Tuesday, 29 April 2014

I Don’t Wanna Be…

…An Asshole Anymore.

This video is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time, amusing and well produced. Although, to be fair, I don’t really pay much attention to music videos. Whether they’re by one of my favourite bands or not.

I’m going to see these guys at a teeny, tiny venue in London tomorrow night. Only my second time seeing them live – you may or may not remember this post about me gigging alone. Not gigging alone tomorrow though, woo! It will be awesome, although I will probably get completely squished.

The Menzingers’ latest album, Rented World, has been the soundtrack to my Japan trip. Today, listening to it in my car for the first time, I was reminded of travelling on buses and trains in Japan with my headphones in. So even though I don’t like the album as a whole as much as On The Impossible Past, their previous album, it’s always going to be special to me for the Japan memories. It’s also not a bad album by any means! This song is the album opener and a very good one at that.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Myths about Japan… or are they?

So, as you’ve probably gathered, I’ve just got back from travelling around Japan for just over two weeks. There were certain things that I was told, assumed or had read about Japan before I went. Not all of these things, I feel, ended up being true. I want to share my personal experience of these things…

Everyone speaks English.
Maybe it was the places I went to – more traditional places including small villages – but overall I felt that this was not true. Now I’m not saying that nobody spoke English, a lot of people did and some people spoke it very well. I think it is just wrong to assume that if you speak English you will be understood – and that’s whether you’re using it as your first language or as a second/neutral language. What surprised me was hotel staff who didn’t understand some of the things I was saying, like ‘How do I turn the power/electricity/lights on in my room?’. But that was just one place…

Of course, I don’t expect that everyone should have to speak my language. I tried my best with Japanese and my basic ohayou gozaimasu (good morning), arigatou gozaimasu (thank you very much), konnichiwa (hello/good afternoon) and sumimasen (excuse me) were much appreciated.

What I did feel was very obvious, is that English is very much the language of tourists. If, for example, a Dutch person asked me to take their photo, they would do so in English. The same goes for Malaysian, Spanish, Russian… whatever.

You need to be able to speak Japanese to get by.
Although I mentioned above that not everyone speaks English in Japan and it is good to be polite and at least say hello and thank you in Japanese, I didn’t really have too much of a problem with not understanding or knowing much Japanese. Whilst words are, of course, very useful(!), it is still possible to communicate without using too many words. A lot of smiling and nodding/mini-bowing goes a long way and is greatly appreciated. I didn’t have any opportunities to get the ol’ notebook out for a bit of pictionary, but I imagine that would have worked quite well also!

It was also more than possible to say sumimasen  to someone on the street and then point towards where you wanted to go on a map. To find Tondaya, a Kyoto townhouse which was down a sidestreet and then down another sidestreet, I had to ask someone after I’d been wandering around nameless streets for a while. She pointed in the direction I should take first and then I understood the word ‘postbox’ and she gestured to ‘turn right’. Sure enough, I found it after that.

A lot of signs have romaji, or romanised, Japanese on them too. For example, street names or train station signs. Even when they didn’t, I was able to match Japanese characters to those on my map or the address I had to be sure I was in the right place.

If you look lost, someone will stop and try to help you.
This only happened to me once. Well, another time someone asked if I was lost (an American man actually, but must have lived in Japan) but I wasn’t, I was just wandering around aimlessly.

The time when I was pretty lost, and someone helped me, was when I’d just arrived in Tokyo and was trying to find my hotel. The map I had wasn’t particularly helpful but I had the address. A rickshaw man asked if I needed any help and he not only explained where I needed to go but also gave me a better map. He also didn’t pressure me to pay for a rickshaw ride – it was as if that was irrelevant, which was nice. Plus, with his map and instructions, I found my hotel no problem.

Japan is expensive.
I’m sure there are things in Japan that are quite expensive or more expensive than in UK but that goes for most places. Generally I found it to be well-priced and I had plenty of money left over at the end of my trip, even after my airport shopping spree! Although I had probably allowed for more money than I necessarily needed so that I wouldn’t need to use a credit card or take cash out.

Food. Now, I didn’t go out of my way to find cheap places to eat, but I think I often ended up with cheaper meals unintentionally. This is probably partly due to the whole eating alone thing and not trying lots of different dishes at once and stuff. But I often ate a decent filling meal for around or under ¥1000 which is something like £6! That’s ridiculously cheap, cheaper than a meal in the UK – unless it’s Weatherspoons or McDonalds maybe. Also, convenience stores sell pre-packed sushi, rice balls, simple noodles dishes and other similar things that are inexpensive and tasty. Good for lunch on the go – on a train in particular. Drinks in vending machines generally cost between ¥90 and ¥150 which is 60p–90p. And that’s for big bottles, not tiny cans or cartons.

Transport. A single ride on the Tokyo subway can cost, I think, as little as ¥110 (65p). Bus journeys are similar – a single ticket from anywhere to anywhere within Kyoto was ¥230 (£1.30), which is great if you’re going from one end of Kyoto to the other. My bus tickets between towns cost something like ¥1300 (£7.50), but those were booked in advanced so may have been a bit cheaper. I’m not so sure about the shinkansen (bullet train) and stuff like that because I used my Japan Rail Pass which is a tourist travelcard.

Museum entrance and touristy things. I didn’t really go out of my way to pay to get into places, most things I was happy to admire from the outside (temples, shrines etc.), but a few things like castles and museums I did pay to get into. Matsumoto castle cost about ¥600 to enter which is about £3.50. I imagine the equivalent in the UK would be closer to £10. Similarly, the Ota Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo was ¥700 (£4) to visit which included a specific temporary exhibition. I know in the UK, a lot of galleries are actually free but temporary exhibitions normally cost more than £4 to see!

Trains in Japan are never late.
The transport systems in Japan are, from what I found out myself, very efficient. At train stations, the floor of the platform is marked with numbers for where each carriage will stop – and mean exactly where it will stop – so that you can be in the right place if you have a reserved ticket. This means that people are able to get onto the train quickly and it will leave on time.

Subway trains seem to also work to the second. In Subway stations there are permanent time tables on show and signs that tell you how long it takes to get to each station from your current location. There are also sometimes interactive signs showing what station the next train is at or if it’s on its way. I’m sure this isn’t the case in all subway/train stations but this was the case in the ones I used in Tokyo and Kyoto. Also, while you’re on the train, it tells you how long it is until not only the next stop but all stops after that, from the train’s current location.

Bus stops, in the major towns and cities, have GPS devices in them so they know if the bus is 5 or 2 minutes away or approaching right away. This is obviously dependent on traffic, where Subway trains don’t have that issue, but still very efficient!

Anyway, the whole ‘trains in Japan are never late’ thing… I was actually waiting for a train to Osaka at Kyoto station and it was 15 minutes late so not entirely true. But everything else I experienced was always on time.

Japanese food is all sushi and sushi is all raw fish.
The only sushi I ate was some that I bought in a convenience store, because I didn’t go out of my way to go to a sushi restaurant. In general Japanese restaurants, I didn’t really see sushi on the menu – ‘see’ being the key word here as most menus have pictures of all the dishes, which is helpful for foreigners! As for all sushi being raw fish, this is definitely incorrect. The raw fish is called sashimi and sahimi can be a kind of sushi with rice and nori etc., but it can also be eaten on its own. Also, the sashimi – just pieces of fish in my case – that I had, didn’t taste any different to something like smoked salmon really! Not disgusting or weird at all.

You can get everything in a vending machine.
There are indeed a lot of vending machines in Japan. You find them everywhere. Everywhere. Even in the traditional remote village places that I went to, there were vending machines. They sometimes come in pairs and there are almost always recycling bins next to them – one for cans and one for bottles. Because in Japan, littering is near unheard of. In fact, any littering there is is probably due to tourists. Tsk tsk.

What surprised me is that although there are a lot of vending machines, they tend to only really have drinks in them. I saw very few food vending machines, just a few ice cream vending machines. Vending machines for cigarettes on the other hand… although did I mention you can’t just smoke on the street in Japan, you have to do so in a designated smoking area. A good idea I think [as an anti-smoking type person]!

It’s very safe in Japan.
This seemed, to me, to be true. At least, I felt safe. I wasn’t out at night time very much and I guess I wasn’t in any particularly rough areas – assuming Japan has rough areas, like anywhere else? I never felt threatened or scared at all – well, only when I was walking through bear country alone and on uneven and damp ground… But yeah, I think it is true that Japan is a safe place to be.

I’ve heard that if you leave your wallet in a bar and come back for it several hours later it will still be there. I never had the misfortune to forget my wallet (or purse) anywhere, to find out if this is true but I imagine it could well be!

Japan, April 2014: The Highlights

I landed at Heathrow just before 4pm yesterday afternoon, after a nearly 13 hour long flight. My whole time in Japan (16 full days in total) has been incredible.

There was far too much involved to sum it all up in one blog post, or even several blog posts. Incidentally, rather than posting blog post after blog post for each day I spent in Japan, I will be creating some kind of simple website travel journal thingy. With plenty of photos and text from the diary-sort-of-thing I’ve been writing whilst I’ve been away. At some point I’d also like to design myself a physical book including maps, scans of tickets and other things I’ve collected… but that won’t be for a little while!

So, for now, these are my Japan highlights:

Staying in the Asakusa area for my first experience of Tokyo and Japan:
It was a fairly busy tourist spot but full of interesting streets, beautiful temples and shrines and a lovely atmosphere. Plus the sun shined all the time. I found it a lot more interesting than the busy and modern Shibuya and Shinjuku areas of Tokyo, for sure.

The Studio Ghibli Museum:
I got a tad lost trying to find my connecting train to get here (it was not in the centre of Tokyo) but, when I found it, it was well-worth all the stress. The museum was quite simply like something straight out of a Ghibli film and it couldn’t have worked any better than it did. Photography was not allowed inside but I bought a souvenir book that shows the insides of the museum and the outside, where I could take photos, was amazing anyway.

Train through snowy mountains and along the coast from Tokyo to Kanazawa:
My first bit of train travelling in Japan, using a [two-story] shinkansen (bullet train) for the first time and then a standard train. It wasn’t a quick journey (around four hours) but the scenery out the window was simply breath-taking, so it didn’t matter one bit.

Forest of the Seven Lucky Gods in Takayama:
On my second day in Takayama I visited the Hida Folk Village – an outdoor museum showcasing traditional Japanese life – which in itself was good but what I absolutely loved was what was hidden away next door. The Forest of the Seven Lucky Gods consists of seven huge shinto gods carved from ancient Japanese trees. Incredible.

The Ukiyo-e Museum and the castle in Matsumoto:
I loved Matsumoto, although I only had one day there so I had to pack a lot into my limited time. I first went to the Ukiyo-e Museum – one of the best ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints) collections in Japan, possibly the world. It was difficult to find but well worth the effort and persistent[ly bad] map reading on my part. I managed to visit a few Japanese castle in my time in Japan, but Matsumoto castle was without a doubt the best. Definitely worth going inside the castle as well – very much left as it was originally, rather than modernised *cough* Osaka castle *cough*.

Nijo Castle in Kyoto:
I didn’t really know where to begin when I arrived in Kyoto. As the old capital of Japan, there is just so much do see and do. The only thing I knew I definitely wanted to see was Nijo Castle, or rather I wanted to walk on the nightingale floor. (Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn is one of my favourite books, and it was great to find out where the real ‘nightingale floor’ is located.)

The vegetarian café found by my tour guide in Kyoto:
I had a tour guide booked for my second and only full day in Kyoto which was excellent as it meant I saw the best things and learnt a lot of history as well. We visited Fushimi Inari shrine, Tofuku-ji temple area and the golden pavillion, Kinkaku-ji temple, amongst several other things. These were all wonderful and it was a great day. But what I really liked about this day was that my guide went out of his way to find a vegetarian restaurant for lunch, that used tofu in place of meat. Afterwards, he thanked me as he had previously thought vegetarian food was bland – so we both loved it!

Trying on a kimono and tea ceremony at Tondaya in Kyoto:
As part of my Inside Japan Tours package, they arranged a visit to Tondaya, an old Kyoto machiya (townhouse), for me. Whilst there I got a tour of the house, with the uses of the rooms and garden spaces explained to me. I had my tour whilst dressed in a proper kimono that I picked myself and was shown how to wear it correctly. I then took part in a traditional tea ceremony, followed by a bento (boxed) lunch – still wearing the kimono. The young Japanese lady who showed me, and just me, around was lovely and spoke very good English. I knew this would be a good experience but I didn’t think I’d necessarily enjoy it as much as I did.

The ride on the cable car and the pirate ship on lake Ashi in Hakone:
Again, I was quite rushed for time in Hakone – the national park near Mt Fuji – as it’s a big place and I only really had one afternoon to see everything. I didn’t see everything of course but I did the main things I wanted to which were: Firstly, taking a ride on the cable car, or ropeway as they call it, up to a Mt Fuji viewpoint. I did see Fuji but only a slight glimpse of one snowy side and my camera didn’t really capture this. Secondly, the pirate ship sightseeing boat on Lake Ashi. Pirate ship. Need I say more?

All the food/goodies I bought at the airport:
Green tea kit kats, or just green tea flavoured things in general, were a real stand-out food point for me in Japan. Sure, I ate a whole variety of other things – actual Japanese meals – and everything was really good but green tea flavoured things really won me over. Green tea ice cream was amazing, I had it on three separate occasions! At the airport on the way home, I picked up a large box of green tea Kit Kats, another favourite from my time in Japan, as well some rice crackers, Pocky and a tray of Japanese sweets called mochi. They’re not all for me, honest!

Now, please excuse me while I sort through the 4000-odd other photographs I took and begin compiling my Japan, April 2014: Travel Journal.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Instagram in Japan

As it turns out, I have had access to wifi every day so far in Japan – currently on day five. So I've been able to post quite a few photographs to Instagram each day. This may not last for the whole trip, but here's the link for now:

Thursday, 10 April 2014

I will be in Japan for the next 16 days

I won’t be blogging while I’m away, as I’m not taking a computer with me. So you can expect a flood of posts and hundreds of photographs here when I’m back home – as well as on Flickr.

I will, however, be tweeting and instagram-ing when I can, as I will have my iPhone – there will be wifi available to me in some places but not everywhere.

Just a quick run through of where I will be and when:

Friday 11th April Depart London, UK: 13:05
Saturday 12th Arrive Tokyo, Japan: 08:50
Sunday 13th Tokyo
Monday 14th Tokyo
Tuesday 15th Tokyo–Kanazawa
Wednesday 16th Kanazawa
Thursday 17th Kanazawa–Shirakawago
Friday 18th Shirakawago–Takayama
Saturday 19th Takayama
Sunday 20th Takayama–Matsumoto
Monday 21st Matsumoto–Kiso Valley, Magome–Tsumago–Nasigo–Tsumago
Tuesday 22nd Tsumago–Nasigo–Nagoya–Kyoto
Wednesday 23rd Kyoto
Thursday 24th Kyoto–Osaka–Kyoto
Friday 25th Kyoto–Odawara–Hakone (Mt Fuji National Park)
Saturday 26th Hakone–Tokyo
Sunday 27th Leave Tokyo. Depart: 11:15. Arrive 15:45

Cue jet-lag.

Now I’m off to check for the seventeenth (number chosen at random) time that I have packed everything.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Game of Phones

So, you know how I wrote a blog about emoji, expressing my appreciation for them, on Friday? Well now my appreciation for emoji has been combined with my love for Game of Thrones. (Season Four premiere last night was excellent by the way.)


Unless of course you have no intention of ever watching or reading Game of Thrones. In which case, watch away and enjoy the epic music. Or stop reading now and go watch cat videos instead.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Too organised?

It isn’t possible to be too organised for a trip, is it? My bulging notebook would suggest that I am well-prepared for my Japan trip, which commences on Friday – although there’s plenty of blank pages left in it! Here’s what it was like before I’d filled it, and here is what it’s looking like now:

The notebook is filled with; maps, notes that I’ve written myself of things to do – as well as general things, for example, info about money and etiquette, scans from various Japan travel books and a lot of bits cut out /photocopied from my Inside Japan information pack.

Inside Japan are the travel specialists who have organised and booked my holiday for me. It’s not a typical tour package as such, as I am just going by myself. But they have taken into account what I am interested in seeing in Japan and the places I want to go. Basically they’ve organised accommodation, most of my transport and some special things like attending a tea ceremony/trying on a kimono. Plus they’ve organised two guided tour days – one in Tokyo and one in Kyoto.

They sent a massive information pack, a few weeks ago, with basically everything I need to know about my trip. As well as a general overview booklet with where I’ll be on each day and how to get between destinations, they also provided individual booklets for each of the places I will be visiting. Of course, I wasn’t interested in everything in all of the booklets so I have selected certain bits and compiled it in my own notebook.

My own personal guide book. With plenty of room to add to it whilst I’m in Japan.

Scans with highlighting.
I wrote this brief day-by-day plan today.
Hiroshige ukiyo-e print images used for the opening page of each ‘chapter’.
(Sadly not actually representative of the exact place they’re paired with.)
Some basic info provided by Inside Japan paperclipped in the back.