Sunday, 31 May 2015

Quirky Japan

One of the quirky things I liked (or maybe didn't) about Japan was that there was a lot of English language signs around, but they weren't always particularly helpful ..


In this case we saw the prominent "Morning Menu" in english, thought 'great, an english menu' and plonked ourselves down.

As you can see, that's where the joy ended and the pointing and pantomime to try and get a meal began.

Still we had a good brekky, even got them to serve us a hot chocolate and cafe latte.

Yay, us, Yay Japan.

In love with my Kindle ...

I remember setting off to South Africa for three months travel about a decade ago.   I left with six big books in my backpack and returned with a dozen more (All Wilbur Smith books).

How the world has changed.  This time I left with one book and returned with the same one.


I know I've had some problems with my kindles in the past, but I'm now ready to accept that a paradigm shift has happened in my life  ...  I now actually prefer to read on my Kindle.

Yep, I am becoming a very regular source of income for amazon.com.au

So what to take electronically is a big issue for me on every trip.

This time around we took Pineapple (our 13" Macbook Pro), my kindle, a borrowed Ipad Mini and I took one book - the Japan Lonely Planet, borrowed from the State Library for this trip, and they were all invaluable.

Although the Macbook Pro was a last second edition (literally, a last second addition only added as we walked out the door and we had to stop at Anaconda on the way to the airport and fork out $130 for a full priced backpack to carry it in) it was invaluable for uploading photos and doing internet research (and maintaining my websites which always seem to have problems when I'm overseas, and there's a lot of technical stuff you can't do on a tablet).  I'd definitely take it, or another lightweight laptop, again.

The iPad mini was a loaner from my mum as my old ipad is a bit big, slow and clunky now and I wasn't 100% convinced that I really wanted an iPad mini.

It was however pretty darn good - it allowed me to read downloaded books from the State Library, and do 80% of what I needed to do online in hotels, but I wouldn't have needed it if travelling alone.

I could see a world where maybe I didn't buy an iPad Mini, but instead owned a Kindle Fire HDX Tablet for travelling (if only I had a birthday coming up soon ...) which would feed my thirst for book access (I'd keep my normal kindle paperwhite for home).

And then there was the good old Lonely Planet guide - in good old paper.  I'm afraid that Lonely Planet (and other guide books) in their EPub versions just suck (I had it on my Ipad mini as well).  They are just so hard, and slow, to navigate as you want to jump from one section to the next - that's where pages and paper bookmarks still work so well.

But, I'd like that to change.

So next trip - definitely a small, light weight computer (I could live with what I have, but if it were a long distance cycling trip, I'd consider the purchase of either an 11" macbook, or maybe even try one of those Microsoft Surface Tablets, to cut down on size and weight).  Definitely a Kindle (just not sure which one) and hopefully no books.

Just for the record, I love to read, especially when travelling.  On this trip, as well as getting through the 600+ page manual for CbSubs (yay), I also got through two and a half science fiction novels, five zombie novels (I am NOT addicted) and am almost through the beautiful and highly recommended travel book  "The Unplanned Voyage of Jack de Crow".

I also read sections of  "Clear and Concise business writing", "...Then just stay fat" (terribly written book) and "The Sea Wolves - A History of the Vikings".

Not bad for a two week trip.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Jetstar - The Return

I know you're all wondering ... how did the return flight with Jetstar go?

Well, I have to say ... pretty good ... they're really going all out to maintain their planes nowadays ...


Nicely cleaned vent in the plane's toilet.  Yum.
We checked in (despite being a few kilo's over our baggage limit) with no problems, and being a bit more prepared we'd forked out $9 each for iPads (a very good investment on a 10 hour daytime flight, although I wish I'd brought my own earphones) and as our flight was from 12 noon to 12 midnight, we'd also forked out the $24 each for their meal and snack, despite not having any great expectations as to the quality of the food.

We'd figured no matter how bad it was, we'd want something to eat around dinner time.

So you can understand how under-impressed we were when an hour into our flight (so around 1pm) our meal appeared.

You can imagine how even less impressed we were when at 6pm our 'snacks' appeared ...


A glass of water and a Kit Kat bar the size of a 50 cent coin.

You can imagine the sarcastic and self-ingratiating post I would write to vent my disgust at this ridiculous service planning.  Actually you don't need to ...  as you have just read it.

Unfortunately for me it was at this point that our second hot meal appeared, which along with the free cups of tea and coffee we got for having pre-ordered made it a pretty good deal.

Darn you Jetstar!

--------------------------

PS.  I was however amused when checking which terminal we'd be leaving from in Japan to find this page which if you read down has a nice little footnote at the bottom telling the two people that may have found there way here that they are actually eligible for a refund if they booked to fly to Narita Airport prior to 2nd March because of the change of terminals (hey - that's us!).

I found this interesting, because I remember getting an email from them telling me that they had changed terminals ... but I don't recall there being any mention of us being eligible for a refund.

Must have skipped their minds, or maybe they couldn't identify which people this refund would apply to as there's no way they'd have access to a system which would tell them who has booked onto the affected flights and would be eligible for the refund.

I understand this and shall be in contact with them to get my refund as soon as I decide how much to charge them for the service fee, insurance and credit card selection fee.

So ... Japan

We touched back down in Oz last night (although we had to have an extra night in Melbourne before we finally reach Hobart) and so I'm already reflecting on our Japanese trip.


I was told by so many people how much I'd love Japan before we went there, but the truth is: I didn't.

Maybe if we'd got away to some of the remote southern islands, the Japanese alps or the wilder north I may have seen a side of Japan I loved, but in the crowded corridor we visited from Tokyo to Hiroshima, I didn't fall in love.



In many ways this isn't surprising.  Often on my trips overseas I enjoy the cities and the iconic sites, I thrill at visiting those almost magical dots on a map that I've seen and read about my whole life, but my passion for travelling resides in the countryside, in exploring the small villages and remote cycle ways that link a country like veins in the body.

Japan, at least the Japan we saw, had little of that.  It was an unending metropolis where the postcard perfect images I had in my head were only to be seen in the magazines in our hotels and amongst the masses of ordinary-ness (and crowded people) around it.

The Real Mt Fuji
Like other parts of Asia, I found that the language barrier (both written and oral) meant that I was extremely restricted in interpreting what was happening around me.  It was a frustrating experience - a bit like only being able to experience the world through a thick pane of glass, and not being able to really step out into it and experience it yourself.


But don't get me wrong - I did really enjoy our trip to Japan.  I learnt, and saw, a lot and that's ultimately why I travel.

I now have a different image of the country, probably a more real one.  I feel like I understand another little piece of our world just that little better, and without other's filters being put over it.

And that's always worth it.


Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Productive Japan

We saw some amazing industry in Japan.  I recall sitting having our lunch on the cycling road and looking across the channel to see several large ships being constructed (or maybe repaired) on the horizon.

Not where we were having lunch, but hey, it looks like industry.
But, with my productivity lens on, I was also surprised at what looked to be a hugely inefficient under-utilisation of human capital.

The photo below shows just one example (taken by accident) ... We saw this while cycling in Kyoto ... One man cutting the grass on the side of the path, with one other holding up a mesh screen to stop grass coming on the path.  A bit further along, there was a similar situation, but there was a third person directing traffic around the operation, and another just standing there.


That's four people to cut some grass with a whipper-snipper.

When we arrived in Tokyo on the first day one of the escalators in the train station was broken and there were a dozen men there in hardhats and high-vis vests all standing on the escalator ... but only one actually doing anything (you almost felt like you were in Australia).

When we were leaving today, we drove past a section of closed off roads into the airport.  There were three tool booths leading into an area of construction, and they were all closed, with toll gates down and thick vehicle blockers in front of them... and standing in front of each blocker was a man in a uniform making sure you didn't drive into what was essentially a solid metal barrier.

Just before that, the transfer bus we were on to get us from Terminal 2 to Terminal 3 had to go through a gate in a fence.  There was no automatic gate opener - nope, another guard paid to stand there all day to let the transfer shuttle through.

In the Department stores in Tokyo, there were so many floor staff it was like stepping back in time to the era of that British comedy "Are you being served, Sir?"

Now, none of these are bad things, in fact in some ways they may reflect a society that cares and tries to provide employment, but they didn't gel with the image I had of Japan being an economic giant driven by high levels of productivity.

This isn't Japan is it?
In my current position (I seem to get a new job title every six months) I've been spending a lot of time thinking about productivity and growth, and I'd be fascinated to know how these costs are justified, what is the thinking behind it ... Is it just the way things have always been? is it a result of having so many people in such a small area? or is it one of the reason's their economy is in decline...

These are the reasons I travel, not so much to take the photo of the cool bamboo grove or stand at ground zero in Hiroshima, but rather to see the world first hand for myself.

To see what lies behind, and ask the question - why?

To understand that our paradigm, our world view, is just that - a view into the world, and one that we should always test and question.

Travelling is a time to wear different eyes, and see different things, it is a time to grow or change my world view, and whether I love it, like it or hate it, I'll always learn something from my travels.

Which is why I'm already thinking ... where next?

Monday, 25 May 2015

Bucket List #101 - Experience an Earthquake

Sometimes I'm so funny I make the ground shake.

I've been laid low in Yokohama with an extremely sore foot, but Kim and I did manage to make it out onto the bikes briefly to go and get some lunch at a place she saw down the road that took her interest.

It was on the way back from lunch that we rode past a police station which had all of its lights flashing red on the outside, and I quipped to Kim that something was 'going down'.

Five minutes later, just as we stepped out of the elevator onto the 10th floor of our hotel, the whole building started to move and shake ... we were having an earthquake.


I thought this was the coolest (albeit slightly scary) thing ever and I immediately wondered why I'd never put it on my bucket list.

I even got an emergency warning message on my phone ... not quite sure what it says though...


I did get a little bit worried after a minute or so as the building continued to shake and twist and creak, but mores because the cleaner lady, who was in the hallway with us, started looking quite worried, but apparently we survived because I'm typing this.

Strangely though neither of us were particularly keen to jump in the lifts and head off anywhere ... and two hours lately Kim's still threatening to sleep in her clothes with her shoes on ...

For my next joke, I shall predict a typhoon on our flight home ...

Sunday, 24 May 2015

I want one ...

I want one ...


I think that's all I need to say.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Shimanami Kaido (Onomichi) - Japan's Cycling Road

You know what's really cool about Japan?


You don't have to wear a helmet when riding a bike.

What's even cooler is that this seems to work really,  really well.

You see there's a whole class of cyclists in Japan that we just don't see in Australia: Normal people.

Yep, people of all ages, in normal clothes, on bikes, pootling around doing their shopping, going to school, or just getting from point A to B.



There are still the lycra clad, helmet wearing, strava chasing cyclists hurtling around on the road as well, but they're in the minority ... sort of like in Australia, and I also stress - pretty much all of them are wearing helmets.


Foreground: 87 year old lady getting her groceries with her cloth cap on.
Background: 36 year old male with lycra, helmet and bianchi bike.
People seem to be making a decision as to what's best for them and when they need to wear a helmet.

Maybe we could learn from that.

What I also like about Japan is that when you cram 128 million people onto a relatively small island chain then the sheer economics of that much production allows you to do super cool things ... like build the Shimanami Kaido (the Cyclists Highway) ...


Now I'd only found out about this place about a week before we flew over here, but the very idea of it just excited me ... somewhere just north of Hiroshima (well just north by high speed train), they'd built seven bridges to link together a series of Islands, and then, because they're Japanese and they can, they'd built super-duper dedicated cycle lanes on all the bridges and then linked them all up to create 70kms of dedicated cycleway from one end to the other.


I mean why not?

Apologies for the blurry photo but that circular ramp is the on ramp just for cyclists
and I had to show you that.
Dedicated cyclist lanes on the bridges.  Do notice how long this bridge it.
Just the engineering cost of the on and off ramps for cyclists on each of the bridges must have exceeded Tasmania's annual expenditure on roads (never mind cycling infrastructure),  with some of the on ramps stretching for 1.6kms of perfectly graded, concreted, walled trail often dug 3 or 4 metres into the ground.

Then because that was too cheap, they went off and paved a whole lot of the cycleway as well ...


One bridge had a dedicated cyclists lane underneath it.

Most bridges had a separated cycling lane on top.



And then there was the signage and navigation aids, and I have to say that they employed what must have been one of the simplest and most effective navigation aids I've ever come across on a cycling route ... they just painted a big, blue line the whole friction' way with arrows and distance markers thrown in for good measure ...

Just follow the blue line ...
No worries about taking a wrong turn because of a missing sign anymore ... if you've been cycling for more than a 100 metres and you haven't seen the blue line ... then just turn around.

And if that's not easy enough, they even add destinations in case you somehow get turned around.



Yep, we quite literally just cycled out of the train station in Imabari City and then followed the blue line for the next 80kms (the '70km' route actually starts at the first bridge 7 kms into the ride, hence the extra distance).

There were only two spots on the whole trip where we actually had to look at the map (free maps in english are available everywhere, plus if you have an App like Maplets you can just download a GPS enabled version of the map to follow on your smartphone (again in English).

I was thinking what a great idea these blue lines would be for the routes from our airports into Hobart and Launceston ...

Of course, there is one final element to a perfect trail, and that's the place you ride through ... and boy oh boy does this ride have 'place' in spades ...








And to top it all off, the riding it pretty darn easy.  Admittedly our GPS showed we covered around 80kms (not 70 as promised) and there's plenty of  climbing up onto the bridges, but overall we managed this ride in around five hours (with stops) on our 7 speed Dahon folding bikes and still had the energy at the end of the day to ride up to our hotel room, which was at the top of the highest point in Onomichi City (and this time I don't exaggerate).

The view from our hotel room.
We loved this ride, even though we actually made it harder for ourselves by bringing our own bikes and therefore found we have to book one day ahead and catch a special bus at 7am to transport our folding bikes to the other end (it's sort of set up for you to hire a bike at one end and then drop it off at the other end - check out the webpage).

We also love our little hotel on top of the hill (so much so that we came for a night and three nights later we're still here).  It has a great Thai restaurant and it's the first room we've stayed in that has actually been bigger than a matchbox.

Yep, we didn't come to Japan to visit the cycling road, but the cycling road has definitely become my favourite part of our holiday in Japan.



My only complaint about the whole ride is that because I wasn't wearing a helmet, I've now got a terribly sunburnt forehead.

They should definitely make wearing sunscreen mandatory.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

What I wish I'd known about Japan ...

I was given lots of travel tips about coming to Japan, but there were also some gaps in what I was told as well, and so I thought I'd enlighten you to a few things I wish I was told about Japan ...


Firstly I wish I had been told how frickin big railway stations are, and that you can't just leave bikes on streets in many cities.

Kim and I are very over packing and unpacking our bikes and gear at every train station and every hotel.

Another of the problems we hit when we were over here is that the power plugs don't have earth pins (ie. they only have two pins that plug into the wall, not three).

We hadn't considered the implications of this until we were over here and realised that this meant our adaptors also only had two pins that go into them ... which was a problem because my (sorry) Kim's Macbook Pro has three pins which wouldn't plug into our adaptors.... and we were staring down the barrel of having to ration pineapple's 8 hours of computer battery over two weeks.

We wasted many hours solving this problem ... searching the internet for solutions (there weren't many useful solutions provided), we considered a trip back out to the airport to see if we could find a three pin adaptor there and we even hunted down an Apple Store in Tokyo to buy a Japanese power supply ... But then ran back out again when we found out the price ($100+ dollars just for a power cable).

Finally our hotel concierge suggested we try a large electronics store down the road, and sure enough on level 6, hidden away in a crowded aisle, we found our three pin adaptor for the bargain price of around $5.50.

But we'd wasted hours doing so.

Another thing I wish I'd known about is the strange way that "free WiFi" seems to work in Japan.

For example, today we got to the train station and I realised when we got there that I'd figured out how to get to the wrong station (I'd planned on going to the the shin-onomichi station not the onomichi station -what a beginners mistake)

Suddenly having no idea how to get onto the right train, I went in search of some free internet and found it ... But, as I say, free wifi has a catch over here  - you need to pre-register for it.

This is the screen you get when you log into the free train station wifi ...


You either needed to scan a QR code ... which as it was on my phone screen was obviously unscannable by my phone, and even if it was scannable, it wouldn't work because I didn't have internet access.

Similarly, I could send them an email next time I actually had internet access to get the internet access I needed now.

Not very useful.

Just for the record, one of the benefits of having our own bikes is we were able to just catch the train to the wrong station and then cycle to the right station which was only on the other side of town.  That's how we're solving things in Japan.

Another thing we've discovered is that our Japan Rail Passes (costing $500 each) are brilliant - but not quite as brilliant as we'd been led to believe.

They did get us into Tokyo, and allowed us limited, but sufficient, travel around the city (they work on the JR train loop around the city, but not on the tram systems)

They got us 2/3rds the way to Mt Fuji ... but we had to pay for the last leg.

We've also discovered that the Nozomi fast trains (running south out of Tokyo) are now nearly ubiquitous ... and you also can't go on them with JR Rail Passes, meaning we've often found ourselves waiting an hour or so to get onto the next JR Pass train, while Nozomi trains have been taking off every 10 minutes.

The Nozomi trains also seem to go all the way through, whereas we're finding we need to change trains on our tickets (which takes us back to how frickin' big train stations are when you're carrying two bikes and all our other gear).

Offsetting these negatives, there are also some things I wasn't told about that we've come to love about Japan.  For example, I love these:


What is it you ask? they're a 'please come serve me now' button that we're finding at many of the cheaper restaurants.

I mean how many times have you sat in a Tasmanian restaurant wishing a bloody staff member would come and take your order or check up on how the drinks are going?

Did you say practically every single time?  yes, you did.

These buttons solve all that hassle, because when you want a waiter, you press the button and they appear ... Anyone who knows me will understand just how much I love this button.

We've also come to realise, and accept, that Japanese are as likely to go out to an Indian, Chinese, Thai or even Australian restaurant as we are in Australia ... and so we're now having a great time just trying all the different cuisine's.

Food is generally really good here in Japan, although at lunch today I was seen to dip my chicken and wedges into what I thought was a sauce in a small black bowl ... only to find that this was in fact my mango dessert.



I guess that serves me right for chuckling at a girl the other day who got a cooked english breakfast from the buffet and then smothered it all in blueberry jam.

So those are the ups and downs (so far) of Japan.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Hiroshima

What was I saying about this trip having a superficial feel to it ...

Kids bike after Hiroshima bombing
Well that was before visiting ground zero at Hiroshima and seeing the impacts of that day.

I may have had a tear of three come to my eye as I wandered through the Hiroshima museum.

But that's just a maybe and will be hotly denied if anyone tries to hold me to it.


Not sure if you can read the text above, but it says in the first autumn after Hiroshima it was said that nothing would grow back at ground zero for seventy five years, but then the first new buds sprouted soon after, and in the green that came back to life among the charred ruins, people recovered.

In my vernacular - that plants return was very, very cool.

But ... here's the crux ... imagine the Hiroshima bombing happening today in our world of TV war and clinical battles.


Imagine an ally, or an enemy, deliberately sending a bomb like that aimed at the civilian population ...

Then ask yourself ... would it be right or would it be wrong? Could Hiroshima ever be justified again?

I'm troubled by the fact that in my mind it could be ... and I don't know if that is just a sign of my frustrating world view which always see's things from many different perspectives, or whether it says something about me that I may not want to hear.


Regardless, Hiroshima has made me think.

As we'd say in Australia - Lest we forget.