Happy Christmas

As even in Japan I can’t avoid Christmas (usually I like it – this year not so much as I’m away from friends and family). The further bad news is that I can’t even avoid shitty Christmas songs.

So as there are only 5 days to go until the “big day” I wish you all a happy Christmas and New Year and hope you have a good time over the festive period even in these testing and difficult times.

PS I also won’t be able to send or recieve Xmas/New Years texts as my phone isn’t high tech enough to work in Japan (i.e. it isn’t 3G).

Marriage in “the West”

I was having an interesting coversation with the mother of the Japanese family I was staying with in Tokyo about marriage. She was talking about how the divorce rate in Japan is rising. She was shocked when I mentioned that the divorce rate in England was currently approximately 50% (update: just checked the government figures, they don’t give figures per marriage but comparing the number of divorces this year to the number of marriages this year and the average since 1951 gives a probable divorce rate of between 40% and 50% – of course this only counts official marriages and not couples who live together unmarried.); I’m sure the situation is just as bad in the US and the rest of Europe. I suddenly realized that the reason for this is the lack of available advice about whether the person you are with is really “the one” or not. Given the vast quantity of stuff we were officially taught about relationships is less in amount to my knowledge of Vietnamese. For something that is so important; children who grow up with only one parent perform worse in all sorts of ways. And ancidotally children of parents who stayed together “for the children” wished their parents would split up.

Of course the sensible solution at this point would be to ask someone older and wiser who has had more life experience and who knows you well. So for the majority of young people without older friends to turn to that would leave their parents (of course this depends on your parents not being keen to marry you off to formulate an alliance or for power or something like that.) or other members of your family but asking for their approval of a relationship isnt really something you would do.

Of course you can always base it on the relatively small amount of life experience of long term relationships that you and your friends have (and the longer you wait the more likely that your friends have that experience.) or the media. But they will say practically anything to sell their publications on something that is fairly subjective, and obviously popular to discuss, like relationships.

So the current western model doesn’t seem to work that well but I suppose it is better than arranged marriage as at least you are free to make your own decisions. Thoughts and comments?

Tokyo and Hakone

First thing on Wednesday morning I headed to Ginza as I needed to buy some socks; the mission to do this was successful and after that I headed to Tokyo station to get the rest of my train tickets reservations. After this I headed to Ryogoku and the Sumo (really pronounced with a very short u rather than a long one that I’ve always used.) area, which wasn’t particularly exciting though after a Chinese lunch I headed to the Edo Tokyo museum which described the history of Japan from the Shogun era which was very interesting and I spent 4 hours there. The only issue was that there was clearly more information only in Japanese that wasn’t in English. Spanish would have been OK too but they didn’t have any information in that either :p. After that I did some important stuff on the Internet before coming back home.

The next day I got up at 6am and after showing and breakfast I got the 7am train headed towards the mountains. It was a steam train too; though unfortunately the steam was on the inside of the carriages rather than coming out of the engine. After arriving in Odawara I got my “Hakone Freepass” (which of course wasn’t free but cost ¥3900 (£28)) and I then got the train up slowly into the mountains before changing again onto a narrow gauge railway heading up to the Fujiya hotel where I had some tea and cake. After that I went to the Hakano open air museum. As the name hints they had a lot of outdoor displays but also some indoor displays though theses weren’t partcularly great. The outdoor displays included a massive Pegasus and rider, several moderately erotic nudes and a massive climbing frame made out of segments you could climb inside. All in all I spent two and a half hours there so afterwards I had to get a move on. So I got the train further up the mountain and grabbed a sandwich before jumping on the funicular (though in Wellington New Zealand it would also be a cable car) and then getting on the cable car to the top of the mountain. At the top of the mountain you emerge over a volcanic valley which had lots of steam coming out of vents in the mountain and was very impressive. I did go on a walk to get closer but I didn’t get too close as I’ve seen them before in New Zealand and Chile. I also got to see a great view of mount Fiji though there was a little cloud low down on one side of the mountain.

After that I got the cable car down the mountain the other side to the side of a volcanic lake – like Rotaruha lake but smaller. At the bottom I got the boat across to the other side. The views were good but the boat was very cheesy and even had a Lord Nelson cartoony statue. Then at the Mokihakone I got off the boat and went for a walk to the second stop. On the way I walked along an avenue of tall Cryptomeria trees before reaching a viewpoint which let me see Mount Fuji again – this time without any cloud at all which was great. As the sun set I saw the Hakone barrier built on the road to Kyoto by the second Shogun before catching the bus back to Odwara.

At Odwara my journey got more exciting as I decided to take the Shinkansen (bullet train) back to Tokyo as it’s free on my railpass (otherwise it’d be about ¥3500 or £25) I didn’t think it’d be much slower. However in 24 minutes I had covered the approximately 75km from Odwara to Tokyo. In the UK this is approximately the distance between Oxford and London which takes 55 minutes on the fastest train. The train even stopped on the way at Yokohoma and even so it managed an average speed of 180km/h! After that I took a trip on the Tokyo loop “Yamato” line to Shibuya. When I arrived on the platform to find it almost completely full. This train was the busiest train I’ve ever been on and I nearly lost my backpack on two occassions due to people pushing onto the train. Imagine the final top banana of the year (or if you aren’t a Warwick student a very, very, busy club) and then add some more and you get how busy the train was. It even got difficult to breathe as I got slammed against the people around me completely. And they didn’t even have to get the White gloved platform attendents involved to push people on (though they did get involved later on the journey on the train from Shibuya.). Then from Shibuya station I took two further trains to get back to where I’m staying in Tokyo. Due to the speed of the Shinkansen I got back in 75 minutes rather than 95 on the way out; even though I also got lost at Shibuya station for a bit. Overall though I’m getting used to the Tokyo public transport system. Maybe I should list the ability to use public transport on my CV as a skill :p.

The next day I headed north towards Sendai first catching a couple of pretty busy local trains to catch my Shinkhansen north out of Tokyo which I just managed to catch. As my seat was by the window in a row of three and the seats next to it were already occupied I tried to sit elsewhere but it’s clear the Japanese catch trains they have reserved seats on unlike the British who often don’t. I decided to get off the train early to see the Japanese railway museum as after travelling on all these trains I was curious about how they worked. There was some information in English but that was using a mobile phone barcode reader which didn’t work particularly well. Though the information I did learn was very interesting and mostly was interesting even if like me you ride on trains mainly to get from A to B (though I admit I went on the Shinkansen yesterday purely to travel really fast.) I’m sure it would have been much better if you understood Japanese. Numbering the exhibits and providing printed information in different languages would have worked far better in my view.

Photos uploaded

I’ve named the latest bunch of photos on Flickr now so you now know what they are of.

PS If you want to see pictures of me you’ll need to add me as a Flickr friend, see the help page for how.

PPS The Japanese (aside from the Apple Store) take the view that the internet must be used for an hour so they are even worse than in New Zealand, so posts will be infrequent unless I’m in a hostel with WiFi or close to an Apple Store.

Tokyo: First few days

So after arriving late in the evening to the Japanese family with whom I’m staying in Tokyo on Sunday I went to bed fairly early and set out into the city just before 9am. First I had some admin to complete and then I set out to explore the city. First I headed to the nearby Ginza district where I first went to GAP to get a new tshirt to replace one that is damaged and jumper for the winter. The prices in GAP weren’t actually that high and were about the same as in the UK. After that I had a wander round the district to get a feel for it and vaguely looked for the Apple Store and it’s free WiFi as mentioned in the guidebook which meant I got a feel for the district. Ginza was very modern with lots of tall buildings. As the roads are also very wide it seemed like a place with a very big scale and as it was about 10:30 in the morning it was actually quite quiet as the shops had only just opened. I headed West to Tokyo station to get my Shinkasen tickets for later in my time in Japan. After that I went downstairs into a shopping centre to grab some lunch. It was actually surprisingly cheap costing only £4.50 including a drink. You must remember that the currency has risen by 60% over the past year due to bankers repaying low interest loans to Japan so it used to be only £2.80. Even against the US dollar it has increased by 30 or 40%.

After lunch I headed to the imperial palace to take a look around there. Unfortunately it is closed to the public and the building itself is inside a massive park so you can’t easily take a look at the building itself and have to make do with looking at the very traditional Japanese buildings around the edge. There is also a park next to the Palace but as it was Monday this was closed – the Japanese seem to shut a lot of their museums and attractions on Mondays.

After that I returned to the subway to go to Asakusa. Asakusa is the site of the famous Buddhist temple Senso-ji. There is also a Market in front of the temple which I walked through to get there. The temple itself was red and built in old Japanese style though behind it there were modern buildings – it was strange to see it in that position. After that I headed west into the narrow streets around the temple which were full of people walking down the middle of the road. The streets are narrow and remind me a little of Cusco though without being on a hill. That area of the city is where a lot of new parts of Japanese culture started so it was full of strip clubs and gambling dens – though it wasn’t a dodgy area like it would be in Europe. After going there I got the subway to Shinjuku which is the district that is supposed to represent the whole of Tokyo. First I headed for the Tokyo metropolitan building which is very attractive and supposed to represent modern Japanese architecture. This building also has viewing platforms at the top so you are able to look over the whole area and it is supposed to be particularly good at dusk which is when I arrived as you got to see the lights come on in the city. The view from the top was amazing and you could see the city completely covering the land in all directions. Tokyo is absolutely massive! The nearby lights of the building and neon that you could see from the top were impressive too but after I thought I should get a closer look. After a wander round the district where I managed to get lost as they have maps with different directions other than North at the top of the map which was very confusing. As the district is dominated by a massive train station it isn’t as big an issue as it could be though! Even so I still managed to see two branches of the high-end jewelry chain Tiffany and Co which seems more than excessive for a single district. I think that this along with vast numbers of other high end branded retailers is due to the Japanese being very keen on them. After this I went back to where I was staying and had some supper.

The next day I again got up fairly early and headed to a nearby flea market with the people I was staying with. On the way we passed their local temple which was more subdued than the one I had seen the day before and was also much quieter. This was very interesting as there were a wide variety of goods on sale (they even had Peruvian hats) and for a market the quality was very high. On the way back we went via a nearby University which was very modern and we had some cheap lunch there which cost about £3.

After that I headed out to the nearby Meiji-jingu shrine which was fairly typical but large. What was really good was it’s location in a large tree filled park. It also had a small garden which you had to pay to enter and that was very quiet away from the hustle and bustle of the city.

After that I headed out of the south gate I entered the young persons district of Harajuku. It contains the Ota Memorial museum which is a small art museum with traditional ukiyo-e paintings and prints. They have 20000 works but only two rooms so they rotate the stuff once a month. This time they had work relating to the famous Japanese work Genji Monogatari (tale of Genji) written about the Japanese imperial court 1000 years ago this year. There was also artwork based on the 19th century parody version of this based on the imperial court of the time. This is the traditional art with the white faced Japanese and was well worth seeing. After that I went past H&M which was so full of people it had a queue outside. For a Tuesday it was like an Apple Store in the UK or USA. Apparently H&M is popular and there are only two stores in Tokyo so they are both busy. In comparison Tiffany who I mentioned earlier have at least four stores (with two in Shinjuku alone) and they are far more upmarket. After leaving H&M I wandered down towards Shibayu station via the tree lined Omotesando which was full of a huge number of branded stores and bright lights in the dark. On the way I passed a mobile phone store and thought I’d take a look. The only phone that I recognized from Europe is the iPhone – though it didn’t seem to be recieving much attention – most of the phones were square looking flip phones which the Japanese seem to love.

Aside from the mobile phones another thing I saw when wandering the streets was people dressed up in strange costumes. Apparently this is cosu-play and is to get away from the conformity of Japanese life. I didn’t get any pictures of this unfortunately. I also saw a large number of single women walking around; much more than in Europe or the Americas. It was interesting to see that they didn’t feel to be in relationships as much; whether this leads to better relationships (i.e. a lower divorce rate maybe) or not would be interesting to find out. They were also generally very pretty. I get asked this everywhere I go but as there were lots of pretty women at university (and secondary school before that.) I have fairly high standards so they are usually average but that isn’t true here.

After returnng back to where I was staying in the evening I had a French potato pie (which I ate with a knife and fork rather than chopsticks for a change.) and some traditional Japanese dessert before sitting down after dinner to watch Hull play Liverpool on Japanese TV. Even though I don’t normally like football this match was great and had a nailbiting finish. After that I watched a Japanese antiques program which went into the history of the time/pieces in great detail so would be great if you spoke Japanese.

Journey to Tokyo

I took the train up from Wellington to Auckland on Saturday which was pretty good and the train left early on Saturday morning for it’s journey first along the coast and then through the mountains. Unfortunately the windows are far too shiny to really get a good photo and there is too much pollen on the viewing platform for me. We did stop at lunchtime which gave me a chance for a quick walk as I’d already had some sandwiches on the train.

We arrived into Auckland in the evening (though 1.5 hours late which I wasn’t at all happy about – the reason was that the track was too hot.) and once there I went to sleep before my early 7.30am flight to Brisbane. For this flight I got up at 4.25am which is ungodly and then as the airport bus was early (4:40 not 4:44 as it was supposed to be.) I had to run up a 1:4 hill to catch it before collapsing on the floor of the bus (you try it with a 18kg rucksack – I’m not in the army.). I did manage to get a shower at the airport in Auckland. The flight was uneventful except that I had to run for my plane at Brisbane and JALWAYS gave us lots of food and drink though the films were all absolutely terrible. The best one was about a playboy bunny and solority houses and I’m not even kidding. It was also followed by the worlds longest taxi into the airport.

After that I made my way through the friendly and efficient security checks (the other airport staff and people around the airport were friendly too – male and female :p) to get my Japan Rail Pass and train ticket to Shinjuku station. I should also mention how insanely reliable the Japanese trains are. The 18:10 rapid train that I didn’t catch shut it’s doors at 18:09:5x but was still standing in the station when my iPod touch went over to 18:10:00. The track is also insanely smooth as it’s dark outside it doesn’t feel like the train is actually moving at all, ok it had stopped but I hadn’t noticed.

Further on on the journey we passed houses with garish Christmas lights though in general Tokyo is a lot darker with far fewer lights visible than in a Western city. The centre is still very bright though.

The other thing I’m immediately interested in discovering aside from the general culture is the technology. Japan has a reputation of being the most technologically advanced country on the planet, yet most of the most successful companies for 100 years have been American; from IBM to Microsoft to Apple and Google today.

Recycling and the New York subway

I have to admit there is a lot to dislike about the New York subway aside from it’s safety at night which is excellent but it has a further good point on recycling.

In New York all the rubbish thrown away at stations is sorted for recycling; now while this isn’t a pleasant job it brings benefits. Rather than having to have several bins in one place and assume people don’t get confused they have one which is much simpler. It also helps to have that approach where it is only practicle to have one bin (e.g. in the bathroom). Many
Hostels have multiple bins which is difficult as sometimes you aren’t sure whether something is recyclable so stick it in the general rubbish bin (which can be hard to find) or put it in the wrong bin by mistake.

Oxford Christchurch

I arrived into Christchurch on Thursday Evening on the train. Unsurprisingly the train was 20 minutes late even though there didn’t appear to have been any reason or obvious sign of delay while on the journey.

After arrival I went to a local French named restaurant/bar called Dux de Lux, though the interior was a more traditional wood panelled building like most of the good Oxford pubs. There I had some Green Mussels which were delicious though they could have done without the Chili in my view. After that I had some delicious chocolate cake before returning towards my hostel.

On the way back I passed a small arthouse cinema and as I had nothing else to do that evening I went to see a film. One of the films on was called the Counterfitters which I went to see. This was seriously arthousy and didn’t have any previews or ads at the start and just got straight into it. The film was excellent and described German efforts to forge the pound and dollar. The film was apparently a true story as well.

Spoiler alert: text in white – highlight to read.

These notes were designed so that they were 100% indistinguishable from the originals. They did this with the help of a Jewish expert counterfitter from Berlin who had been arrested in 1936 and was trying to counterfit the dollar a the time, then when working for the Germans they gave them the pound and then delayed the dollar until it was too late and they survived the war.

After watching that I went to bed and the next day I headed to some museums – first heading to the Canterbury Museum which had excellent displays on the Antarctic. After seeing that I then went briefly into the bontanic gardens before going to the Christchurch Art Gallery. On the way I passed Christ’s College which had the requisite “Keep off the grass” signs as well as a traditional Oxfordian ugly concrete building (though the engineering department is uglier.) around a fairly pretty quad. After that I saw there was an opportunity for Punting. Though due to health and safety reasons you apparently have to pay a man in a straw hat to punt for you rather than doing it yourself. Then I headed to the art gallery which had interesting collections of New Zealand and modern contemporary art and I even managed to get a free one-on-one guided tour of the gallery.

At that point I got my stuff and just caught the bus to the airport so I could drop off my stuff and visit the nearby international Antarctic centre which was interesting and it contained a cool room to simulate the temperature as well as a great ride in a Hägglunds (all-terrain vechile) but it was a bit expensive for my liking at £17. They also had a collection of good looking 45 minute videos which I missed due to lack of time. I then caught a the totally painless flight up to Wellington.

Back to Christchurch

So I got up at 8am on Thursday for the 9am bus which was later than everyone else in my dorm who had mostly only arrived the day before – I think people are trying to do the whole country in 2 weeks. I’ve spent 5 weeks here and could have spent more time in several places fairly easily (doing some more walks, rafting and some mountain biking would have been great.) so coming back would still be great. I am still glad to be moving on as I’m getting a little bored of the UK in the southern hemisphere.

So I left Franz Josef on Thursday morning for day 1 of 4 of travel until Japan. First I headed up the coast to Greymouth. First we stopped at about 11am to have morning coffee and I also had a local delicacy of possum pie which was delicious. Basically in New Zealand they have 80 million possums and they are a pest so eating it is definitely a good thing. After that we followed the road up the coast including going over 2 bridges that the road shares with the railway line (trains obviously have priority). After that we headed up for lunch before getting into Greymouth for the train.

The train headed into the mountains across to Christchurch and first headed through a pretty valley before going through a massive tunnel to take us up to the small village of Arthurs Pass in a pass in the mountains called Arthurs Pass. The New Zealanders generally take the same attitude to naming that Warwick University does. In New Zealand the northern island is called “North Island” and the southern island is named similarly. At Warwick the cafe under the library is unsurprisingly called “Library cafe”. As we passed along Arthurs Pass we headed through lots of small tunnels and viaducts surrounded by beautiful scenery as we made our way to Christchurch. About 30 minutes before arrival we left the mountains and went across the heavily farmed but fairly featureless canterbury plains on our way to Christchurch.

Franz Josef and more

After a long coach journey I arrived into Franz Josef on Tuesday evening. That evening I went for a few drinks and learnt that the town is completely dependent on tourists. It’s population is only 100 but swells to approximately 3000/day in the summer which is absolutely massive. I also found that in appreciation the bars charge less to those small number of locals than the tourists by giving them discounts off the menu price.

The next day I went to the visitors centre in the morning and saw an interesting video on the southland area and some further exhibitions. The video was especially good as it included commentary as well as epic scenery. In the afternoon I headed out onto the Franz Josef glacier (access to the nearby Fox Glacier and many of the walks nearby are currently closed due to being washed out in the rains while I was in Mount Cook.) and I got to use crampons and walk on the ice of the glacier which was really cool, especially when we walked through a narrow crack that reminded me of te Cu Chi tunnels in Viet Nam. Also this was all for a bargain price of NZ$92 (£33) so I was pleased to do something for under NZ$100 for once. It was a good day and even though I was in the “advanced” group it wasn’t too difficult though there were ropes to hold onto in places.

In the evening I watched the repeat of a British ITV program called “ladette to lady” which was about converting “the worst” young women in the UK from drunken whores into ladies at an old fashioned finishing school the show itself was entertaining but not that great as it was fairly sexist and old fashioned (though as it was ITV from 2005 it was probably the best show broadcast at the time!). Basically they got them to learn all the stuff you might learn in finishing school such as embroidary, flower arranging, sarcasm and of course playing hard to get. That is at least seems ill-advised – I mean the chances to win someone actually worth having are few and far between (and besides there are the inevitable accidental mistakes.), games don’t help and I can’t believe that if you were serious about someone you’d care about whether they were “easy” to win or not – it doesn’t reflect on them as if you a good match for them are the exception not the rule.

Though this does lead to alcohol abuse which is probably the most serious problem in the UK at the moment*. Now I certainly enjoy a few drinks occassionally but the general culture of drinking in the UK in unacceptable. Currently 800,000 people a year go to hospital for alcohol related issues (which is approximately 1.3% of the population) and the number is increasing so unfortunately the government is going to need to regulate it and step in as it must cost the economy billions of pounds a year in lost productivity and wasted police and hospital time. Maybe we’d grow as fast as Viet Nam does instead of resession if we sorted it by the end of the year, but unfortunately it’s an embedded part of our culture so will take a long time to fix (like 5 to 10 years or more).

* = I’m sure some people are thinking our trains are worse but they aren’t really that bad: probably only France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, China and Singapore and maybe Russia, Finland, Sweden, Italy and India (not for reliability but because they make huge profits – I believe £2 billion in 2007.) have better systems. So out of 190 odd countries in the world only 11-16 have better train systems. Whereas probably only 10-15 countries have worse alcohol problems and I can’t think of any of them.