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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

 

Back in Tokyo and suddenly I’m gigging

We were awake early on Wednesday morning to finish packing for the train from Hiroshima to Tokyo.  We were booked on the 9:54 which required a change at Shin-Kobe. There are direct trains between the two cities, but they are all Nozomi superfast express trains which aren’t covered by the JR Pass we’ve been using for all our train travel. There were 11 minutes for us to make the connection which, given the punctuality of the trains, was plenty of time. It was particularly straightforward since we arrived at and departed from the same platform at Shin-Kobe.

We arrived in Tokyo mid-afternoon. I had booked us for the night into the Mitsui Garden Hotel Kyobashi which was a 5 minute walk from the station, or would have been if Google Maps hadn’t provided odd instructions for getting there. We eventually arrived and checked in to another compact hotel room.

Having been cooped up on the train for a lot of the day so far, we headed out for a walk and to build up an appetite for dinner. Also, I had been trying to find some Bluegrass music in Tokyo and had googled a bar called Rocky Top which was reasonably close to our hotel. We knew the music wouldn’t be starting until later in the evening but rather than wandering aimlessly, we decided to walk down to where Google Maps told us it was located to scope it out.

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The walk took us through Ginza, an area which features all of the high-end shopping establishments you could ever hope to encounter, if that’s your thing. We walked to the place where Rocky Top should have been but couldn’t find it. We are so used to bars and restaurants having street front entrances in the UK, we keep forgetting that Tokyo establishments can be located on the upper floors of buildings. Having missed it on the way down the street, we spotted the sign on our second sweep of the area. To be fair to us, night had fallen by this time and the bar sign wasn’t yet illuminated as the place hadn’t yet opened. We went up to the third floor to have a look at it anyway and the sign outside confirmed that there would be a bluegrass band playing that night.

We still had a couple of hours to kill before they started so we walked back up to the station. On our way in on the Shinkansen, we’d caught a glimpse of the frontage of the old part of the station on its western side. We had come out of the modern, east side and hadn’t seen it when we arrived so we decided to go and take a look.

IMG_3509.JPGWe then looked for somewhere for dinner and discovered a Japanese foodstuff that we hadn’t previously encountered on our travels: Omurice. It’s rice, inside an omelette. Tasty.

After dinner, it was time to go and get our bluegrass fix so back to Rocky Top we headed. We were relieved to see that the external sign was now illuminated, so up we went and in through the door. The room holds maybe 30 to 40 seats with a stage at one end and a bar at the other. We were seated just inside the door and asked whether we had been there before, which we hadn’t, and were warned that there was a cover charge for the music, which we knew about. We ordered a couple of Asahi draft beers and took in our surroundings. We were the only westerners in the room and, by the time the band started, there were around 15 others there to enjoy the music, all Japanese.

I had heard that bluegrass had a substantial following in Japan and it has been mentioned a  few times in the book I’m currently reading, a chronicle of the life of Bill Monroe, the acknowledged father of bluegrass. There is also a famous Japanese mandolin luthier, Eiichi Sumi, who first came to prominence for building some of the top end models of Kentucky mandolins when they were being built in Japan. Kentucky later moved production to China and Sumi built mandolins under his own name.

I digress. The band started playing, and they were excellent. Very tight with some quite formidable four part harmonies, particularly noticeable on their version of Fox on the Run, the Manfred Mann song that The Country Gentlemen later covered and converted to a bluegrass classic.

img_3512At the end of their first set, the young bass player, Shinnosuke, came over for a chat with us. We discovered he was the son of the banjo player and he also played with some of his contemporaries in a rock band but enjoyed bluegrass very much. He told us that, for the second set, the band usually invites guest vocalists and instrumentalists on to stage with them and tried to encourage one or both of us to participate. We were obviously reluctant to do so since the quality of what we heard in the first half was way beyond what we could achieve.

img_1585But of course, I did it anyway. I sang Gotta Travel On and received thunderous applause, which only goes to show how polite Japanese people are.

There was quite a bit of talent scattered around the audience and it was clear from the song choices that the people there knew a lot about bluegrass music. The third set was back to the band performing again. Their name had been written in Japanese outside the bar but Shinnosuke told us they were called River of Time – an excellent bluegrass band name.

If you find yourself in Japan and want to hear bluegrass, make sure you get along to Rocky Top.

A Hiroshima pilgrimage

We were awake early on Monday morning and quickly packed for the next leg of our Japanese adventure, saying goodbye to our little Osaka AirBnB studio flat. We were bound for Hiroshima, so had to take a train to Osaka, then change and catch another for Shin-Osaka before we could catch our Shinkansen bullet-train to Hiroshima. As we’ve come to expect, everything happened precisely on time and we were quickly and efficiently on our way.

I had managed to get us a deal for £80 a night at a hotel right at Hiroshima station. The Hotel Granvia is one of a chain of station hotels in Japan. The place is clean, modern, and pleasant to spend time in, much like Japanese trains and stations. The other advantage of staying here was the fact that we had to tote the bags only a very short distance after arriving. This meant we were at the hotel by noon. With the official check-in time being 2:00pm, we checked our bags, picked up a map of the city, and headed out.

We were both born at the tail end of the 1950s and, growing up in the 60s and 70s, Hiroshima was a name with which we were all too familiar. We grew up with a kind of nuclear anxiety, too young to comprehend the events of the Cuban missile crisis but keenly aware of a general consciousness that the world could end at any moment in a nuclear holocaust. Hiroshima was, and still is, one of only two cities ever to have been struck by a nuclear weapon. It represented that potential for devastation in our minds. So, when we actually arrived here, our first destination was somewhat pre-ordained.

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If you’ve ever seen a picture of Hiroshima after the bomb was dropped, you’ll have seen the single building, ruined but still standing, in a landscape otherwise almost completely levelled. That ruin stood untouched until the start of reconstruction in Hiroshima. There was a great deal of controversy around what should be done with it. Many survivors would have preferred not to be reminded of that day, while others felt that there should be some monument to the events of 6th August, 1945. In the end, the decision was reached to preserve the ruin as a reminder to the world. Alongside it, a Peace Park has been constructed which contains various monuments and exhibitions.

The Peace Flame was lit in August 1964, the monument itself having been designed by Kenzo Tango – the same man who designed St. Mary’s Cathedral in Tokyo. Also in the park is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Hall. The hall includes a diorama view of the city taken by US military personnel a few days after the bomb had struck. The image is composed of a mosaic of 140,000 tiles – the number of people estimated to have died in the attack. Incredibly, this figure is provided with a margin of error of plus or minus 10,000. There is also a video presentation where the recollections of survivors and the bereaved can be heard. They talked about the loss of 544 first and second year students from the Hiroshima Municipal Girls’ High School. There’s a monument to the students killed in the attack and the inscription on it of Einstein’s famous formula that defines the energy released in a nuclear reaction.

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The visit to Hiroshima was something of a pilgrimage for us, and this was a sobering experience.

We travelled to and from the Peace Park by tram. Yet again, our Tokyo-bought Pasmo travel cards operated seamlessly on the tap and go readers on the cars. The train station was the central terminus for all routes, so our hotel was perfectly situated for us to see more of Hiroshima. After taking a few moments with our thoughts, we headed out for dinner. We had picked a burger and craft beer place called Kemby’s and I was looking forward to it. Unfortunately, when we got there it was closed which forced me to learn yet another fact about Japanese culture.

There is a national holiday on the second Monday in January called “Coming of Age Day”. It is intended to celebrate Japanese youth reaching the age of majority – currently 20 but dropping to 18 in 2022. We ate in a small Japanese restaurant then walked back to the hotel. Our walk home coincided with a lot of the Coming of Age Day celebrants departing whatever festivities they had been participating in. Imagine, if you will, the scene if the whole of the UK held Sixth Form leaving balls on the same day. That appears to be the general vibe, particularly among the lads. The girls seemed altogether more sober, literally and figuratively.

It was an interesting day in Hiroshima, a city whose name is stamped indelibly on history but which, 70 years after that defining moment, goes about its business like any other world city. It’s a testament to their powers of recovery that this is the case. I’m glad we came here. 

“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.

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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.

Anagram travel

Today, we travelled from Tokyo to Kyoto. These cities are anagrams of each other, but it transpires that there’s a reason for this. Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, means Capital City. Tokyo was called Edo until the capital was moved there, at which point it was re-named “The capital in the East” or, in Japanese, Tokyo. Finding that out solved a little mystery for me so I thought I’d share it.

We chose today to start using our JR Rail Pass which will give us 7 days of travel on Japanese Rail lines. We bought the pass before leaving the UK and received a voucher which we had to exchange at a major station in Japan. For us, this meant Tokyo Station. We opted for the “Green Car” Pass which is the equivalent of First Class on UK trains. I paid the premium because I had read so many scare stories about the lack of luggage space in ordinary carriages of Japanese trains. To be fair, there’s not much luggage space in the green car either, but it was pretty quiet so we were able to get most things up in the overhead luggage rack and tucked the suitcases into the two seats behind us, which were empty all the way to Kyoto.

We travelled the 450km by bullet train, or Shinkansen. The pass doesn’t allow travel on the superfast non-stop express, but the Hikari service, which stops at a few stations en route, still covers the distance in a highly respectable 2hrs 40mins. Having spent the best part of 20 years commuting on the Brighton line into London, it was a delight to experience a railway being run properly.

We arrived in Kyoto on time and grabbed a taxi to the place where we were staying. I had booked a Ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese style of inn. You may be unaware (I certainly was) that Japan pretty much invented the concept of the hotel and the oldest Ryokans date back to the start of the 8th century. In the Ryokan, the floors of the rooms are covered in tatami mats. We remove our shoes at the door and step through a sliding door into our living space.

img_1397 Another aspect of the inn is the availability of communal baths where guests can go and cleanse themselves. Ishbel and I both took advantage of this facility after arriving and it turned out that we were each the only people in our respective, gender segregated baths. Afterwards, we dressed in our Yukata – an indoor kimono type of robe. Once we were dressed in these, I changed back to western clothes. I realised that we would be required to sit cross legged on the floor to eat dinner, and the yukata barely covered my modesty when seated in a sedate western fashion. It would certainly result in overexposure if I were to wear it while dining.

I had taken the dinner, bed and breakfast option. As a highly unadventurous diner, this was quite a major step for me. Dinner was served in the room and I grew increasingly nervous as the meal arrived.

img_3196 You may be able to spot here a considerable quantity of raw fish on the plate in front of Ishbel. Also, that thing in the sauce on the plate at the left of the picture is a fish head. Well, I ordered it so I had to live with the consequences. It turns out the fish head had quite a bit of fish meat on it and the sauce was quite delicious. Most of the raw fish was reasonably pleasant and the tempura was good. Surprisingly, I was able to eat enough so that I didn’t feel the need to sneak out for a burger later in the evening. Ishbel had no qualms about any of it of course.

After dinner, we rang for the trays to be removed. When the table was cleared, our bed was laid out.

We both enjoyed a comfortable night on the triple layered futons. I’m starting to get the hang of this Japanese thing. Slightly. Let’s wait and see how breakfast goes.

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.

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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.

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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.