Smart cards

I’ve got some smart cards left over for Tokyo, Singapore and Shanghai and the latter two even have some credit on them so if you’re going to any of those cities and would like a smartcard then drop me an email. Note that the one for Tokyo is less useful as if you dont have a railpass you get a “free” one with the narita express into central Tokyo.

Photos uploaded

My friend Rupert has kindly uploaded a bunch more photos for me, which I’ve started to name, I’ll finish when I’m not in the most expensive internet cafe in Malaysia in the KLCC complex (it costs RM8, 1.60GBP for 1 hour!). I’ve named some of them as well

Yokohama and the journey there

So I got the train up from Hiroshima to Yokohama on Monday the journey was fairly uneventful (I even got 2 seats for the price of 1 for most of the journey.) except when I was told to move behind the yellow line on the platform. Now this would be fair enough except firstly there was a big metal fence between me and the train and secondy the train was stopping. Even if I’d had a heart attack the train wouldn’t have hit me, and even if I’d got crazily towards the train somehow 999 times out of 1000 the train would have been able to stop in time as it was going slowly probably making the odds of something going really wrong like 1 billion to 1. This is an example of the Japanese going too far on safety.

One interesting thing to note about the Shinkansen in general is how it runs entirely on seperate track from other Japanese trains. They are narrow gauge and the Shinkansen is standard gauge (which unsurprisingly is wider) also a huge percertage of track is built either on bridges or in tunnels which is different from standard railway construction. This is because the track is new and most of Japan is built up and so difficult to find space to build new track on. That the Japanese have managed to sucessfully build a new railway like this makes technologies like maglev which allows you to run trains at more than 500km/h look more promising as they also have to be built on an entirely separate line. That kind of speed allows you to compete directly with airlines.

After arriving into Shin Yokahoma I caught a couple more trains to where I’m staying over New Year or Oshogatsu as it’s known in Japanese.

On Tuesday we headed on the train to Kamakura which is an interesting collection of Buddhist shrines and temples and it includes an 800 year old giant copper Buddha that unlike the Buddha in Nara is outside rather than protected by a building. You can also go inside this one which is really cool as well. After seeing this we went to dinner to have Okonomiyaki at a traditional Japanese restaurant that involved sitting on the floor around a low table. You even had to cook your own food as well.

After that I went back and went to bed. In the morning I got up and headed into Tokyo for the day to Akihabra. There seemed to be a lot of electronics shops (though they all seemed to be more expensive for cameras than Bic Camera in Kyoto was) and some manga stores as well. It was quite good but not amazing – probably because it wasn’t that busy around Tokyo today. After this I had some lunch before getting the train south on the Yamote line so I could get a picture of a Shinkansen. As I’ve been using the Shinkansen as a train I hadn’t got any pictures of it. But it is cool so I thought I should get one and right on cue a Shinkansen appeared. After this I headed on another stop on the train line and had a walk down to the bayside; or rather part of it as much of the bay is actually surrounded by canals. There are a lot of cool buildings down there as well as the fish Market which were worth seeing briefly. After that I returned to Yokohama for the evening meal of Kobe beef which was delicious and after that to welcome in the New Year. In the evening we sat on the floor in the traditional Japanese style and watched the temple bells being rung all over Japan. This is because the Japanese ring their temple bells 108 times to ward off evil at New Year.

The next day we headed out on a short drive to see the sea and also Mount Fuji in the distance before returning for lunch. In the afternoon we then headed out once more to Yokohama where we went on a harbour cruise and look at the, frankly garish and overly golden, temple in Chinatown.

Then the next morning I got up at 5:45am to get the train and bus to Narita airport so I could get my flight to Delhi.

Summary of the trip: Pacific Islands and Australia

I was always going to give some awards at the end of my trip, but so they stay relevant I am going to do some as I go along. So I’m going to split my trip into thirds. The next logical third is the Pacific Islands including Easter Island, Tahiti, New Zealand and Japan (technically its an island chain at least mostly in the Pacific.) as well as Syndey Australia. I know I haven’t posted my final Tokyo post yet, that is still to come after this one.

Best site

Milford Sound, South Island, New Zealand, Milford Sound was an absolutely stunning place to visit and it was well worth doing the excellent overnight cruise on the Fjord.

Best museum

A Bomb Museum, Hiroshima, Japan, though flawed as I covered in the Hiroshima post the A bomb museum was very good and covered the important facts about the first use of the nuclear bomb. All of the signs were also in English and the audio tour covered most of it and was available in 20 or so languages.

Best tour company

Oz Trails, Sydney for managing to organise and excellent and full one day tour of the Blue Mountains in Australia for a reasonable price as well.

Best city

Tokyo, Japan for its excellent public transport, great sites and it appears to have strong nightlife as well (though I didn’t experience it myself.). It is also a modern and vibrant city.

Best non-Family accommodation

Te’ora, Easter Island, this award has been practically guaranteed since Easter Island, but Te’ora was amazing and I would definitely go back for the accommodation, unfortunately Easter Island is really the sort of place you only go once, I recommend it to all levels of traveller, whether you stay in youth hostels (well it is a little expensive) or the Peninsula.

Best food for under US$25

Creviche in the blue restaurant on Easter Island, assuming you stay at the recommended accommodation this should be enough to go on, creviche on Easter Island was absolutely delicious.

Honourable Mention

Okomomiyaki, Hiroshima, although I didn’t speak English at the restaurant this was absolutely amazing, and was better than the Tokyo version which I had today (and haven’t discussed yet).

The Lee, Mohan and Tim award for the best burger

Burgers seem to be turning into a staple on this trip and in honour of my time in Chicago when I had four burgers in six days with the guys from Chicago (including two for two successive meals.

Burger Hut at Le Petit Village, Mooera for being absolutely delicious and a bargain for Tahiti.

Honourable Mention for South America

As the award started in Chicago, the USA is exempt so it goes to the BK Argento, Argentina.

Best nightlife

Queenstown, New Zealand, because I actually went out there, and unlike Sydney it had character and wasn’t full of non-descript hotel bars.

Best Activity

Shotover Jet, Queenstown for being great fun (especially the 360 degree spins), not too expensive for New Zealand and for finishing just when you wanted it to.

Honourable mention for the Americas

Mountain biking in Arequipa, Peru which was great fun on bumpy roads, and I even managed not to fall off!.

Friendliest People

The Japanese the Japanese, especially those I have stayed with have all been very friendly, even when there is a language barrier between us.

Best Transportation Company

Japan Rail, Japan, any train company which can make you forget to photograph something as cool as the Shinkansen because it “just works” so well is incredible, every train has been virtually on time in the entire country and the transportation system here in Japan is nothing short of incredible. Japanese trains are how it should work everywhere.

Best bargain

The free temples in Japan for often being as good as some of those you have to pay to enter.

Biggest rip-off

Tahiti for being totally overpriced for what it was. It was even a total rip-off in comparison to the utterly remote Easter Island, and Japan whose currency has gained 70% over the pound this year. This is really reflected in it only having 2.5 times the tourist numbers of Easter Island which is much harder to get to.

The Patrick Levy award for cinematography

When I went to South East Asia my friend Patrick (who doesn’t need much sleep) would watch films before going to sleep in the evening. Therefore I am dedicating this award to him. However even though films you watch while travelling are usually bad I’m giving this award to the genuinely most entertaining film.

The winner is Dan in Real Life for being the only romantic comedy I have ever seen that didn’t disappoint its genre by being a) funny and b) about real love.

Honourable Mention

The counterfeiters which was very interesting, but a little short for my liking.

More photos online

After arriving on the bullet train into Kyoto I sat down and uploaded some more photos at my hostel these are now online on Flickr and named (some not very well though), enjoy, but now I’m off to bed as its midnight here.

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.

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.