At the end of the wristies

As every schoolchild knows, the title of this blog relates to the question, where are the Andes? Sunday was our day for climbing the Andes. Or, an Ande. Or, more accurately, a foothill. The Andean foothill had been selected for us by Pablo, our AirBnB Experience guide, who had agreed to pick us up at the end of Metro Line 1 at Los Dominicos station at 8am. Another early start for us as we booted up for the walk. It was best to get out early as the day was likely to warm up significantly as it wore on, despite the crispness of the previous evening.

We were there on time, and Pablo picked us up in his little Suzuki and drove us out to the place where the walk would start. I was delighted to discover that we would be starting with significant altitude already under our belt and we would only be ascending a further 450m over the course of the hike. Although we were dealing with a mere foothill, in Andean terms, we would be reaching the height of the UK’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis.

The path was well worn and, as a result, very dusty with lots of loose stones. We were pleased to be wearing our hiking boots and using our poles for increased stability. These, incidentally, are another piece of extra gear we’ve been transporting with us. The poles are extendable so fit easily into the suitcases. The boots are what we wear on flights since they would occupy far too much space in the suitcases.

Pablo was an excellent guide and obviously walks the path on a regular basis so was able to keep us informed about what we could see and where we should stop for photos.


We walked up to a little waterfall that it seemed only Pablo was aware of, possibly because the ast section required a little bit of a scramble past a rock and over a path that at first seemed blocked by (non-native and invasive) brambles. But he guided us past that seeming obstacle to a quiet little spot by a babbling brook.


We began our descent, which was more treacherous than the way up and played merry hell with my knees, but we negotiated the path successfully. Included in the trip was a visit to the Baha’i Temple, a recently constructed place of worship visible from many points in Santiago as it perches on its hillside on the outskirts.

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This is a religious group with which I am entirely unfamiliar. The only observation I would make is that, based on the grandeur of this building and the small number of local adherents, they ain’t hurting for money.

After this visit, we were dropped back at the metro station, said goodbye to Pablo, and made our way back to the apartment. It had already been a long day so we grabbed a quick meal and called it a night.

The following day, we decided to visit another place of worship by going up to the top of Cerro San Cristobal, the high hill we could see from our apartment. There is, fortunately for my knees, a funicular that makes the ascent so we walked over there through the Bellavista neighbourhood. Google Maps wanted us to take almost two hours to walk there as, for some unknown reason, it offered us a route that circumnavigated the entire hill rather than walking straight there in 15 minutes. Sometimes, Google is not to be trusted.

The trip on the funicular is condensed into 20 seconds here. I love a time-lapse.

We enjoyed the view from the top of the hill, but it was quite hazy on the day. DSC_0138 2

But we were able to see the tallest tower in South America, the Costanera Center Torre 2. We also witnessed what was likely to be a family of Harris Hawks honing their hunting skills.


We headed back down and undertook another walk around our neighbourhood, with our eyes peeled for more street art.

After this, we had a laundry to pick up – the everyday tasks are still important and need to be managed! This was our second last day in Chile, so we wanted to be prepared for the next leg of the trip.


Cheapskate Chile

I had been keen on fitting into our Chilean visit an opportunity to sample the local wine production. To that end, I undertook some research with the aim of sourcing a pleasant, reasonably priced vineyard tour. Such a thing seemed to be unavailable, with prices coming in at between USD 150 and USD 200 per person. I decided that this was more than I was willing to pay to spend all day on a bus being shuttled to three vineyards coupled with a visit to Valparaiso. Further investigation was required, blended with a little imagination.

My thought was that one need not visit a vineyard to taste wine. Perhaps a local wine bar might present a tasting that would meet our needs. I found that there existed, nearby, a place called the Santiago Wine Club. We made our way to their threshold and asked about tastings. They do not offer tastings but pointed us in the direction of Bocanariz, a wine bar and restaurant which would fit the bill. Even on Wednesday afternoon, there were “Reserved” signs on many of the tables and it certainly looked like the kind of thing we were looking for so we booked a table for the Friday evening.

Having used the metro to visit the museum of human rights earlier in the day, we were feeling quite pleased with our new-found mastery of Chile’s subway system. We had acquired the necessary electronic access card – called bip! and pronounced “beep” – and loaded the necessary funds to allow us to travel more widely across the city. This meant that when we researched further how we should visit Valparaiso and discovered that comfortable modern buses ran between the two cities, we decided that would also be added to our schedule, and pencilled in the excursion for Saturday.

The last bit of forward planning we settled on today was organising a hike. We could see the Andes from our living room window, so we had to get into them at some point. We tracked down a guided hike on the AirBnB Experiences section and made a booking for Sunday. The week ahead was becoming quite crowded and Wednesday had faded into history.

On Thursday, we undertook an unusual tourist quest and visited the Cementario General, the cemetery where are interred the great and the good of Chilean history. Almost all of Chile’s presidents are buried there, and it also houses the infamous Plot 29. During the Junta, countless murdered dissidents were secretly buried in this plot, the public becoming aware of it after a tip-off to the press.

DSC_0143 Many of the graves in this section still hold unidentified victims.

The cemetery claims to hold two million buried Chileans, and it stretches over many acres. We went and paid our respects to Allende’s grave, but also saw some interesting things that we certainly wouldn’t have encountered in the UK. The use, for example, of Mayan symbols seems incongruous in a Christian – predominantly Catholic – graveyard.

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And we were struck by the existence of crypts and plots for specific groups of workers. For example, there are communal crypts for Glassworkers and for Railwaymen. The one that leapt out at us, however, was this one:

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This is a plot dedicated to deceased circus workers – hence the big top theme.

As we walked towards the graveyard’s exit, we encountered a funeral on the way in. Naturally, we stepped aside and doffed our hats, showing appropriate respect. More respect than a couple of members of the funeral party who were engaged in animated conversation on their phones as they accompanied the cortege. The tolerance of the bereaved in ignoring this was admirable. If this were to happen at my funeral, you, gentle reader, have full licence to educate the individual forcefully in the value of common decency.

We departed the cemetery and returned to our Lastarria neighbourhood for refreshment and a wander.

There is a lot of street art around and this was an especially interesting work on a corner building just along the road from us. Street art was to be a theme for the next few days and we learned a lot about the works and the artists prevalent in Chile.



Tranz Alpine Express – I see what you did there

We were booked on the train from Christchurch to Greymouth on Wednesday morning. The ‘Z’ annoys me. Yes, I know it’s New Zealand but…just don’t. Moving on…

The train was due to leave Christchurch at 8:15am and they want you there 30 minutes before departure. With AirBnBs, we’ve discovered that the rate determining step on how quickly you can get people on the move is bathroom and shower access. Invariably (so far) there’s only one, so an early start means an even earlier start to make sure everybody can get cleaned up before departure. We overcompensated on this occasion and were at the station by 7:25. The train is set up for this specific journey which means there is negligible luggage space in the passenger carriages so suitcases need to be loaded in the allocated luggage car at the rear of the train.

IMG_3153 We had already established that the train had a restaurant car. It was in carriage C, so we were delighted to discover that our seats were at the rear of carriage D. Handy for the cups of tea necessary for a four hour journey.


The journey offers spectacular views of the Southern Alps, and of the striated rivers that cut through the mountains. IMG_3203 2

The train winds its way up to its highest point at Arthur’s Pass, 737m above sea level and VERY windswept.


While it may be windswept, at least it was dry while we were there. That can’t be said of a couple of other settlements that we passed through. I’m reluctant to call them towns as they are really only a few houses clustered round the railway line with the occasional outlying farm. The on-board commentary that the annual rainfall in some of these places is over 5 metres. That’s five times more rain than Glasgow. By any reckoning, that’s a lot of rain.

Eventually, we descended into Greymouth where we had booked a rental car. Having witnessed the volume of bags that had been loaded onto the train in the morning, my guess was that most people would be leaving the train here and not taking the return journey. I deduced that this would also mean that most people would be picking up rental cars at the station, so devised a plan that allowed the ladies to go and pick up the bags (like a true renaissance man) while the gents rushed to the rental counter to beat the crowds, show our licenses, and be the designated drivers for the rest of the trip (slightly less renaissance man).


Anyway, it worked. We were first at the Thrifty counter to pick up our Toyota Rav4 and by the time we had finished, the queue behind us snaked out of the station building and back along the platform.

We skipped off gleefully to assist the ladies with the bags then loaded the car. Our first stop on the road trip was south in Hokitika, but we had decided to head north to see the pancake rocks. Although it’s my first time in NZ, all three of my travelling companions know it to a greater or lesser extent. Ishbel spent some time here nearly 40 years ago visiting her sister, who lived here for over 12 years and married a New Zealander. There was a lot of local knowledge for me to tap into, which was hugely helpful in defining our itinerary.

We drove out of Greymouth in the rain, and arrived at Punakaiki in the rain. It was wet today. The pancake rocks are an interesting limestone formation that it would have been delightful spending some time at. If it were drier.

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After the pancake rocks, we set off south, back through Greymouth and onward to Hokitika. As we drove, the cloud lifted and the sun started to push through. It was sunny again.

IMG_3521By the time we arrived in Hokitika, the sun was shining and it was getting warm. We had a brief stroll around town and did a quick grocery shopping for essential supplies and dinner, then headed out to our AirBnB. This turned out to be a lovely place on the riverbank.

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Also, our host had left us 8 eggs laid by his hens, fresh grapes grown in his garden, and a still warm loaf of home-baked bread. So often, it’s the little things that make a difference.


Christchurch after the quake

We hadn’t appreciated that our arrival in Christchurch, on February 25th, was so close to the anniversary of the 22nd February 2011 earthquake that devastated the city. Eight years on, there are still plenty of visible scars here in what is recognised as the most English of New Zealand’s cities.

On arriving at the airport, Ishbel identified a bus we could get to our AirBnB. We weren’t exactly slap bang in the city centre, so it was a pleasant surprise to discover that we had a public transport connection available. We hopped on the bus, paid our fares, and high-fived the driver. He was a young Indian guy who seemed to enjoy getting, or at least attempting to get, a high-five from all of his passengers. We had a chat with him before the bus set off and discovered that he was from the Punjab region of India. We told him that, coincidentally, the drivers of the two taxis we took when we were in Auckland were both from the Punjab. He seemed unfazed by this coincidence. “Punjabis like to drive,” was his philosophical response.

We were safely delivered to a bus stop just round the corner from our AirBnB. We easily found the house and recovered the keys from the lockbox then made ourselves at home. I had discovered that the local casino hosted a poker tournament on Monday evenings. But not a run-of-the-mill Texas hold ’em tournament but Pot Limit Omaha, or PLO as it is known to aficionados. This is a game that I play but Ishbel doesn’t, so we would be going our separate ways after dinner. The casino was about halfway to town from the AirBnB so we headed out for a look at the city, walking down the riverside for a bit before changing direction to get a look at Christchurch’s centre.

There is, as you would expect, a lot of recent construction replacing the structures lost in the earthquake. But there’s also a fair amount that survived.


As we wandered on, we noticed tram lines on the road and, shortly thereafter, a tram. Ishbel was keen to have a go on one so we duly paid our $25 fares (tourist prices for a hop-on, hop-off service) and saw a little more of the city from the comfort of a museum piece.

IMG_2916We hopped off down by the riverfront just after seeing the damage sustained by St. Paul’s Cathedral.

IMG_2898It would appear that this particular structure is a long way from being restored to its pre-earthquake splendour.

We grabbed an early dinner then went our separate ways. I strolled off to the casino for my PLO tournament while Ishbel hopped back on to the tram for a jaunt around the rest of its route. She enjoyed a visit to the local Botanic Gardens, as tradition now insists, and I had quite a decent run in the tournament. They attracted 28 players and 14 of those bought in twice, which boosted the prize pool. I lasted a long time in the tournament. They were only paying three people and I went out in fifth place after my nut flush/straight flush draw was called by two pair with a second nut flush draw. My nut flush hit, but unfortunately the board paired, giving the villain a full house and knocking me out just short of the money.  If you don’t play poker, none of that will make sense but don’t worry. Most of the poker talk will wait until our Vegas arrival in June.

After I bust, I walked back to the AirBnB and called it a night. The next day, Ishbel’s sister and brother-in-law were joining us in Christchurch for our extended NZ South Island tour. We had some time in the morning before they arrived so we put it to good use by heading over to the Christchurch Gondola, a cable car that ascends Mount Cavendish and affords wonderful views over the city.


The family’s flight from Brisbane arrived dead on time and they, too, used the bus to get to our place. We met them at the bus stop and, after settling them in the house, we went strolling once again into Christchurch where Ishbel was part qualified as a tour guide thanks to her attentive listening on her tram rides of the previous day. After seeing the city, we headed back for dinner and an early night. We had an early start the next day and didn’t want to oversleep.


Melbourne’s terrifying riverside

After leaving the Great Ocean Road, we arrived in Melbourne just before rush hour on Wednesday, 20th February. Our home for the next three nights was an AirBnB on the 15th floor of a modern block of flats in the Southbank area. We collected our keys from an external lockbox, attached to a particular lamp post to whose location we had received detailed directions. All very dead letter drop tradecraft. We then transported our luggage up to the apartment. Luckily, the flat had indoor private parking and a lift so the move-in process was easy. We had spectacular views from our small balcony, with what was probably the less glamorous perspective, looking away from the city, out over the motorway and towards the sea.


After getting settled in the apartment, we headed out to see a little of the city and do a little shopping for essentials – tea and milk being essentials for us. We walked up to the Yarra, the river that runs through the centre of the city and which has been recently redeveloped into a vibrant riverfront leisure area, with broad walkways and numerous cafes, bars and restaurants. When I say broad walkways, the routes are actually shared cycle/pedestrian paths. Prominent signs beseech cyclists to ride slowly, but these imprecations are ignored by many who seem eager to use pedestrians as obstacles on a slalom course. The rate of travel chosen by many of them is really quite disturbing. Apparently, Melbourne hasn’t had a cyclist-related pedestrian death since 2006, but numerous serious injuries have occurred.

You’ll be pleased to hear we survived our riverside walk, and Ishbel even managed to get a photo of a black-crowned night heron perched quite casually on a small dock.


Overcome with the excitement of this sighting, and tired from the full on travel of the last couple of days, we dined at home and had an early night.

Thursday saw us up early and attacking the day. Research had alerted us to the fact that Melbourne offered free public transport within the centre of the city and, in fact, had a free tourist tram that circled the city.


This was a bargain not to be missed so we walked from our flat across to the north side of the river and past Melbourne’s art nouveau masterpiece: Flinders St Railway Station.

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From here, we were able to catch the tram and see quite a bit of the city centre. I was keeping an eye open for a barber as I decided I needed another all over head trim. When I eventually found one, it was in a department store so almost certainly overpriced.

We visited a number of the tourist sites, including Melbourne Gaol. This was a fascinating visit since, as well as covering the history of the building and the legal structures that prevailed at various times in Victoria’s history, a number of cells included background stories of former inmates, the most famous/notorious of whom was Ned Kelly.


Having read these tales of hardship and misfortune, I’m surprised that so many people decided that a life in the New World was a path to fortune. I’m absolutely shocked that any women ever chose to migrate since they in particular seemed condemned to live life on a precarious knife-edge between meagre subsistence and utter ruin. Who knows what life in their home country must have been like when this was seen as a better option.

Sobered by the gaol experience, we headed back to the flat to freshen up before our evening adventure. Our host from Adelaide, A, was in Melbourne on business while, coincidentally, his son was also there as part of his graduate training course, so we met up with both of them in the evening for a couple of drinks and a catch up.

Friday started slowly. But, then again, we were in no rush. Our Friday activity had been planned in advance: we had booked the VIP visit to see the Little Penguins on Phillip Island.  This was a two hour drive from Melbourne, and the penguins generally start coming ashore at dusk. Our ticket was for a tour starting at 8pm, but we wanted to have a leisurely drive down there and stop in a couple of places on the way. We set off just after noon and cruised down the road a way.

We decided to stop first at Bassine Specialty Cheeses for a tasting, We had passed a couple of wineries, but Ishbel wasn’t keen on them and I didn’t want to drink anything as there was a long day of driving ahead so cheese seemed like a good alternative. They had some lovely locally made cheeses available for tasting, and a spectacular cheesecake which we enjoyed with a coffee. After this we continued on the road. And quickly encountered a road block where Australia’s finest were performing random breathalyser tests. I was lucky enough to be one of the drivers pulled aside to be tested. I passed, as did all the drivers in our little group and we were quickly on our way again. Let that be a warning to you if you decide to go wine tasting in Victoria without a designated driver.

We carried on to Churchill Island and stopped there for a walk around the nature reserve. We enjoyed a leisurely stroll, until we realised that the bridge back over to the mainland closed at 5pm and by this time it was 4:45, so we increased our pace and made it safely back on to our route. We decided that we would stop for dinner in the next large settlement which turned out to be a town called Cowes. We ate in an Italian restaurant there which was quiet when we arrived but shortly afterward started getting very busy. First, there was a load of people in Kawasaki gear showed up. Then a bunch of people dressed in Yamaha branded clothing. Then a group in Honda garb.

We then realised why we had seen so many motorbikes on the road – and possibly why the cops had their breathalyser roadblock in place this weekend. It transpired that this weekend was Round One of the World Superbike Championship, and it was taking place at the Grand Prix circuit in Phillip Island. Who knew? Everybody who wasn’t excited about seeing penguins, apparently.

We finished our dinner and made our way down to the visitor centre where I enjoyed a quick power nap in the car before we headed in for our tour. The problem with the experience is that photography is banned completely. Flash photography can startle, disorientate, or even blind penguins so there used to be a ban on the use of flash. Unfortunately, some people just cannot comply with simple instructions so they have been forced to introduce a blanket ban on photography so it’s impossible to show any photos of the huge numbers of penguins returning from an extended feeding trip waddling across the beach to reach their burrows so they can feed their chicks, or begin the moulting process to renew their feathers. However, we were able to spot one cheeky youngster who was out of his burrow before night fell hoping for a parent to return early and provide a feed.


The penguin experience was excellent, and we had cleverly parked our car close to the exit to allow a rapid getaway at the end to get ourselves back to Melbourne. This was our last night in Australia as the following morning it was time to pack up and make the relatively short hop to New Zealand. A country I would be visiting for the first time and which Ishbel hadn’t set foot in for nearly forty years. Auckland, here we come.

Wandering in Osaka

We decided Sunday would be a good day to visit Osaka Castle. A decision also reached by a large percentage of Osaka’s population. We took the train round to Osakajokoen station, again making use of our JR passes to travel for free. From the station, we walked through the park towards the castle and encountered an unexpected sight. A group of falconers were congregated just outside the castle walls and showing off their birds.

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dsc_0066 2I was fascinated to see that the birds appeared to have been transported to the park in cat boxes fixed to the luggage racks of bicycles. Although we did later see one elderly gentleman cycling out of the park with an owl perched on his handlebars. Not an everyday occurrence.

The castle itself was, as you’d expect, quite unlike what we’d expect to see in the UK.

img_3293We paid our entrance fee of about £4 and headed for the entrance. There was a very long queue of people waiting to get in, which was disappointing, until we realised that the line was only for the lift and we were welcome to use the stairs if we wanted, so we did. There was a display of historic items in each floor of the castle so we stopped off to view them as we went, nicely breaking up the journey for us. There were great views of Osaka from the top.

dsc_0179 2There was also a lot of information about the importance of the castle in a variety of power struggles around the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The castle itself was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi who is viewed as one of the three men who were key to the unification of Japan, the others being Oda Nobunaga and Tokugawa Ieyasu.

After the castle, we headed back to our flat but not before stopping off at Big Echo Karaoke to take advantage of the cheap Sunday afternoon rates. We each tried an entirely new repertoire of songs. I’m beginning to think we should pick one or two and stick with them till we get them right.

After our little sing-song, we inspected a few menus to try to choose a dinner venue. Eventually, we settled on a little yakitori place and enjoyed skewered chicken in a variety of forms before heading back home. This was our last proper day in Osaka as we’re headed for Hiroshima on Monday.

“I’ve watched C-Beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate.”

Today’s title is lifted from the “Tears in rain” speech made by Rutger Hauer’s character, Roy Batty, in Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece, Blade Runner. We moved from Kyoto to Osaka on Saturday so we’re having a Saturday night in the city that inspired much of the set design for that movie. It was also the setting for Scott’s later (underrated) Black Rain.

Before we get to the neon glitz and 3D animated restaurant signs, we first had to manage the journey. When we arrived in Kyoto, we took a taxi from the main station to our ryokan but, after two days of eating nothing but Japanese food, I felt prepared to meet any challenge the transport system may have for us. After breakfast, we packed up and checked out. We then walked down to the nearest subway station. I have been very impressed by the widespread availability of elevators in stations. They are very helpful when, between us, we have two suitcases, a dobro, a mandolin, a camera backpack, a handbag and a man-bag. The lift helped ease us down to the right platform for a subway to Kyoto train station.

Once there, we decided that we would take a local train that would take us direct to Osaka station. Our pass entitled us to take the bullet train, which is faster, but it stops at a station called Shin-Osaka where we would have to change to get to Osaka so we decided the convenience was worth the slower journey. We got to Osaka at around 11:30 and we were booked at an AirBnB where we couldn’t check in until 3:00pm. Luckily, all Japanese stations are equipped with a vast array of luggage lockers and a left luggage counter, so we were able to store all of our bags and start being tourists immediately.

Well, immediately after a cup of English Breakfast tea, which wasn’t available at the ryokan so we were going a bit cold turkey for a proper cuppa. Over our tea, we looked at what was available for us to go and visit, and settled on the Osaka Museum of Housing and Living. This was a short subway ride away and, once again, our Pasmo cards worked seamlessly on the Osaka urban transport system.

The museum itself featured scale models of Osaka showing its growth over the centuries. It also had a full scale reproduction of some city streets that we could walk through and learn a little more about Japanese life in the mid-19th century. It’s not a huge museum but well worth a visit if you have an hour or two to kill in Osaka. After the museum, we went for a stroll down a covered market street. I was impressed by the effort that went in to this particular drain cover:

2 - 1 (2)We’ve since seen a few more cast in the same way but this is the only one so far that’s been painted. This street also gave me the opportunity to try another typical Japanese activity: Pachinko. The aim of the game is to fire little silver balls into a hole. I played for about 15 minutes and still have no idea how it works. I see no need to attempt a repeat experience.

It was time to head to our AirBnB which is a short walk away from Fukushima station on the JR Osaka Loop Line. Because it’s a JR line, we were able to travel for free with our rail passes. The flat is best described as compact, but that is what we were expecting from Japan so it didn’t come as a shock. After settling in and buying some of life’s necessities (tea bags and milk), we decided to head out for dinner. I was keen on some comfort food, so we found a little Italian place just around the corner from the flat. It had a Google Rating of 4.5 from 148 reviews, which is pretty decent for that number of reviews. We arrived at 5:20pm, and there was already a line of people waiting to get in when it opened at 5:30.

The pizza was amazing. The patron/chef/waiter is a one man whirlwind. There is no other staff. You order your pizza from him at the counter. You tell him what you want to drink, then you help yourself to the drink and open it yourself. Regalo is highly recommended if you find yourself in Osaka in need of a pizza.

After dinner, we really had to pay a visit to Dotonbori, the canal-side area famous for its neon signs, animated large scale food reproductions and vast quantity of restaurants.

There is a remarkable Japanese word, Kuidaore, meaning to ruin oneself by extravagance in food. It seems to have been coined for Dotonbori.

The most famous sign of all in this area is the Glico running man, which has been a Dotonbori icon for over 80 years.


After taking this shot, we strolled along the main drag and, at one point, we were stopped by a young Australian lady who asked if we had seen the running man. She had somehow missed it and needed directions which we were able to provide.

I’m amazed by how completely different a feel there has been to each of the Japanese cities we’ve visited so far. I’ve discovered, however, that the Japanese themselves perceive residents of each city to have differing vices. As mentioned above, it’s food here in Osaka. In Kyoto, it’s clothing – specifically kimonos. And in Tokyo? Footwear apparently. They love a shoe over there.

Hong Kong to Tokyo – First impressions of Japan

An easy start to the day today as we re-packed the small amount of gear we had taken out of the suitcases and took a leisurely stroll from the hotel on to the departures level at the airport. Check in was painless as we checked the bags and walked the guitar case over to the outsize baggage counter.


They were kind enough to put on a “Fragile” label, but the green spangly case is starting to pick up a bit of character from the journey.

I’m sorry to keep comparing BA unfavourably to Cathay Pacific but, once again, the service was perfect. We even received a text while sitting in the lounge informing us that the flight would be delayed by 15 minutes. BA doesn’t even regard 15 minutes as a delay.

Anyway, we were loaded and away not too long after the scheduled departure time for the quick 4 hour hop to Tokyo. That gave me enough time to watch Deadpool 2 on the huge screen that is so much better than BA. Sorry, but it is.

img_3114Landing in Tokyo, we were quickly through immigration and the bags were waiting for us when we got to baggage reclaim. Then we were straight out through customs and facing, once again, a land where we don’t speak a word of the language or read a letter of the alphabet. Not quite true. We now recognise one character, which is the same in both Chinese and Japanese: 人 means people. OK, not all that helpful, but it’s a start. 

We knew that our target was Akasaka station, on the Chiyoda line of the Tokyo underground system. The nice lady at the airport ticket office sold us a ticket for the Skyliner express train, which would take us to Ueno where we would change to a train to Nishi-nippori, where we would change on to the Chiyoda line to Akasaka. Easy peasy, Japanese-y.

And then a strange thing happened. As we struggled on to the Skyliner and tried to stow all our bags in the limited available space, we were helped by a young man with a Scottish accent. It turns out he’s been living in Japan for the last two years working in robotics. Also, he’s a Glasgow University graduate, and studied Computing Science, just like I tried to do back in 1977. We had a lovely chat with him on the ride in and he gave us his business card so we could contact him if we needed help while we were in town, which was really nice of him.

We completed the rest of the journey safely, although I was constantly confused by escalator etiquette here (stand on the left, walk on the right) which is the opposite of the London Underground. I think we just managed to avoid the start of the real rush hour as we emerged from Akasaka station and took possession of our AirBnB. It’s a charming little place that the landlord has set up to look like a post-industrial loft. All bare wood, exposed brick and concrete.

dsc_0002dsc_0004We then had the interesting task of figuring out how to flush the toilet. I had been warned about this in advance by a colleague who had recently visited Japan but any pearls of wisdom he provided had since deserted me.


A combination of Google and trial and error got us there in the end.

Having settled in to the apartment, we decided to stretch our legs and get in a couple of necessities. Tea bags and milk, primarily. It turns out that we find ourselves in quite a lively part of Tokyo. Bearing in mind that this was about 8pm on a Monday evening, there was a remarkable number of significantly pissed-up salarymen roving the streets in large groups. Dark suits and dark overcoats are still the standard uniform – it doesn’t look like the permanent dress-down or business casual approach has yet been embraced over here.

The other surprising phenomenon was the cycling culture. We have always assumed, perhaps in an ill-informed and stereotypical kind of way, that the Japanese respected order and rules are expected to be obeyed. There is a significant number of cyclists who don’t play that way. A lot of them are cycling on pavements at speeds that don’t seem safe for them or us.

Anyway, we found a little supermarket where we acquired the requisites for a cup of tea, and also food for breakfast the next day. That will be the first meal we’ve prepared for ourselves since the 16th of December in Johannesburg. It’s a tough life.