Category Archives: Asia

Jump Around

At the end of our South American travels I posted a set of “Flashjumps”.

Recapping briefly, a very good friend suggested doing them around the world after seeing one on Facebook celebrating the end of work for a while.

The idea seemed like a good one, and it has continued across Asia.  So here are some of our favourites.

Pointless but fun.

Day 188 – London calling

They say all good things must come to an end, and sadly at least in terms of our adventures around the globe it appears that ‘they’ are right (at least for a little while).

It ends how it it began, with an early alarm call, a train to the airport and a long haul flight with British Airways.

The phrase that Monday mornings poison the Sunday evening that precedes them is one that has, in the past, resonated with me at times.  Often no more so than at the end of a holiday whereby the last few days can be distracted by a focus what is happening in your normal life.

Delightfully we have been free of any such nonsense this time and enjoyed the last moments as much as the rest.  Maybe it is because we are in denial, or maybe because we can hardly remember normal life and when we get back ‘normal’ will have changed with new house, new jobs and new cars.  Whatever the reason it has been wonderful not to suffer from that sense of dread over the last few days.

Landing and not getting a visa or passport stamp is the first real and unmistakable indication that this ‘travelling day’ is different to the others we have experienced since November.

No new languages await the other side of passport control. No new cultures, places to visit or days to plan.  No timezones to calculate or currency conversions to consider.

Due to our Scrooge like approach to UK train tickets we purchased advanced single tickets for the journey back north.  The risk of flight delay that doesn’t materialise means that we have nearly 3 hours in London spare.

As if to re-assure us that there are plenty of reasons to be glad to be back (especially after bypassing winter but still finding grey and rain sodden skies) this gap suddenly feels insufficient as good friends put themselves out to join us at Euston for a drink or two and we enjoy catching up with each other’s worlds.

After a (as suspected) underwhelming rail journey we arrive in Manchester after over 24 hours of travelling, but any measure of tiredness pales into insignificance at seeing my Dad for the first time since October.

Day 187 – Mr Big Stuff

Today required an early start.  Which given it’s a Sunday, our last full day of the trip and we don’t like early starts means there must be a good reason.

There is.

Sumo.

There are only 12 Tournaments a year, spread across the whole country, so we are fortunate that one falls when we are in the same place.  Tickets are popular and were all sold out well in advance, leaving the only option of queuing in the morning in hope that we get some of the 450 unreserved tickets sold on the day.

That said we still hit snooze three times on the alarm clock but finally get ourselves up and out in time to arrive the ticket office by about 7:45.  We were very glad we didn’t go for a fourth snooze as we pick up tickets 320 and 321 and another 10 minutes would have seen us missing out.

Entering the huge Ryōgoku Kokugikan arena, which is about the same capacity as Wimbledon’s centre court, but with an even smaller area of focus, is impressive.  We pop our heads in to see the first few bouts in a quiet and reverential atmosphere but at this time of day it’s just the small amateur guys at this stage so we leave it until later in the day and manage to head back to the Sky Tree to complete our visit.

Timings and weather are kind and we manage to get to the viewing platform at 451.2 metres to see spectacular views across the city and even get to glimpse Fuji-san in the distance with its famous snow coverered volcanic peak.  This is the 3rd highest viewing platform in the world, and adds nicely to the  2nd and 9th that we have seen already on this trip.

A walk back down the river gets us to the Sumo arena in time to see the big boys arriving through the same gate as we use to re-enter. We feel slightly uncomfortable walking past all the crowds with their cameras poised for the next wrester,  the method of whose arrival is notable. There cannot be many major stars from the world of sport who walk to the venue, particularly wearing the traditional wooden sandals, socks and Kimono combination.

Back in the arena it is now almost full and the wrestlers now entering the ring (or Dohyo) are professionals.  Like all professional wrestlers, it seems the Sumo variety are not shy on the old flouncing and strutting around like Peacocks and generally making quite a fuss of it all.

The early functional approach of get on, get it done, get off is replaced by serious gamesmanship and psychological warfare.  On average it takes around 4 attempts of hunkering down before they actually go for it, with each failed attempt met by more stretching, slapping of various parts of their anatomy and lobbing of salt into the ring (something to do with cleansing the area).

Bouts themselves are short and fascinating.  Two huge guys going up against each other and trying to repeat E.Honda’s classic 1,000 Hand Slap move before dumping their opponent to the ground or out of the ring (which can be a shock to some people in the most expensive seats in the house closest to the ring).  Its raw, powerful and absorbing.

Another change with going professional is apparently snazzy clothes.  There are a large number that appear to have got shiny silk nappies on.  Not that I’d say that to their faces.  These guys are huge.  Not just big from a Japanese build point of view, but really really big.  The guys that weigh in at 130kg mark (over 20 stones) are made to look like Walter the Softy when facing an opponent weighing over 200kg (or 31 stones!!!).

You sense that if any of them were Goonies fans then we’d be treated to the best Truffle Shuffle ever.

Day 186 – Why don’t we do it in the road?

One of the latest landmarks to appear in this wonderful pulsating metropolis (or to be precise urban megalopolis) is the striking Tokyo Sky Tree.

Celebrating its second birthday this month, the 634 metre tall structure is the second highest building in the world and is the current World Record Holder for tallest tower.

Similar to the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the base of this modern monolith is festooned with a plethora of retail and food outlets than can strip you of your Yen in next to no time.  This is particularly challenging when you realise that arriving at lunchtime on a Saturday means you are given a 3 hour virtual queue time!

After a few hours shopping that has us Googling BA’s weight allowances we return to a still lengthy queue, apparently caused by high winds reducing the frequency and speed of the lifts.  We decide that another 2 hours is too much and bail out to enjoy more of this captivating city and find that for the second time on the trip that crossing the road can be a tourist attraction.

In Vietnam, particularly Saigon, the whole leap of faith and closing your eyes approach to road crossing was no doubt fascinating and one of the the enduring memories of the country.  Tokyo takes the idea further with, as remarkable as it may seem, the interchange near Shibuya train station being actually listed in the Lonely Planet.  It even suggests a location (Starbucks second floor) from which to observe.

There are 5 marked crossings (each exit from the junction and a corner to corner option), and at peak times over a thousand people cross in the 45 second break in the traffic.  Watching from an elevated position they remind me of videos showing microbes swarming on a petri dish.

Film buffs will recognise it from the film Lost in Translation where Bill Murray’s head can be seen above the rest of the throng as he walks across.  We decide that it would be fun to try and recreate a similar scene and therefore I set about making myself look a little bit odd.

Basically I half cross the road, stand in the middle for the duration of the green man and then rush back.  I do this on a number of occasions. In the end the eccentric behaviour pays off with a great image for the album and any humiliation is quickly forgotten.

Wandering around nighttime Tokyo is a captivating experience, and it is definitely one of THE great cities of the world.  The place just pulsates with life in a quirky way that only the Japanese can pull off.

Pimped Japanese sports cars rev louder at red lights, giant screens flash incomprehensible advertisements, J-Pop (that make One Direction seem talented) blasts out of music shops, weird and wonderful clothing is everywhere, bird song is piped into subway stations, train announcements are preceded by jingles that belong in a Nintendo game, and the chop stick shops would look at home on Diagonally.

Tokyo is one of the places I have always wanted to visit ever since reading games magazines as a child and being captivated by the reports from this distant, neon and technological pulsating city.  Sometimes having such expectations can only lead to disappointment, but not this time.

We love Tokyo.

A lot.

 

Day 185 – Big spender(s)

Throughout the course of the trip we have managed to find pretty decent accommodation for the most part, Mendoza was a mistake and a couple of the places on organised tours left a little to be desired, but overall in 180+ days we have stayed in some great places.

Tokyo is never going to be a cheap city, but due a combination of a well timed use of a loyalty system, a sale and some good luck we have managed to bag a really good hotel for our last few days of the trip.

For the second time in succession we’ve received a free upgrade on arrival and have a wonderful room with a view of the Tokyo Tower and remote control curtains!  It is also located in a park so a morning stroll grabbing some breakfast along the way is a lovely way to start the day.

So what do you do in Tokyo?  It is not a city with a huge list of ‘must see’ attractions, but instead one that you should just spend time in its various districts and soak up the ultimate in Japanese urban culture.

With the end of our travels in site, a long haul luggage allowance with a good few kilos spare and a few bits and pieces we wanted to pick up we head out to the streets of Tokyo to do what, despite the economic slowdown, locals do best.  Shop.

An example of how well organised Tokyo is for shopping is the poshest second hand shop in the world.  It would look at home on Oxford Street and has all the designer clothes organised by brand, style and size!  Another close by example has a tag that gives a profile of the previous owners!

Our first stop is the Ginza area of the city full of some of the biggest brands and kooky shops.  We get lost for a hour or so in a 6 storey

toy shop selling all kinds of nonsense, visit the bewildering food hall of the Mitsukoshi department store to buy some lunch and then end up hiding from a thunder storm in Starbucks whilst and secretly eat our purchases.

Consultation with the guidebook highlights that round the corner is a 5 storey stationary store.  On reading this my wife is anything but, and I struggle to keep up as she head over there….thankfully it closes at 7pm so we still had enough of the evening left to enjoy dinner in a very cool Izakaya (an informal food/pub) and a grab a Japanese craft beer on the way home 😉

Day 184 – Bulletproof

I think we are both a little bit in love.

Generally, as I have mentioned on occasions over the last 6 months, one of the few draw backs of travelling is the travelling.

That changed once we arrived in Japan.

Japanese rail travel is simply the most wondrous way to get from A to B we have ever experienced and we actually look forward to getting on the Shinkansen (new trunk line), or as we know it Bullet Train.  A name that the Japanese are surprised by as their trains are “peaceful”.

We like everything about it.

First of all they look amazing.  They are the E-Types of the train world with ridiculously long and sleek front ends, that despite the speeds they travel you sense is a little flashier than pure aerodynamics require.  They have a real “Wow” factor when you first see one pull into a station (or better still fly by on a pass-through on the centre of the three rails at each platform).

The drivers uniforms look like pilots and the people that ensure there is food and drink available look like cabin crew in very smart uniforms and treat you amazingly well, bowing every time they enter or exit the carriage.

Facilities are great, even in standard class, with leg room that would make a British 1st Class seats look away in shame and the bathrooms are something else.  Not only are they immaculately clean, with baby changing facilities & seat wipe dispensers as standard, they have infared sensors for everything; flushing the toilet or lowering and raising the seat is done with a Jedi sweep of the hand. We wouldn’t be surprised if the next generation of trains has a button to operate your bowels for you.

Then there is the service itself.  Swiss watch manufacturers probably set their timepieces by these beasts, the carriages line up with the exact spot on the platform that your ticket tells you to stand, the train stops at each station for less than 3 minutes, announcements are bilingual Japanese-English and the sense of speed as you blast your way through the Japanese countryside banking round turns at 320 km/h is exhilarating.

Even when you venture off the high speed network, the quality of service and facilities are still high and even the slower local engines look more interesting than a bus on rails type we get on UK local networks.

Today we make our last journey, from Kinosaki to Tokyo, and without doubt we can say we are going to miss you Japan Railways.  Particularly we suspect, when we board our train from London to Manchester on Monday evening and our seats haven’t been switched 180 degrees to ensure everyone faces the direction of travel and nobody bows at us.

Days 182 and 183 – Steam

Kinosaki is a small (population circa 4000) but beautiful town set just back from the sea.  With a tranquil willow lined canal running through its centre that is criss-crossed by several stone humpback bridges and plenty of cafés and shops, you could happily while away a couple of sunny days here and feel it was a worthy diversion off the main foreign tourist route.

Undoubtedly the picturesque surroundings are part of the appeal that the place holds, but the reason that mainly Japanese tourists travel here to experience the best examples of one of Japan’s unique cultural traditions….the Onsen.

Yet again we are staying in a Ryokan, and a particularly impressive one at that thanks in part to a free room upgrade.  Our Ryokan includes Japanese tea served in your room and a full on Japanese breakfast in the morning – self BBQ’d Sandfish, spinach and tofu!

In addition our hosts also present us with our outfits for the next few days.  Oh boy.

The full Onsen ‘experience’ starts by dressing in traditional clothing.  That means slightly uncomfortable wooden sandals (complete with special socks that separate your big toe from the rest of them) and Yukatas (a type of kimono).

Niki looks radiant in her beautiful bright gown completed by a wide waistband tied perfectly a bow.  I look like one of those slightly confused elder gentlemen that are occasionally found walking round ASDA in their dressing gowns.

Our outfits are completed by the addition of a rather fetching feminine wicker basket in which we place our towels and then we leave the hotel and walk the down the street to one of the seven Onsen baths that are spread out across the town.

Each of them present the same basic format.  Separate male and female areas in which you strip naked, have a very thorough shower and then immerse yourself in really quite warms pools of water.  And then just relax.

When you have had enough you get out, put your dressing gown and clogs on and head off to find another one to try.  You can grab a bite to eat or a beer on the way as several places along the side of the canal offer sustenance ‘to go’.

The basics are the same but each Onsen offers a different experience.  Some have the additional options of saunas and cold rooms, but it’s the location and design of the baths themselves that we think can make the whole process memorable.

Sat in a open-aired stone pool with blue skies above you, watching steam rise off the water and looking out across the bay towards the mountains whilst listening to sound of a waterfall beside you is simply one of the most relaxing experiences of our entire trip.

Even if you do have to share it with a group of naked Japanese people.