Casts from Shift Jelly.

Simply put, it’s the podcast player that Apple’s own podcasts app should be. It has a wonderful interface, syncs across devices automatically and now, you can access your podcasts via any web browser. It’s worth every penny of the £2.49 app fee, I guarantee it.

Other excellent apps I’ve relied on this year have been ToDoist and Evernote. Both will help you get more done and relieve that nagging doubt that you may have forgotten something. Evernote is basically my external brain and the place anything I may need to use and/or remember in the future is stored. Well worth paying for a premium account for both of them, but they both have a very powerful free version you can use to get a taster.

Gadget of the Year

tumblr_inline_nccewcURay1qa1qd9Again, this probably won’t surprise anyone who has already read about my Apple-related excitement while in Japan, but my gadget of the year is the iPhone 6 Plus. It’s the iPhone I’ve always wanted: massive capacity, massive screen, but light and slim.

It’s definitely not for everyone, I agree. I’ve had friends and family (and strangers on the tube) stare at the size of it in incredulity due to its size. It’s most definitely a phablet, not a mini mobile phone.

But the screen size makes it possible to read longer selections of text comfortably and even watch video (video podcasts, as opposed to feature-length movies…I’m not a masochist!).

There have been moments when I’d briefly wished I’d bought the iPhone 6, rather than its larger brother. Especially when wearing skinny jeans.

It’s not a phone you can easily pocket. But it’s so much more than a phone, and I carry a bag anyway, so it’s not a deal-breaker for me.

Second favourite would probably be my 27″ iMac, all because of its beautiful, magnificent screen. It makes working from my home office an absolute joy.

So what about 2015?

I’m looking forward to plenty more travel. I have personal trips to Paris and Reykjavik already in the calendar. I’m hoping to make it back to Miami at some point. And there are business trips to both Singapore and Malaysia confirmed.

I’m hoping Apple don’t launch any more sexy gadgets that I’ll “need” as soon as they’re released. But I am looking forward to seeing what they do with photo management next year, in terms of a replacement for iPhoto.

I have a list of films I’m excited to see, including the new Avengers movie and the Star Wars sequel. I’m going to hope Avengers: Age of Ultron is as good as the first one and that Star Wars helps me forget the car crash that was the prequels. Yes. All of them.

I have one hell of a reading list to work through. “Work” makes it sound hard, and it isn’t. I love reading and I love my Kindle. It helps me read multiple books concurrently, without having to cart them around with me in a bag. You can really get lost in a book when reading a Kindle. And the new Kindle Voyage is a delight.

Outside of my own “circle of influence”, I’m hoping 2015 will have a lot less terrible, terrible news. There have been days where I’ve quite frankly turned off all news sources, just to avoid hearing about any more disasters, genocide and inhumanity.

I’m hoping the countdown to the UK 2015 General Election isn’t as painful and soul-destroying as recent political campaigning has been and that we can have a sensible national debate about the country’s direction – instead of apportioning blame.

Most of all, I’m hoping 2015 will be as fun, surprising, exciting and varied as 2014.

How about you?

Post-holiday blues

We flew back from Tokyo yesterday and I’m really feeling it today. Not the jetlag – I managed to stay awake until a reasonable time last night, then slept right through to 6am. So I’m feeling pretty awake and ‘switched on’.

No. It’s more of a psychological post-holiday come down.

I’m missing Japan…big time.

But rather than dwell on this, I’m going through our holiday snaps and enjoying the memories. Feeding the monkeys in Kyoto…wandering through Dotonbori in Osaka…super-fantastic sushi in Tokyo. Fantastic.

In some ways, it was a really quick holiday, but in other ways I feel we’ve been away from home for ages. I’ll admit it was great to sleep in my own bed last night. And to wake up in a room I recognised!

Most of today was spent dealing with unpacking, laundry and tidying up. Looking at the various momentous picked up along the way – and the various gifts for our nieces and nephews. (I never knew so much Hello Kitty merchandise actually existed!). Generally getting back into the swing of things. Back to work tomorrow, which will no doubt be a shock to the system.

So, thank you Japan – thank you patient, polite and understanding people of Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo. I’ll definitely be back!

Japanese air travel

Our flight between Osaka and Tokyo yesterday afternoon highlighted one more difference between the UK and Japan…

Japan Airlines staff managed to board our plane with all of its 260 passengers in just 15 minutes with no missing passengers, no arguments over who is sitting where and no passengers attempting to insert luggage the size of a VW Beetle into the overhead compartments.

People filed into the plane quickly and quietly, took their assigned seats and sat back awaiting take-off. I was dumbfounded, as I’m used to the European style of noisy and confused boarding, which frequently delays flights.

I can only attribute this difference to two things: the professinalism and skill of the cabin crew (they seem like they actually give a damn) and the fact that Japanese air travellers read instructions on their bording passes and just do what they’re told.

There was no queue-jumping and nobody racing for their flight.

Japan: how do you do this?! How can we learn from you?!

Yours,
A frustrated frequent-flyer.

Security and Manners

Something that really hit home this afternoon at Osaka Airport was the Japanese attitude to security. We both realised over the last few days that we’ve hardly seen any police on the streets in either Kyoto or Osaka.

Further, people tend to leave their belongings lying around in public, apparently without fear they’ll be stolen. In coffee shops, customers will leave bags, laptops or even mobile phones on the table they want to secure, while they go off to order their drinks.

At first, I thought they were mad. But then I realised that I’ve just lived in the UK too long. In London, anything not nailed down will be picked up and walked away with by some oik.

Leave a bag alone in London for two minutes and it becomes a “suspicious package”. Here, it’s someone saying “I want this seat”.

Yes, there’s been tons more terrorism in the UK than in Japan. But what I love about attitudes here is the simple trust people have in their fellow citizens.

Airport security here at Osaka was swift, efficient and friendly. No loud shouting at passengers, some real assistance from the security staff and a feeling that you were engaging in something worthwhile but also easy. Everyone involved was unfailingly polite.

I’ve also realised that I’m getting comfortable with this way of being. I plugged in my iPhone to charge while I went off to get a drink a few minutes ago. I’m slightly worried that London is going to be a bit of a rude shock to the system when we get home next weekend.

Still. I have a week in Tokyo ahead of me to enjoy life here before that.

And I realise that the couple of weeks I’ve spent in Japan don’t make me a sociological expert on life here. But I like what I’ve seen and it puts life in London into perspective.

Not always for the better.