Japan – Old Tradition versus New Innovation – G Adventures Tour 6

If you ask anyone you know to describe Japan in a few words, you may get a plethora of different answers.  Japan is a hi-tech country that built a powerhouse economy after the second world war and still continues to lead the market in technology.  It is also a land filled with tradition and ritual, as many Shinto and Buddhist temples can be found all over the country, and many Samurai castles and Geisha districts can be found just around the corner.  It has a deep love for arts and crafts, but is equally a commercial giant. Japan has a wealth of entertainments to serve the ‘work hard, play hard’ ethic of her people, but still remains deep in societal tradition. A code of ethics keeps people from behaving badly to service providers, and yet alcohol is freely available from vending machines on the street. It’s no nanny state, but it will give a disapproving glare if one is out of line.  I could go very deep into the differences here, but I don’t want to make this report all about the fact that they are very enlightened about some things and in other cases, not so. All I know is that the people I met were warm, cordial and friendly and that our similarities were greater than our differences and leave it at that. Also, their transport system is amazing, and though confusing at first, is surprising easy to navigate.

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Sunshine 60 Observatory Skyline

To start with, when I picked this trip, I was motivated by value for money, of course, but I was up for seeing as much of Japan as I could. I particularly wanted to spend some extra time in Tokyo as well as visit Hiroshima and Kyoto.  Flights to Japan seemed quite reasonable, but the tours I’ve seen for Japan were quite expensive.  I now know why this is the case.  Most of them include quite a bit of travel by Rail.  If you intend on seeing the most of Japan and JR Pass is essential.  This allows you unlimited travel on Japan Rail (JR) trains for up to two weeks, and costs around £350.00

I went to Japan with a friend this time.  This was a destination he had intended on visiting and after seeing the photos from some of my other trips, felt he would really enjoy a group tour around Japan.  We booked some extra days in Tokyo and either end of the tour, and this gave us the opportunity to become acclimatised to the humidity and get over the jet lag before the tour began.  Preparation for Japan was easy, as no VISA or inoculations were required.  We got some foreign currency out and decided to rent a Wifi hotspot from the airport, and this came in very handy indeed.  We also picked up some Metro passes for our extra days in Tokyo to make getting around much easier.

After a quite cramped flight we made it through Haneda airport and collected our bags, Wifi hotspot and attempted to navigate the public transport system.  However there was an information desk who helped us in getting tickets for the monorail, railway and our metro passes with little fuss.  We got to Ikebukuro and found our hotel after some initial confusion. We went for a wonder and to find somewhere to eat, and soon we discovered Tokyo’s secret.  In order to see the city properly, you have to look up.  Many eateries and bars were located inside what appeared to be floors above the retail ground floor level.  We had a look in on a backstreet arcade, and found a few bars, most of which were closed until later in the day.  We found a large retail plaza called Sunshine City and stopped for a while to catch up against the humidity.  Here we discovered they had a city view sky deck, and went up to the top floor for a look.  The views were breathtaking, and we got there just as the sun was beginning to set.  As well as informative panels describing the landmarks we could see, there were a number of interactive displays and a room which seemed to contain mirrors and constantly swirling patterns of light.  Dinner was spaghetti-like ramen noodles and an ice-cold beer, and boy, was it needed, but sadly sleep was needed too, and we called it an early night shortly afterwards.  This was our first day of many, and we had a lot of ground to cover.

Day two, and we had to check out of our single rooms.  From now on we’d have to share, or at least for the next two weeks.  We left our bags with reception and popped out to get breakfast and make a plan for what to do that day.  It was only 10am but it was already feeling a little warm.  After pastries and iced coffee we headed out towards Shibuya and Harajuku on the Metro.  We were aware of the incoming typhoon that was to hit mainland Japan later that day, and the skies were already a little dark by the time we hit Shibuya Metro station.  After some disorientation we found ourselves outside in a torrential rainstorm.  Huddling for cover on a shop step that was still too hot to sit on, we took a direction and ran with it.  We emerged from a stream of people at a crossing and upon seeing a large Torii Gate I went over to have a look.  As the rain stopped, and the sun came out, the wet turned almost instantly to steam and sweat, and even my DSLR camera suffered with the humidity.

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A Torii Gate leading to the Meiji Jingu Shrine

The Torii Gate sat in front of a wide path lined with trees, and we later discovered this was the Meiji Jingu shrine, the first of many shrines we would encounter on our trip was very beautiful with lots of ornately carved wooden rooves and doors.  There was a cleansing pool just before the altar, with the long-handled wooden cups for drawing water out and tipping into your hand.  The cool running water was a welcome relief after a long walk through the grounds.  The shrine itself is free to visit but there were donation boxes and you could buy tokens and paper that you could write your wishes on, and leave on a tree.  There were a couple of Wedding Processions that visited as we happened to be there, and the attendees were all traditionally dressed.  Moving on from the shrine we got a little lost on the way back around, and after a really long walk, so much so, blisters were beginning to rub on my feet, but we found a nice noodle restaurant in Harajuku on the way back to the station.

Continuing on, it was just a short few Metro stops to Shibuya Crossing, to see the large pedestrian crossing in all its glory.  Also referred to as Shibuya Scramble, it was as chaotic as you can imagine with hundreds of people all wanting to get to a different corner.  In one such corner was the monument to Hachiko, the dog whose owner, a Professor at Tokyo Imperial University would meet him at the station after work ever day, until one day the Professor died.  The dog continued to wait every day at the station, patiently waiting his master’s return until the day he died himself, nine years later.

We went back to our hotel in Ikebukuro to collect our new room keys and our luggage and had a short rest before our meeting in the Lobby with our G Adventures tour leader and our travel companions for the next two weeks.  I knew from looking at the list of names on the meeting sheet that we had more men than women on the tour, but what I didn’t realise was that many of the people on the tour were over fifty; although quite a few of the group were single, or at the very least, unmarried.  We were encouraged to mix up and find out what we could about someone else in the group as an icebreaker before we were given our itinerary by our ‘CEO’ Satomi.  We then went on a short orientation walk which included showing us where certain places were, where to get tomorrow’s breakfast, where to get cash from, (as only a certain few ATMs accept foreign bank cards), and a department store where we could find numerous eateries on the top floor.  We would normally have had a group dinner together, our CEO explained, but she had to rebook train tickets for the group in light of the incoming typhoon.

A few of us settled on a place that did something called ‘Omurice’, which seemed to be an omlette on top of rice, though we were told we would have to be quick as businesses were looking to close for the night, not sure of what would follow we all opted for an early night, where we weathered the storm up on the 14th floor of our hotel.  We were woken in the middle of the night by the emergency system as the electricity in the building did go out and the lifts stopped working, but other than some powerful winds and torrential rain, we make it through the typhoon unharmed.

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Discovery Japan 14 Day Tour G Adventures

Though carnage was apparent and some businesses remained closed from the damage, including the bakery we went to just the day before, there were still some places open.  We had breakfast at Wendys, went back to check out of the hotel and met the others in the lobby.  Our CEO had waited patiently in long queues the day before to get new seat reservations, but we had to take a different train so she had to do that again for us.  We spent a few hours on different trains, including a Shinkensen, or bullet train, but made it to Kanagawa for the early afternoon, just slightly behind schedule.

Kanagawa was clearly a smaller town, but was very easily navigated using the two circular buses that went pretty much everywhere and terminated at the bus station, which was handily next to the train station.  So, too, was the hotel we were staying at.  It felt very warm in the early afternoon, but walking a short distance took us to the local fish market, Omi Cho, which was undercover and offered a breeze; though with it, came a strong smell of seafood.  The market itself was similar in scale to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, but the market here was almost exclusively food, with some restaurants and street food places here and there.  As it was lunchtime a few of us opted to get sushi at a place in the market.  It was my first proper taste of sush… let me explain.  I’d had sushi from a Tesco Express, which was eight seaweed-wrapped rice and raw fish creations with a little tube of soy sauce.  That, I have been told, is not sushi, and boy were those people right!  The sushi I had at Omi-Cho fish market was fresh, delicious and so healthy, the way good food should be.  Following on from the fish market we had a walk around one of the town’s Geisha districts that featured an old tea house that had been turned into a museum.  We had to remove our shoes upon entry, and there were a few nice exhibits, and next door there was a shop that specialised in gold leaf, which was quite an industry in Kanazawa.  After this, we caught the bus back to the hotel, and had some time to freshen up before we had to go out for our group dinner.

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A Geisha District in Kanagawa

At first sight the restaurant we went to looked like we were to dine cross-legged on the floor, but upon closer look, the tables we had were sunken into a trench in the floor, meaning we had to dangle our legs in the gap underneath.  This was very welcome given the amount of walking we had done all day, and I don’t think I would have been very comfortable cross-legged for any more than about three minutes.  Satomi had ordered some food for us to have a taste of a few different things, but said we could always order more of something if we felt the need.  As it transpired, the meat dishes were very popular, and went very quickly, and the beer went down surprising well too.

Before we went to bed, a small few of us went to get some beer from the local Family Mart convenience store, and the staff at our hotel said it would be okay to drink them in the quiet area of the lobby, as there was nowhere else to get breakfast the next day, we all opted to pay a bit extra for the hotel breakfast, and Kanazawa’s lack of a nightlife meant an earlish night.

The next day was even hotter than the previous day, and after breakfast we had a walk around the local samurai district, which was very picturesque, but very warm.  Soon afterwards we relocated to the Kenroku-en Garden and enjoyed its beautiful plants and flowers, there is a large statue in the garden of legendary hero Yamato Takeru, who represents the suppression of rebellion in Kyushu.  After a lovely Tempura and Miso lunch, we made our way to Kanagawa Castle, and toured the grounds there.  The castle itself was largely empty but there was an interesting exhibit explaining how the beams of the castle are intentionally bent and cracked so that if they were attacked with seige weapons or earthquakes, the beams grip together and become more entrenched, which made the structure stronger.  The castle took much longer than we anticipated, but we made it back to the hotel with time to spare.  For dinner, we once again went to a department store, but had Chinese food for a change, which was actually quite nice.

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Kanagawa Castle

The next day we had to do some more travelling by train, and as I result, my friend and I didn’t bother with another hotel breakfast, but made a quick stop at a Seven Eleven again, for sandwiches, which saved us about 500 yen between us.  The journey to Takayama was by local and express trains only, with a final leg by minibus, and so we got to Takayama for near enough lunch time.  We had lunch at place near to the museum village of Hida No Sato, or Hida Folk Village as it is also called, but the weather looked like it was going to turn a bit wet.  After a nice spicy beef curry and rice, we made our way up to the village while our bags were driven back to the Ryoken-style hotel we would be calling home for the next couple of days.  The village was very rustic-looking, and while we had a bit of a deluge to begin with, it wasn’t for long and soon brightened up afterwards.  The village was set around a small lake with various buildings showing a variety of industries that would have been present during the Edo Period (between 1603 and 1867).  There was a mill house and a bell tower as well as few shrines, and right by the waterfront, there was a cart and some costumes for people to try on and take pictures, which of course, a few of us did.  We were picked up again by the minibus afterwards and taken to be reunited with our bags at our hotel.

The hotel was a traditional style of guesthouse called a Ryoken, and it featured an onsen spa.  The rooms had mattress beds on the floor and a couple of communal rooms downstairs, but the onsens were very relaxing.  We met again for dinner and went to a place that did platters of food with a bit of everything that was described as a ‘set’.  Takayama is famous for it’s superior and tender Hida Beef, and so most of us opted to try it as part of our set.  The chef was very friendly and asked us all where we were from, when I said I was from Birmingham, he paused for a second and said “Aston Villa!” to which my friend and I replied, “Yes! The best team in Birmingham!”  Most of the group elected to walk home but a few of us went with the minibus, as we hadn’t quite found our bearings yet, but it appeared that walking was just as quick as we all arrived at roughly the same time.  We got back quite early and my roommate wanted to grab a shower and an onsen, so I decided to go out with some of the other group in search of a coin laundry, thinking I’d be back in an hour or so.  It made for quite the adventure and I got to spend time with some of the other people on the tour by myself and I got a better feel for Takayama, and its many bridges.

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A horse statue outside the Sakurayama Hachinmangu Shrine

The next day we went for a walk, first to the Sakurayama Hachinmangu Shrine, and next to the Miyakawa Morning Market where we saw the many things they had for sale.  The breakfast, though substantial, didn’t stop us from getting a hida beef skewer, which was small, but every morsel was packed with flavour.  Next we went to see the Sake Breweries and were invited to sample up to twelve different sakes for a small 300 yen covering charge.  Of course we tried them all, and we actually bought a gift set of five bottles, so their generous marketing strategy paid off.  These heavy boxes later became a bane for us as we had to carry them for the entirety of the trip thereafter.  We did a bit more shopping and then went for lunch at a local place; this time we had ramen noodles, and then we went to see a traditional tea making ceremony which involved some hilarious commentary from the funny Irish man on the tour.  We finished the afternoon with a tour of the golden floats that are on display at the Takayama Festival Floats Museum and walked back to the Ryoken.

Before the evening meal, most of the group met in the common area to practice our origami skills.  In particular, we learned how to make a paper crane, with varying degrees of success.  We then headed back into the town for another meal at a local restaurant and had a leisurely walk back.  We found a late-opening bar on the way and had beer and sake before walking back across the bridge back to the Ryoken, and a peaceful sleep.

Hiroshima was our next destination and we had to spend most of the morning and afternoon getting there by train, which meant we had to eat our breakfast and lunch on the move, pretty much, so it was about middle afternoon by the time we reached Hiroshima.  Luckily our hotel was close to the station, but we couldn’t yet check in, so we left our bags at reception and hoped on a bus to the Hiroshima Peace Park.  Firsly we saw the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, which was said to be the only building standing after the Atomic Bomb was dropped.  It still stands in the same state but is now a recognised UNESCO World Heritage site.  We then took a walk to the hypocentre, which was the exact spot over which the bomb was detonated.  One of the members of the group was 92 years old, and had been 19 when he A-bomb would have been detonated.  He was quite a character, and he had served in World War Two, but he treated his time in Hiroshima with the respect it deserved.

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Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall or Genbaku Dome, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996

We then walked further around the Peace Park seeing the Children’s Peace Memorial, in the form of a paper crane, which is in linked to a child called Sadako Sasaki who died from Leukaemia in the years following the nuclear fallout in the region.  As the crane is a symbol of longevity in Japanese folklore, Sadako believed that making the paper cranes would help her recover and live a long life.  She reportedly made over 1,000 paper cranes before she died, and even today, many visitors leave paper cranes as a symbol of a lasting peace.  We continued past the peace park cenotaph and into the visitor centre museum, which featured exhibits and accounts of those who perished during the explosion, and accounts from people who lived just outside of the hot zone who heard and saw the bright light on the horizon.  There were a number of interactive exhibits up on the mezzanine level, but many of the personal accounts were difficult to read; quite a few were from children.

We got back to Hiroshima station quite late, so we opted to go straight for dinner.  I felt like I needed a shower, but I was quite hungry given the amount of walking we had done.  Satomi wanted us to try some Okonomiyaki, which is like a fried pancake of noodles, cabbage and syrup batter, with various toppings.  Mine included pork with an oyster sauce and a fried egg on top.  To eat it, you use a pair of scrapers to cut pieces off on the hotplate, and then you can dip it in soy sauce for extra flavour with your chopsticks.  It was delicious, and just what I needed.  We went back to the hotel for a freshen up and decided to go out for a beer or two.  We had a few others join us, and found a bar around the corner by the Yebisu Beer Company.  They had a good array of things to drink, I opted for a fruit beer and then a gin and tonic, but they didn’t want to be open past 10pm so we paid up and left.  There wasn’t really much else to do near the station.  I’m sure we maybe could have found later bars, but we had a busy day the next day, so we went to the Seven Eleven for a cheaper option for breakfast, and turned in.

We took a local train a short hop and caught the Ferry to the island of Miyajima.  Miyajima means ‘shrine island’, and in fact the island’s real name is Itsukushima.  There are many shrines on the Island, and it is known for its famous floating Torii Gate, which you can walk to during low tide.  However, we had timed our visit to Japan badly, because the Torii Gate was undergoing maintenance repairs, and was unfortunately covered up with netting.  The mountain which dominates the island is Mount Misen, and we undertook the task of climbing to it’s summit, however, we took the option of going by Ropeway car for most of the way.  Along the paths we saw many deer roaming freely, approaching tourists to see if they had any food.  It was uncomfortably hot the further up we went, and as it approached lunchtime.  We saw a number of water bottle vending machines and made sure we refilled our water bottles before tackling the last leg, a 30 minute climb of irregular steps that first go down and then up to the top.  There were no handrails and we didn’t have any sticks, and the afternoon humidity kicked up the difficulty level, but we managed to make it to the top.  The view as incredible, and the achievement worthy.  Along the way, we saw a couple of shrines, including the Shrine of the Eternal Flame, and we noted that there were places to buy bottled water, but the price, like the altitude, was a little steeper.

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View from near the Summit of Mount Misen on Miyajima Island

We were a little behind schedule so we opted for the quick route back down.  This gave us a bit of time to get an ice cream and buy a couple of souvenirs, but somehow we missed our group at the rendezvous point at the Ferry.  Satomi was very kind to wait for us at the train station, and realising we hadn’t really eaten properly all day, she encouraged us to get something to eat before we boarded the train back to the hotel.  As a thank you, my friend and I offered to take her out for some dinner later in the evening and she showed us some side street eateries and a couple of bars that were very interesting indeed.  One was a bar that played K-Pop music and served chicken wings and cheese, and it seemed to be full of young girls out with their friends.  We recognised the tune to ‘Happy Birthday’ and sung along in English as one of the girls flushed with embarrassment.  We finished on Okinawa Sake, an unusual brew served in one of the smallest establishments we had been in all evening.  So small in fact that we had to push past the furniture to get up the stairs.

The next day, and still a little sore from walking, we caught a couple of trains to Kyoto.  Breakfast was on the go again, but we managed to find a Starbucks after the first stop.  Our hotel was again, very close to the train station, and after we dropped bags, once again, we had a short orientation walk, and had just over an hour to get something from one of the many eateries on the basement level of a large department store.

After lunch we caught a local train to Fushimi Inari Shrine, recognisable for it’s thousands of torii gates.  Once again we were faced with a big hill and quite a few steps, but we made it to the half way point past the small lake to where we could see the city below.  There were quite a few tourists on the paths, but there was always space to take a few photographs of the iconic gates.  It was another very humid day though, and with the hike we did the day before, we decided to head back to the meeting point a little early so as not to miss everyone.  It gave me the opportunity to refill my water carrier and pick up a couple of souvenirs.  Along with the many torii gates, the shrines were decorated with stone foxes.  The fox or kitsune, symbolises the messenger of the gods and are always present at Inari Shrines.  For this reason, I picked up a couple of purses with little foxes on for my friend’s daughters, and then had a matcha tea ice cream in the shade.

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Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto is known for it’s Torii Gates, numbered at over ten thousand!

We then caught a train back into Kyoto and headed to our hotel to check in.  It was an Ibis Styles Boutique Hotel with an included breakfast, and a laundry room, but the rooms were pretty small.  We were told that there was a post office nearby if we wanted to send anything home, and that put is in the mind to think about our luggage weight. So we decided to visit the post office and it was a comedy of errors.  We found a box and decided what we were sending back, and packed it, taped it and completed the paperwork, but when we came to filling in the customs declaration, we were told we couldn’t ship home alcohol, at all.  Needless to say it was the two boxes of Sake we were most worried about, and so we had to scrap the whole thing.

We arranged to meet up with the rest of the group at one of the many food courts but we got lost on the way, (you’d have thought we’d have worked it out by now), but we had a good Samaritan not only tell us where we had gone wrong, but also show us the way, which as it turns out was quite away from where we were.  Everyone had pretty much eaten by the time we got there but some of them stayed while we got our orders.  I settled on Mexican food this time, although I should have ordered a side or two with it as I was still a little bit hungry after the meal.  Back at the hotel I decided to do more laundry, and although the washer was great, the dryer was pretty pathetic, and I ended up drying my laundry in the bathroom, thankful I’d remembered to pack my travel washing line.

Our second day in Kyoto had us meeting early after breakfast, and we caught a bus to the Golden Pavillion, and it’s lovely gardens.  We then visited Nijo Castle, the former residence of the Tokugawa Shogunate, when Kyoto was the original capital of Japan.  The castle consists of two palaces and interconnecting gardens, but sadly the second palace building was undergoing major reconstruction, and so we could only visit the first palace.  The floors creaked as we walked through the various rooms, this is an intentional feature of the castle, and was designed to give away the presence of intruders in the castle.  Some of the rooms were designed to intimidate guests or relax them.  One such room featured a giant painted tiger, and was considered unsettling for visitors looking to meet with the Shogun.

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The Golden Pavilion in Kyoto

After more walking, we got back on the bus and headed to the Nishiki Market, where we had the opportunity to get some lunch and do some shopping.  There were lots of nice places to buy souvenirs, and there was a nice Kimono shop, although sadly I couldn’t find anything I wanted in my size.  We had a look around the Takashimaya Department Store, which showcased some very expensive luxury goods, and then we took a walk over the bridge to another area well-known for Geisha spotting, known as Gion District.  Gion District featured a theatre where they put on nightly performances of traditional Japanese theatre and performances.

The German couple that were part of our trip asked about a particular restaurant and Satomi managed to get them a reservation.  We walked them to the place and Satomi was kind enough of put something towards their meal as well.  The three of us found a local place on the way back and had a meal together, ordering a number of dishes and sharing them.  My mate and I decided to pay forward her kindness to the German couple, and pay her contribution to the meal between us, but of course she had to give us something back, and introduced us to the wonder of Peach Flavoured Ice Cream Balls.  These are a snack you can get from most Seven Elevens, and was so refreshing.  If I can pass on a bit of wisdom to newbie travellers in Japan it would be; you must try the ice cream balls.  We had another long walk back to the metro stop, and a short hop on the metro back to the hotel, but at least my washing was now mostly dry, and I again slept like the proverbial log.

The next day we were left to our own devices pretty much as it was a free day, but we had already pre-booked our activity for the daytime, a Spirit Kembu lesson at the Samurai Kembu Theatre in downtown Kyoto.  We were a little bit early but found a nice little traditional coffee shop next door, and treated ourselves to a nice cold brew iced coffee before went into the theatre.  The lesson was taught by Master Auga Houga, who was a short, quiet spoken man, but he English was perfectly well.  He would demonstrate each move and have us copy it.  There were five of us in the class, and we were given a Katana pretty much straight away – shown the correct way to hold the scabbard, twist it outward to draw it, and stroke the dull edge along our thumb and forefinger to present the blade back into the scabbard in one fluid motion.

We also got to dress up in the traditional garb of a Samurai, and we all looked amazing.  We were taught a full selection of moves and then some moves with the fan.  Traditionally the Kembu, or sword dance was a way for Samurai to practice their techniques, but the medium has been used to tell stories and to keep fit.  The martial art was a privilege to learn, and the photos we took make for a wonderful souvenir, and it made it a highlight of the trip.

After the lesson, we realised that we were too late to meet the others for the boat trip.  We headed back to Kyoto station, had a bit of a mooch around, got lost in the labyrinthine maze that was the various interconnecting malls, but found a really nice restaurant with a great view of Kyoto Tower.  The rest of the day we decided to go back and repack our luggage, as we were told we could pay a small fee to have our big bags shipped to Tokyo, saving us carrying them around.

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View of the Kyoto Tower from the Restaurant on the Ninth Floor of the Mall

In the evening we decided to go back to the Gion Theatre and enjoy the cultural show, and the German couple came with us.  It featured some comedy, some music, tea making and puppetry, so it had a bit of everything.   It was a pretty good show, and afterwards we met the others at one of the nearby shrines, to see the lanterns lit up at night.  We then went for an all-you-can-eat hotpot dinner, which was delicious, although you had to cook the food yourself.  The Irish couple told us about their day, and said the boat ride was a bit too long, and they had no respite from the sun, which explained their tanned complexion.  On the way out of the restaurant, it appeared that some local school children had made some masks and left them by the lift, and of course, I pick up one and put it on, and then so did everyone else and we had a couple of hilarious pictures taken.

We brought our heavy bags up to the lobby after we got back to the hotel and after a couple of skype calls home we called it a night.

The next day after breakfast we checked out and headed to the station to start our commute to Fujikawaguchiko, where we intended to spend a couple of days in a valley below the splendour of Mt. Fuji.  However, the day was much cooler and soon enough the clouds came in and we had a bit of rain.  The last train to our destination was a bit of an upgrade, and was a special museum train with various books and artefacts around the carriage, and a running commentary throughout the journey.

Our hotel for the night was another traditional room in the Ryoken style, and had a much larger Onsen Spa, which we took advantage of ahead of dinner.  For dinner we were told to come down in the Yukata robes we were given when we checked in, and sat at a grand table, we had a traditional Kaiseki Dinner.  There were so many courses, and each one meticulously crafted using different techniques.  Following on from the dinner a few of us decided we’d do some Karaoke for a couple of hours, and going up to our rooms to change, we noticed that they’d reconfigured the room and made the beds.  The Karaoke was a lot of fun, and it was definitely on my ‘must do’ list in Japan.  I sang some Duran Duran, my mate chose Springsteen and even Satomi gave us a tune.  One of the Irish guys was massively into Bon Jovi, and sang about three of four of his tunes – and what he lacked in vocal range he more than made up for in enthusiasm.

The next day I got up early and saw the clouds had gone and the view from our window was of Mount Fuji in the distance.  After breakfast we had an orientation walk down to the lake and up to the Kachi Kachi Ropewalk, which gave us a fantastic panoramic view of Mount Fuji.  We got there just in time to take photos of the summit because soon after lunchtime a light cloud descended, obscuring the view of the peak.  The rest of the afternoon was ours to do with as we liked, so we opted to take a boat ride around Lake Kawaguchi, which came at a discount because we’d used the ropeway already.  We took the 92 year old veteran with us, to give Satomi a break from looking after him, and the ride didn’t look too choppy.  He really enjoyed it, and we got a great view from the water.  We found somewhere for lunch right on the waterfront, got a couple of souvenirs and finally a coffee before we checked out.

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The Vista of Mount Fuji

We got back to Ikebukuro in Tokyo for about 5.30pm and collected our cases, checked in and then went for a quiet Ramen meal nearby, just me, my travel buddy and Satomi.  We met with the other travellers and headed out to explore Shinjuku at night.  We found some busy side streets with lots of small restaurants, big shopping malls and some interesting plazas, such as Godzilla Street, where the original Toho Cinema was built.  Now nightly there is a giant Godzilla head which lights up and makes the famous roar every hour on the hour until 9pm.  The rest of the group hadn’t eaten so myself and my mate excused ourselves over dinner to go bar hopping to see if we could find Tokyo’s Rock Scene.  We found a place called Bar Psy, which was a lovely little bar that played rock music, in a darkly lit room and served Jack Daniels Bourbon, so it was definitely what we were looking for.  We made friends with some Canadians who were there for the week.  After a couple of drinks we hooked up with the rest of our group and they said it their meal started out badly, but it was a really nice place to eat once the food arrived.  We had a walk back to the train station together and a couple of us went to the seven eleven again, as by that time my mate and I were craving a cheese sandwich after the beer and rum.  We also looked online for accommodation as we had yet to book a hotel for our last few days in Tokyo, and decided we wanted to be based in Shinjuku rather than Ikebukuro as it seemed closer to where we wanted to be.

Our final day with the group loomed, and we headed out for breakfast before our meet up in the lobby.  The bakery that we saw had suffered from the hurricane was as pristine as our first visit, and their coffee was just as good.  Our first place to visit was the Anime and gamer culture haven of Akhibakara.  We visited an arcade, passed by the Gundam cafe and saw the flagship store of electrical giant Yodobashi Camera.  With a lot to get done we moved on and took a train to Ginza.  Ginza is home to the Nissan showroom at Nissan Crossing, and it is home to some fantastic showpieces of the future of motoring and technology.  We saw some fantastic looking cars, and some incredible tech, including a robotic dog that responded to sounds and touch.  The cafe was also technologically advanced – you could order a coffee with a printed picture on the foam.  Very gimmicky, true, but it was still pretty cool.

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The Cars of Tomorrow at Nissan Crossing

In the afternoon the group were heading to Shibuya, to do the things my friend and I had already done prior to the tour, so instead we headed back to Akhibukura to try and and pick up some souvenirs from Yodobashi Camera.  I was on the lookout for something for my partner’s little boy and for my business partner’s little boy, something Mario related would do for the former, but for the latter, it had to be Godzilla related.  I managed to achieve the first goal, but not the second.  Still I also picked up a wooden puzzle which I would put into a charity auction, and saw some really retro tech, a playable version of Outrun on the Sega Mastersystem.  On the way back to the hotel, my mate picked up a trolley case which gave us a bit of breathing room for luggage weight and when we got back, we found that the group had also returned, and some were in the lobby trying to sort out their next steps.  We met a girl who was just about to start her journey on a tour doing the Backroads of Japan, and she had so many questions.

Our last meal together as a group was to take place at a very cosy Yakatori place, but before that, we went for a beer at the Kirin City bar, to try one of their beer ices, which wasn’t as nice as it sounded, but was still an experience.  Getting to the restaurant was a bit of a mission, as we got in the wrong lift to start off with, but we got in, and sat on the middle table.  Ordering was all done via the tablets on each table, and it all got emotional once we gave our thanks and speeches to Satomi and to each other.  Veteran John was so overwhelmed by everyone’s generosity on the tour, he told us we could all come and stay on his ranch in Illunois, which was very kind of him.

We didn’t want the party to end so we went onto a bar afterwards that was a bit like an English pub, except you couldn’t stand at the bar and drink, and you ordered and paid for your pint with different people.  It was more like a Subway, I guess, in hindsight.  This bar also happened to be showing the opening games of the Rugby World Cup in Japan, and it was Japan playing against Russia.  Japan had an excellent game and the locals in the bar were happy to celebrate with us, but sadly it was also time for goodbyes and bon voyages.  Ikebukuro wasn’t really the place for late partying though, so we ended our night shortly after midnight.

The next day were weren’t really in any rush to move on immediately, so we checked out, but asked if our bags could be kept in the lobby for us to collect later.  We saw a few of our new friends waiting for taxis, and Satomi was busy making arrangements for a couple of other people before she was due to depart herself back to Kyoto.  My mate and I accompanied her for lunch before she went to get the train.  We took a final look around Sunshine City for souvenirs, which included finding the famous Pokemon store, and had a closer look at the shops appealing to Otaku (fanboys and girls) culture.

We headed back to the hotel and had a coffee before getting a taxi to Shinjuku, and our next hotel.  We were a little bit exhausted from more walking and knew we’d have to find our bearings at the new place, but it was late afternoon by the time we arrived.  We checked in to now separate rooms, which were small but gave us some now much needed privacy.  We headed out to find the Godzilla store, as by now, I was getting desperate.  We found it, again, within a large department store, and right opposite there was a nice place to buy sweets for taking back home.

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Godzilla Store, Shinjuku, Tokyo

We continued back to Godzilla Road, and found a stage where some musicians were playing covers of folk and country songs, including a great rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s Desperado.  We went for dinner and then went back to Bar Psy again, and bumped into our Canadian friends again.  It started to get mad busy though, so we moved on.  The From Dusk til Dawn bar was good, but slightly empty, but we met someone from Birmingham at the bar, which was extremely surreal.  As much as I wanted to go back my mate encouraged me to try one more place and we met some more tourists in there who were friendly and good-natured.  We made it back to the hotel as the sun was coming up and stopped off at a Mr. Donut on recommendation of a friend, before we crashed out.

It was late when we ventured out again, but had a sturdy brunch at the burger restaurant just outside our hotel, before we jumped the metro over to the Imperial Palace.  The weather took a turn when we got there, and so we started heading back when the rain started.  We knew it was the day of the Scotland Ireland game, so ventured out to find a bar showing the game.  We found the aptly-named Prop Bar, not to far from the hotel, and it was a small place down some stairs but the locals enjoyed having us, even opting to share peanuts with us as we watching the game.  We went for food again before opting to get a very early night, to try and catch up the rest we lost the previous day.  I picked up a couple of beers and some ice from the vending machines in the basement, skyped back home and watched the women’s volleyball coverage before I went off to sleep.

Our last day of sightseeing took us to Odaiba, to take a look at the Gundam Statue outside of DiverCity Plaza.  We had a great view of the bay bridge from the train on our way there, and the weather was bright and sunny once more.  It wasn’t too hard to find the Statue and we managed to arrive just minutes before the scheduled transformation occurs, which is once every two hours on the hour.  They had some dancers outside the Gundam Cafe dancing to some very hardcore techno tunes while a man spoke in Japanese, giving a commentary.  We had a look around inside the mall, and picked up a few more souvenirs, before we made it back outside.  There was a mexican festival happening out near the bay, including a wrestling ring (though no-one was wrestling), and several street food stalls.  We got some great shots of the bay, and some of the miniature statue of liberty.  Then my mate suggested we take a boat ride across the bay, and so we took a trip on the Himiko teardrop-shaped boat from Odaiba pier to Asakusa.  The journey was a much more pleasant way of getting across the city and brought us out right by the Asahi Beer Headquarters Buildings, which are supposed to look like a pint of beer and a small bowl of savoury snacks – no, really!  We got the metro back to the hotel and went out for a last meal.  We opted to walk a more scenic route this time, and my mate wanted to try a ninja restaurant, but unfortunately we hadn’t made reservations and it was full.  They had a cool little robot that bowed to us and looking at the menu, it appeared it was quite pricey, but it was our last night.  Alas, it wasn’t to be, and we found a place close by that did Yakitori again, which wasn’t as nice as the place we went to in Ikebukuro.  We had a scenic walk back to the hotel and found ourselves heading in completely the wrong direction.  However we were only a couple of stops away from our Metro station, so we hoped on the Metro again.

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Himiko Boat Cruise, Tokyo Bay, Odaiba Pier

We have plenty of time to get to the airport, provided we met all of our changes.  There was an express train to the Airport from Toyko Station, but getting there during rush hour with big bags was problematic.  We were also trying to do this using up the last of our yen notes, so as not to have to take out any more.  The problem with cash in Japan is that you can only get out a minimum of 10,000 yen each time, and there’s a surcharge.

We arrived with plenty of time but still hadn’t weighed our cases.  We also had to drop off the wireless dongle that we had paid for, and though it wasn’t cheap, it had been very useful throughout our trip, especially when it came to navigating cities on the go.  The weight was well under so we checked in, opting for better leg-room, which was so much better, but I didn’t get very much sleep on the way home, until it came to the last plane journey over the channel, where I slept most of the way.

I will miss the weird idiosyncrasies of the Japanese.  From their amazingly technological toilets, to their general politeness, great food and cultural expression.  The bullet trains, and scenic lakes and mountains.

Berlin – A City of Culture and History

Before I go off into my narrative of my experiences in Berlin, I want to highlight a couple of differences to this post that have been absent in my other travel journals on this blog site.  Firstly, this is the first holiday post to include my girlfriend, and its the first time in ages where I’ve gone away with someone that wasn’t just a friend.  This means that a lot of the choices we made, we made together with the exception of one… the destination.  That is the second unique difference, I had no idea where I was going until I arrived at the airport.

As an early Birthday present, my lovely girlfriend surprised me at the airport with tickets to Berlin.  As regular readers will attest, I’m a stickler for organisation and order when going abroad on holiday, and as much as this was a grand gesture of love on her part, it was equally one of trust on mine.  However, as trust is the cornerstone of every relationship, it was only fair that I let her make the preparations and take me away on a mystery weekend break without any complaint.  The only clues I had was that I’d need Euros and I had to be at the airport at 2 pm on Friday afternoon, with a carry-on bag full of clothes for a similar climate to the UK, (she also gave me detailed instructions on size and weight of carry-on baggage, as she knew I’d be fussing over such minutiae), and so my mind began running wild trying to figure out the puzzle of where we would be going.

My first thought was Paris.  It’s a romantic place, after all.  No.  She’s never mentioned France at all, then came the suggestion of lots of walking and things to do, and then ‘Jagerbombs’…  So then, I thought we might be going to Dublin.  She knew my family on my Father’s side was from Ireland, and I thought she might be taking me there instead.  Other possibilities included, Barcelona, Reykjavik, Prague and Krakow, but I was totally blindsided by result of my girlfriend’s meticulous planning.  As I opened a gift she gave me at the airport, she said, “This might give you a clue to where we’re going?” It was a lonely planet guide book… to Berlin.

I’d been to Essen only last October, and that was my first taste of Germany, so I was happy it was somewhere new, and yet familiar in a way too.

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She looked at me and said, “I’ll trust you to have a look for some cool places for us to visit.”  Well, usually, I like a few weeks to plan ahead, especially as some attractions may require an advance booking during busy periods, but I rose to the challenge.  After nearly missing our flight we arrived in Berlin close to 7pm, and to my surprise, she’d also organised an airport transfer to our hotel in Potsdammer Platz, which I was shocked to find was a brand new executive class black Mercedes coupe, not some dusty old VW people carrier as I would have booked. 😛

After checking in to our hotel, a Scandinavian boutique-style hotel, we decided to venture out for dinner.  Scanning the guide, I found a quiet low-key fillipino restaurant just around the corner, alas when we got there it was just closing for the evening.  We found a close-by Italian though, which was nice enough.  This was not to be the only time the Lonely Planet guide would let us down for a decent restaurant, though.  We should have checked Trip Advisor as well, although sometimes winging-it can be fun too.  As we had both had a long day we had a quiet drink in the hotel bar and got an early night to prepare for our first day’s exploring in the morning.

The next day after a massive breakfast at the hotel, where we studied the map that came with the guidebook, we ventured out onto the streets of Berlin, where it became immediately apparent, that my jacket wasn’t warm enough for cold winds that swept through Germany’s capital city.  We saw tourists taking photos at pieces of the Berlin Wall near the centre of Potsdammer Platz, and thought we’d come back later to get a photo.  Onward we walked up past the Holocaust Memorial up to the Reichstag and the Brandenberg Gate.  We saw the three large buses that stand nose-down outside the gate and negotiated our way across and through the gate to the other side.  After taking a few photos we continued eastward until we got to the German Historical Museum.

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We spent a good couple of hours making our way around the exhibits, which were nicely displayed and signage was in both German and English which was helpful.  Each period of history, handily separated with a brief description of the events of the time, with a range of art and antiquities from the period on display.  The Cold War era was of particular interest, given Berlin’s history there especially and I was not disappointed by the range of exhibits.  Given that the rooms were quite dry, my other half and I decided to get a coffee somewhere and continue southbound towards Checkpoint Charlie.

Along the way we saw the Concert Hall and a few other municipal buildings, until we came to Checkpoint Charlie and part of the Berlin Wall.  Checkpoint Charlie was the border crossing point between East and West Berlin that was manned by U.S. soldiers during the Cold War, and the crossing booth still exists for tourists to take photos.  There are also some remnants of the Berlin Wall here and a small museum.  The museum is a lot more focused on the Cold War and the part the Iron Curtain and partition of Berlin played in it all.  We had a quick bite to eat and headed back to the hotel for some rest.

American Quarter

In the evening, we decided to venture in a south-westerly way to what we thought was an interesting Jewish restaurant, but it turned out to be our second black mark against the Lonely Planet Guide, because it was closed (at 7:30pm on a Saturday as well).  After a lot of walking we settled on another place that wasn’t very inspiring, but we succumbed to our hunger more than anything.  The mixed grill I ordered was very tasty at least, and I was happier on a full stomach.  We decided to walk back and find the other place we’d highlighted in the guide, listed as a ‘former brothel’ and ‘famous for its wild and debauched all-nighters’, but we couldn’t find it.  Instead we headed back into Potsdammer Platz and found a nice cocktail lounge called Jamboree, on the ground floor of the Grand Hyatt complex, and it served some great cocktails.  After much deliberation we settled on giving their Dark and Stormy a try, although the chilli popcorn that came with them was a little bit strong.

Dark and Stormys with Chilli Popcorn

We moved onto Que Pasa, a Mexican restaurant where I introduced my other half to Jagerbombs, (she was curious to try one), and here we noticed the smell of the food and decided that’s where we would end up dining the following night.  We finished up at a bar called Eleven and spotted the Spy Museum, marking that also for a visit the next day.

Sunday was a gloomy and cold day, and we started it off by visiting the Topography of Terror, the museum of the Reich Security Office, Einsatzgruppen and Gestapo.  The museum, set in a gloomly cold-looking glass building, was compromised of exhibits consisting of mainly photos and official documents with brief descriptions of the horrific policies the offices carried out in the name of nationalism.  The public shaming leading onto imprisionment or exile and then finally internment in concentration camps.  Truly awful, but it also documented some of the war crime trails at Nuremberg and beyond.  We didn’t explore the grounds either, due to the rain, but to be honest we needed coffee and something sweet after what we’d read through.

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Next we had a more uplifting afternoon at the Spy Museum.  This was a much more ‘hands on’ experience with exhibits designed to show everything from encryption to espionage.  Mentions of spying throughout the ages were displayed on touchscreens after the initial walk through an x ray scanner, which lead up to exhibits of spies in World War 1 like Mata Hari and Lawrence of Arabia.  The museum lead on through World War 2 and onto the Cold War.  The information age now with inherent espionage dominates our world, and is ever popular in TV and Movies.  There was a special nod to the James Bond franchise, and a mission impossible style laser light room for children of all ages to try out.  It didn’t take us too long to get through it all, but we decided to go back to the hotel and rest before we went back out on the town for our final night.

We returned to both Que Pasa and Jamboree for our last night out as we had a very early start in the morning we also cancelled our breakfast in the morning, however we were left waiting around for an hour as the airport transfer car forgot to pick us up, and when they finally did, they dropped us off the opposite side of the departures terminal.  Reflecting on the holiday as a whole, that was the only bit of bad service we experienced.  Most of the people we spoke to spoke English very well, there was only one place where we had a bit of difficulty, as there was a little old German man on his own at one art gallery we went to visit who couldn’t understand us.  The only disappointment we had was in not being able to find a place where we could dance on a Saturday night.  I think if I was to go again, there are number of other places I’d like to visit, but all in all, a great city for history and culture, but wrap up a bit of you plan to go in November!

Prep and Packing: Wrangling Your Holiday

No matter where you’re going on holiday, you’ll have a lot of prep to do before you jet off. So whenever I’m going somewhere, I always approach this task with a certain methodology, and that helps me balance what I have to do and how long I have to fill out the paperwork, make the bookings, acquire the kit and prepare my itinerary. I’ve found it really helps to project plan this so that you don’t miss anything out.

1. Decide Where You’re Going.

This is very important, as this sets the scope of where you’re going, as well as why you’re going. You need to research the destination for travel information such as, is a VISA required? Vaccinations? Will there be a language barrier? If you plan to cross borders, this can get quite complicated, as they all have different rules for tourists, and it’s your duty to know the local customs of each place you visit so as not to make a faux pas. You’ll need to know seasonal information too, climate, local holidays, how liberal their alcohol consumption rules are, and if things like kissing is allowed in public. You’ll need to work out your accommodation as well. Your choice should depend on budget and where you need to be close to. If you’re not bothered about the exact hotel, you should consider booking a blind hotel. This is done via a website and you get a random hotel in the area you specify. Don’t worry, its limited to at least a 3 star place, but you’ll save a lot on the room.

Preparation is key, and knowing where you are going will go a long way to helping you organise the other stuff. Once you know where you are going, you’ll know what currency you’ll need, and if you’re buying in bulk, buying it online is cheaper than a bureau de change, especially one at an airport. Also, don’t forget to check your passport is in date, and that it won’t expire half-way into your trip. In some cases, you may need upto 6 months left on your passport, so check that as well. I know, there’s a lot to check, isn’t there?

2. How long are you going for?

This will impact on how much you’re going to be taking with you. I once went on a three-week trip to China that had the potential to be cold in the north and really warm in the south. This meant I had to be very careful with my choices. You’re going to have a maximum luggage allowance, so you need to be creative if you’re planning on taking a lot. I’d think about the things you can pick up for cheap when you get there.  You should also read a guide on packing tips if space is the issue, not weight.  Aside from your luggage, you have housekeeping tasks to organise.  You’ll need to have a plan for who looks after your pets, cancel deliveries, the cleaner, and informing a relative or a good neighbour to watch your home while you’re away, and you might want to tell your boss that you’re not coming in to work for the period you’re away…

3. How are you getting there?

Are you flying? How are you getting to the airport, and what time do you have to be there for? Renting a car: What’s included in the rental agreement? Do you need specific insurance, for example? Do you know the rules of the road? Catching public transport: Do you have the city metro app? Is it worth getting a 3-day pass? I digress… it can be worth doing some research if you plan to be around for a few days.

4. Do you need any specific clothing or equipment?

We’re talking swimming gear, walking gear, climbing gear, as well as evening wear/formal attire. Do you have to take it all with you? Can it be rented cheaply enough? How often can you get your clothes laundered?

5. Those things that could make it more complex.

Do you have specific dietary requirements? Disabled? Things like this can make all of the above much more complex. Finding the right places to visit and where to eat will be something you need to research thoroughly, fortunately, there the internet can help you with this. If you’re taking your kids, you need to find family friendly places as well. Yup, this task just got significantly more complex.

6. Technology can assist you.

There are numerous apps and websites that will make some of this stuff much easier. Firstly you should have a calendar with all of your tasks and dates put in, this will help you get prepared for your holiday. TripAdvisor can show you the best value restaurants in the area and are user rated, so you know you can trust people to give their honest opinion. You should also get an app that updates live flight information as well, as this will warn you of any delays. I also use an app called Trip Case, which puts a lot of your lists and itinerary into one place, along with your flights. If you have to learn some phrases in a new language, technology can also help you there too.

As I’ve said above, you should always try and get as much of this preparation done as possible before your holiday starts, leaving you to enjoy your holiday when the time comes. Always expect the unexpected though too, and have a plan for if your flights are delayed or you lose your luggage, or indeed your passport, like I may have done in the past…

So, how does that differ form your prep? I’m always interested in hearing about how other people plan their holidays and what they do to keep it all together, so feel free to comment with your suggestions.

A Traveler’s Playlist

Now we’re in the modern world of the twenty-teens, we are never far the devices that connect us to our digital universe.  For me, I have to take my mp3 player with me wherever I go; whether it’s in the docking cradle of my car, or in my pocket, I love listening to music on journeys.  People listen to their audio devices for different reasons.  For some, its about learning about the places they are going, or learning a language.  Perhaps its an audio book or podcast, and losing yourself to pass the time.

Then there are those like me.  For us it’s because our flights are long or we have a few layovers between our intended destinations, and sometimes we just need to hear a little piece of home.  This is holiday playlist.

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There are three things that make up my holiday playlist: The Anticipation, The Party, and The Nostalgia.

I know I’ve made it sound like three bosses from a Metal Gear Solid game, but these are very important aspects of what makes up my playlist, and I’m going to illustrate how and why.

Firstly, there’s the section I call ‘The Anticipation’.  This section is made up of songs that invoke my expectations of the holiday as a whole.  For example, when I was going to Vietnam and Cambodia, I included songs and artists that reminded me of Vietnam and Cambodia I had read about, or seen on TV.  Therefore ‘Paint it Black’ by The Rolling Stones and ‘Holiday in Cambodia’ by the Dead Kennedys we perfect inclusions to the playlist, capturing the atmosphere of the places as they had been perceived from afar.  Following on from places I was planning on visiting were the activities I was planning to do when I got there, and the journey itself.  One of the activities I planned to do on that trip was hire a moped and take to the open road, so I put Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to be Wild’ on the list, others included; ‘Run Through the Jungle’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival, as I knew we’d be spending some time in the Jungle.  Lastly, I included ‘The End’ by the Doors from the movie ‘Apocalypse Now’.

Vietnam Countryside

The next set of songs make up the section called ‘The Party’.  For this I usually have an upbeat mix of songs that flow well together that make give me an excited energy.  This is usually pop and alternative, but of course, includes an element of dance too.  This is especially true if they have a holiday feel, so ‘Cake by the Ocean’ by DNCE and ‘Lemonade’ by Alexandra Stan (the Cahill radio edit) are a good start.  Flo ‘Rida’s ‘Right Round reminds me of ‘The Hangover’, which in turn reminds me of the great time I had in Las Vegas, so this also falls into the Nostalgia section as well.  A few pop classics like U2’s ‘Discotheque’, ‘All Fired Up’ by the Saturdays and even a couple of modern floor fillers like Daft Punk and Pharrell William’s ‘Get Lucky’ will get the party started.  I may then creep in a few alternatives like Belle & Sebastian’s ‘The Party Line’, ‘Trainwreck 1979’ by Death from Above 1979, and ‘Fire’ by Kasabian.  I finish off with some bridging tracks like ‘What Kind of Man’ by Florence + The Machine, ‘Happy Idiot’ by TV on the Radio, and ‘Magic’ by Ladyhawke to make the transitions between tracks much slicker and I’m set.

So lastly comes ‘The Nostalgia’, and this falls into two categories; songs to make you homesick, and songs that hark back to other holidays or good times.  Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Sunspots’, ZZ Top’s ‘Doubleback’, Coldplay’s ‘Paradise’, and ‘Sand In My Shoes’ by Dido all make this list for various reasons, but they make a flight home especially nice. ‘I Love L.A.’ by Randy Newman also holds a dear place in my heart from my first adventure holiday, and ‘We Built This City’ by Starship for similar reasons.  ‘Santeria’ by Sublime reminds me of my Central American holiday, and I think of two friends I made on that trip whenever I hear it.  The rest of the playlist is just full of good songs I love at the moment.  I try to keep it eclectic but try to keep a familial feel to the playlist as a whole.

Though a lot of thought goes into a playlist, I rarely think about it for long when I’m on holiday. I just know its there if I need it.  There may be times we are stuck on public transport to get between locations, or the noise in the city we’re staying in may require me to put my ear buds in and drift off to sleep in lieu of ear plugs.  Even the flight itself can seem like forever with the droning of the engines in the background, and so having an aural reprieve from this can make all the difference.  Music preference can be a personal thing, but I love hearing what other people are listening to in case I find something I like to listen to.  This was very much the case when I rediscovered Daft Punk’s ‘Instant Crush’ on my holiday in Turkey, which now has made it into ‘The Nostalgia’.

What makes up your holiday playlist?  Feel free to drop me a comment below.

When Hotels Go Bad…

Hello, I’m sorry its been such a long time since I last ran this blog. A lot has happened. So before I start, I’d like to give you a brief rundown on what’s been going on over the last year.

Last year, it was announced that the department I was working in was going to go through a heavy restructure, the implications of which meant I had to reapply for a job similar to my previous role. However, as fortunes played out, I didn’t get offered the job, and had the option for voluntary redundancy. There were quite a few of my colleagues that went through a similar outcome, and many, I’m happy to say, have moved on to other organisations, and indeed, other sectors. Myself included, but only recently.

I’m now a co-founder in a business that designs and makes tabletop games, and this week I’ve traveled with my business partner to the annual Spieltage convention in Essen, Germany. We are staying in a hotel that I booked on “Booking.com”, and as I begin to write this, I’m still staying in the very hotel room that I am about to wax lyrical about.

I wouldn’t normally do this, but I want to help others in avoiding this ridiculous mistake, which I found both ridiculous and totally preventable.

When I first looked into booking a hotel, I wanted to get somewhere that was easy to get to from the airport, and close to the convention centre, so that travelling there each day would be both cheap and easy.  However, the convention itself is so popular that to find a reasonably priced hotel close by, you’d have to book really early or be very lucky.  I had to book a room for myself and my co-director, and to save us money, we decided to book what we thought was a twin room through booking.com.  However, upon arrival we discovered that we hadn’t booked a twin room, we had booked a twin room or double room, and it seems the hotel is under no obligation to honor your preference in either case.

Of course, you don’t know this until your arrival, at which point, if they can only offer you a double, and this is unsatisfactory, as was in our case, it was too late to book a hotel somewhere else, as all the other hotels nearby were fully booked.  So therein lies the problem.  There was little we could do about it.  The man on the front desk said he could move us to a twin room on Saturday, meaning for three days, my business partner and I had to compromise and share a double room.

“Double room” was pushing it to be honest.  Yes the bed fit two people, but only two thin pillows and no spare.  A bath towel each, but no hand towel, flannel or toiletries, other than liquid soap for the sink (not the shower).  There was a sanitary bin in the toilet but no bin in the rest of the room.

No tea or coffee making facilities either.  There was a tray of water and glasses, but they wanted 3.50 in euros for it.  We grabbed two coffees from the bar and the next day after the maids had been, the dirty coffee cups were both still there.

As well as this the bed was rock hard solid and the room was so hot, I could not get comfortable on the first night, and I had the bed.  My colleague had the floor with a spare duvet and the bench padding as a mattress.

I don’t expect much in places where you’re paying little, but the room was not that cheap, and virtually no effort had been made to make our stay any more comfortable.  For that, they are not going to get a favourable Tripadvisor review, I’m afraid.  I’m only glad I didn’t pay extra for breakfast, and to be fair there were quite a few bakeries nearby.   However, nightlife left much to be desired, and aside from a high street that became deathly quiet after 8pm, there was only a handful of restaurants to choose from.

I think for next year, we’ll have to book much earlier or perhaps choose Cologne over Gelsenkirchen, for a bit of something to do after the convention of an evening.

I guess I’m not that upset about the room not having certain amenities more than I am about there being nothing that could be done once the mistake was realized.  I think that Booking.com should have done more to highlight that room choice was not a confirmation, just a preference, because at the end of the day, we would have just booked two singles, and would have only been mildly disappointed by the hotel, instead of severely disappointed.  Oh well… The moral of the story, always check the small print.

 

Inspiration for Your Bucket List

Everyone is different, but most of us at some point in our lives will have a ‘bucket list’ of things we want to achieve before we die.  As morbid as that sounds in itself, it is actually a nice little checklist of inspiration if you’re ever feeling that your life is lacking something. Also at the end of the day, its something you can look back on and be grateful for: ‘Achievement Unlocked!’ or ‘YOLO’ as they say.

After Editing Umbrella Street Antayla

I’ve compiled a primer for your bucket list if you’re unsure where to start.  We don’t all have to have become leaders in our chosen profession in life, or have had our two point four children by the time we’re forty years old.  If you’re a late bloomer like me, your list will be modest in itself, but there will be aspirational goals as well as goals we may have already achieved and taken for granted.

Here are some ideas for your list, should you need them, but feel free to comment with ideas of your own, as I’m always interested to hear what you think makes a good life goal.  I’ve gone for leisure activities here for bucket list inspiration.

Climb a Mountain, Any Mountain

I’ve said it before, one of the best feelings you can get on holiday is that feeling of accomplishment that comes with finding an epic view under your own steam.  It really makes you feel like you’ve earned it, and it’s something always better in the flesh than in a photo.  You don’t have to climb Everest or Kilimanjaro, but set yourself an achievable target, and you won’t regret it.

Swim, Snorkel or Scuba in a Warm Sea or Ocean

There is something about the waves and the taste of the salt in the air, but actually the feel of the water once you’re in it is an unforgettable experience.  I’m quite lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to swim at some amazing places.  The Belizean Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the Pacific Ocean and Ha Long Bay, Vietnam to name a few.  Sometimes you see colourful fish, and sometimes the water is so clear you can see clearly the bottom of the sea bed.  Not just that, but you feel at one with the primordial earth in some way, and it leaves a mark on you.

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Visit at Least Three Wonders of the World

As a common goal for many is to see the wonders of the world, but with many different lists for the wonders of the world, you’re spoilt for choice.  That’s the good news, and some of closer than you’d think.  You could start off by visiting your nation’s capital city and view it as a tourist would.

Here is the Lonely Planet’s Top Twenty:

  • Temples of Angkor, Cambodia
  • Great Barrier Reef, Australia
  • Machu Picchu, Peru
  • Great Wall of China, China
  • Taj Mahal, India
  • Grand Canyon National Park, USA
  • Colosseum, Italy
  • Iguazu Falls, Brazil/Argentina
  • Alhambra, Spain
  • Aya Sofya, Turkey
  • Fez Medina, Morocco
  • Twelve Apostles, Australia
  • Petra, Jordan
  • Tikal, Guatemala
  • British Museum, England
  • Sagrada Familia, Spain
  • Fiordland National Park, New Zealand
  • Santorini, Greece
  • Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
  • Museum of Old & New Art, Australia

 

Take a Road Trip, by Car, Motorbike or Bus

The road trip is the ultimate expression of freedom in the world of travel.  A set of wheels, an open road and a map, (or at the very least, a direction), and you’re set for a good time.  You must have heard once or twice; it’s not the destination, it’s the journey, and to a large extent, that is true.  The magic of the road trip lies in ensuring the pit stops are full of character, and the scenery, diverse.

One of the best road trips I’ve undertaken was a week-long tour of the western states of the USA, during which the backdrops ranged from coasts to forests to desert and canyon, and the weather was temperate, but warm throughout.  I also really enjoyed a five moped convoy from Hoi An to the My Son ruins in Vietnam.  However, I can honestly say, I’ve also had some great road trips in the UK, down to Glastonbury Tor and Cheddar Gorge, and the frequent trips I’ve taken down to Weston-Super-Mare.

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Take a ride on an overnight train

I know it doesn’t sound like an epic experience, but trust me when I say, it is an experience.  If you’re with a group of people it can be a fun way to bond with your group, and it’s a nice way to get to different places, if you don’t want to spend a lot of your day time in transit.

I’ve done this in both Vietnam and China, and it’s been an experience, but the ultimate is the Trans-Siberian Express that runs from Moscow to Vladivostok, although most travelers opt for the route that terminates in Beijing.  This is the extreme in terms of overnight train travel and it isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly an option for you if you’re feeling adventurous.

Camp out under the stars

Camping outdoors is a great way to feel one with nature.   If possible, try and do this without a tent.  An insulated sleeping bag or bedroll will be fine if it’s a clear, warm and dry night.  It’s usually too cold to do this in the UK, but I have done this on a boat in the Mediterranean, and many have done this on some overland tour of USA or Australia.

It’s wonderful to catch the stars on a clear night sky, especially if you’re miles away from a heavy population centre, because the light pollution from street lighting will be less, giving you a clearer view.  Staring at the infinite starts and constellations is quite humbling, and it puts into perspective quite how extraordinarily improbable your existence is.  Mind blown!

Walk in the Footsteps of Your Ancestors

This can be anything from visiting an ancient preserved site, a museum or it could be simply studying your genealogy.  If you can visit the actual places, you can really get a feeling for what it must have been like, and further study will give you a greater understanding for the period, the people and their culture.  The sites where war and genocide have occurred are important lessons that we heed well or we are doomed to repeat them, such was the case with Gallipoli and the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge at Choeung Ek.

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Eat Like a Native

If you’re a foodie or not, I would always recommend you at least try to eat like a local.  What does that mean?  Not only does it mean try the local dishes and delicacies, but also eat at the kind of places locals eat.  I tried my first bowl of Vietnamese Pho, a noodle soup, on the streets of Hanoi, seated on a miniature plastic patio stool, while mopeds sped by on the street.  By all means be safe though, so if somewhere looks like hygiene isn’t high on their list of priorities, for example if there are flies buzzing around the meat, then perhaps give it a wide berth.

In the USA there is there is the urge to ‘go big or go home’ in a ‘Man versus Food’ style.  Well do it, if you can handle it.  Just remember to earn it.  After a day of hiking Yosemite, I treated myself to a veritable banquet at the diner I went to for dinner, and I have no regrets whatsoever!

Exercise Outdoors or Take Part in an Outdoor Sport

As many people will tell you, the natural endorphins that come with exercise are nature’s anti-depressant, and fresh air is good for your body, mind and soul.  Add in a social element, by including a group activity, whether that’s a team sport or an exercise class.  Exercise doesn’t always have to involve lots of fancy equipment either.  A brisk hike or a run can be as good as anything else, but the key is to make it fun, set yourself a goal and get out there and do it.

There are apps out there if you want to log your progress as well, and people are surprisingly encouraging if you’re seeking to better yourself.  I’m currently using an app called Strava to log my cycling progress.

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Enjoy a Live Performance in the Open Air

Festivals are a great example of a place you can enjoy a performance in the open air.  Indoor gigs can be stuffy and claustrophobic, especially if they’re sell out performances with very little room to move.  Festivals and other outdoor performances do leave a mark on you though.  I remember seeing Metallica headline the ‘Big Day Out’ festival in Milton Keynes in 2001, and as the sun was setting they opened their set and it was incredible to watch.

It doesn’t have to be a music festival.  It can be an open air play, or stand-up comedy, or a dog display team.  If it’s enjoyed outdoors, with other people then it’s worth noting you’ve done it.

Defy Gravity: Jump or Fall From a Great (or not so Great) Height

Your inner adrenaline junkie might want to suggest a skydive or a bungee jump over a canyon or a bridge as a thing to do before you die.  There’s a lot to be said about your appreciation of life once you’ve taken the plunge, so to speak, and even if you’re afraid of doing it, it’s nice to have an aim that you can work yourself up to.

I’m not afraid of heights per se, but I am not a fan of falling at terminal velocity either.  There is an inherent fear in falling that I’m unashamed to say I want no part of.  That being said, there is a little bit of fun in the rush you get diving off a pier or boat into the sea or a clear pool.  That will do for me, at least for now.  Just be sure you’ve done a risk assessment before you do anything rash.  At the very least you should look before you leap. 😛

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Speak to Others About Their Beliefs and Their Culture

The ability to converse with others on matters important to them is a gift that we sometimes take for granted.  It improves our understanding of their points of view and helps us to see things from new perspectives.  There is only so much you can glean from a book, and you can’t ask the book to explain things you don’t fully understand.

When you speak to an individual about their beliefs and their culture, you accept their perspective on the subject and they can debate with you your viewpoint.  I once had the opportunity to speak to an Imam in a Mosque in Turkey, about religious beliefs and I found that there were more similarities than differences in our perceptions of spirituality.

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Do Something Tacky, Despite Yourself

There’s something pure in the expression, dance like no one’s watching.  What I take from that is don’t apologize for being yourself if your motives for enjoying yourself are benign.  I like to encourage others to be the same, but I appreciate that some require a bit of encouragement to get there.  If you can step out of your comfort zone and enjoy yourself, then the world is your oyster.  Confidence is a trick, and you are a con artist whose mark is yourself.

So try something daring and tacky, you might like it.  That might be Karaoke on a Chinese river cruise, entering a talent competition, or going to a place or event you’ve never been to before that might be a little different to your usual kind of thing.  You might even make new friends or inspire old ones.

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Aim to Read at Least 10 of the Top 100 Novels of All Time (according to Time Magazine)

This is a specific item on the bucket list.  One aimed at myself for sure, but I figure that others may appreciate this as a choice they may want to add.  Reading is something we often do when we have the time, but after I’ve finished a novel, there’s usually another one I’ve got to read that my peers are reading or have read.  I need to brush up on my classics, and I can be doing that while I’m travelling.

Start Writing About Something You Love

Finally, if you find yourself with time and inspiration to share something you love, then write about it.  You’ve just read what I like to write about.  If I can do it, so can you. 😛

A ‘Bucket List’ is certainly something that isn’t set in stone, and I’m sure you’ll keep finding things to add to your list.  Some other things I’m considering adding include; Volunteer for a Conservation Initiative, Learn a Foreign Language to a Conversational Standard and Visit All The Continents.

Photograph Your Journey, then Bring it to Life!

You’ve been on holiday, and you’ve seen some amazing places and taken a thousand photos on your various devices.  When you get them back home and look through them, sometimes, you feel the photos just don’t do justice to the places you remember.  That is partially due to the fact that your eyes are the best lens you’ll ever see through, and you pick up a range of colours and constantly adjust to the levels of light when you focus.  Even the best SLR cameras can’t yet pick up this much detail and reproduce this in a single image.  However we can still enjoy impressive digital photos, with the use of editing software.

After Editing Cmabodian Sunset

I’ve recently begun to teach myself how to use photo-editing after effects in order to get a little more from my photos, and as it turns out, you can get quite a lot out of them if you’re prepared to give it a try.  I am a novice at this, and although I am an IT professional by trade, I still found the process quite daunting to start with.

There are quite a few options, but I went for Adobe Lightroom on a trial basis, as there seems to quite a number of free tutorials on how to use it, both on their site and other video websites.

After Editing The Bridge at Hoi An

So, the main advantage of post-processing is that you can alter the exposure on certain parts of the photograph, making darker areas lighter, allowing you to get the details out of the clouds if you make the top level exposure slightly darker while making the contrast sharper.

You can also change the warmth and the tint on photos, allowing water to look bluer  than it should, or making dry hills look golden, as opposed to beige.  Sunsets get that fiery glow, and whites take on an effervescence like no other.

You can enhance the highlights and the shadows, soften or sharpen the image or add vignettes to apply different effects to parts of the image.  The versatility is overwhelming to start with, but the tutorials definitely help.

After Editing Sultan Ahmed Blue Mosque Istanbul

For illustrative purposes though, its perfect to give your pictures extra oompf, if you’re trying to capture the spirit of the aesthetic.  It may mean that the images take on an out-of-this-world dimension that evoke a reaction, even if its not quite as it appeared, but the truth is that no matter how good your pictures are taken on camera, they can be improved with a little tweaking here and there.

So all of the images on this post have been enhanced in some way using Lightroom, and I’m really happy with the results.  The only thing I’ve not done is use .raw image files, and I’m sure that if I did, the results would be even better.

After Editing Ayvalik Harbour

My only problem now is that I want to be able to go to other places and take more photos, expanding my portfolio.  Its become addictive.

Lightroom allows you to apply the same filters to a group of pictures at once, using the user-defined presets, and it has an edit history so you can undo a change, or go back to the image at any point you manipulated it if you start to lose what you were trying to create.

I am a long way from being an expert, but I’m already happy with the results I’ve seen so far.  I’ll continue to practice with it and no doubt, you’ll see the results in my future posts.

 

After Editing Usumacinta River

If you have any tips for me, I’ll welcome them in the comments.