Japan Vacation Retrospective Part 2: Kyoto

A second collection of words and pictures that sum up my 2017 visit to Japan. In this part, I get to ride the bullet train.

Yesterday, as part of my #sols project, the sermon was the first part of my personal Japan holiday retrospective which covered my initial week in Tokyo.

If going to Japan had been a goal of mine for many years; riding the bullet train was a second aim and was a real highlight of the trip (even though you are really quite oblivious to the fact that the train is travelling at 162mph). That train, or Shinkansen as they are known, is part of a high-speed network that covers the country and runs – almost exclusively – on dedicated high-speed track. As a consequence trains are not delayed by other kinds of rail traffic and, generally, run to time. The phrase ‘to time’ Japanese-style seems to mean to the exact minute rather than the rather looser British version meaning ‘within five minutes’.

The Saturday lunchtime train took us to Kyoto for the second part of the Japan experience. We returned to Tokyo to spend the last day at Tokyo DisneySea; which really is a very different world.

Japan Vacation Retrospective Part 2: Kyoto

Photo of Day 7: Hikari Shinkansen: Bullet Train

Hikari Shinkansen: Bullet Train

I love travelling by train. There’s something inherently fascinating about locomotives, carriages, tracks and the networks that are formed from these things. So, I’ve always wanted to ride on the world’s original high-speed network: Japan’s Shinkansen. It’s amazing to think that trains that could reach speeds of 130 mph were introduced back in 1964 for the first Tokyo Olympics. I measured 162 mph today on the Shinkansen to Kyoto. Who knows what speeds they’ll reach for the next Tokyo Olympics in 2020; a line using maglev technology is already under construction and maglev trains have set the world record at 375 mph.

We rode the Hikari service on the Tōkaidō Shinkansen which runs through to Shin-Ōsaka & Okayama and is, apparently, the most heavily-used high-speed train line in the world. Hikari is the fastest service that accepts the Japan Rail Pass (which makes using Shinkansen much more affordable) so we lingered at some stations while faster Nozomi services passed on the dedicated high-speed lines. Amazing to think that the only thing that could delay our train was an even faster train. No delays on Chessington South stopping services or leaves on the line here.

But the running speed isn’t the only fast things about the trains. The turnaround time for our train today was less than 15 minutes after the set had arrived into the platform at Tokyo central station. Waiting patiently at a space for each door was somebody to clean, turn all seats 180 degrees to face the direction of travel and place new headrest covers on each seat. The efficiency of the teamwork is a sight to behold. The bow to the boarding passengers a pleasing part of the culture.

Apparently, Shinkansen changed the way business was done between major Japanese cities by making day trips possible where they hadn’t been practical before. I wonder if we’ll ever see similar between London & Scotland?

Photo of Day 8: Fushimi Inari Taisha

Photo of Day 8: Fushimi Inari Taisha

A Shinto shrine houses the spirits that are worshiped in the religion. As well as the dead, the spirits could be forces of nature or elements of the landscape. There are many sub-words for Shinto shrines in Japanese but the English language only has the one.

At the base of the Inari mountain is the Inari shrine; Inari being the spirit of commerce and industry (and also of rice). There’s a 2 hour hiking trail up the mountain, from the base at the main shrine, where you climb up through thousands of orange Tori that have been donated by Japanese businesses. On the accent the gates posts appear bare orange but on the decent you see the names of the companies that donated the Tori. It’s quite simple but also remarkably clever. I don’t know if it works as advertising or not.

Conveniently located near a railway station, this temple gets busy. But as you climb the crowd thins out. There are hundreds – maybe thousands – of small shrines on the way up. And a few shops and resting places. We made it about an hour up before deciding that we should head down to see some more of Kyoto.

In a city of temples this one really stands out.

Photo of Day 9: The Way of Tea

The Way of Tea

If my memory serves me well, you should brew a Yorkshire Tea teabag for between 4 and 5 minutes. You can leave it in the mug infusing until it’s a good strong ‘proper brew’. At work, I use the timer on my watch to make sure I brew for enough time otherwise it’s too weak and somewhat pointless.

Not so with the Japanese Way of Tea which takes a good ten minutes of ceremony to get to the first cup, and is served without milk or sugar but, generally, with some kind of sweet food immediately before the drink.

Using the Matcha green tea we’ve been enjoying throughout our trip, The Way of Tea is a quiet, thoughtful process of precisely using the tea-making implements (linen cloth, tea bowl, ladle, caddy and the whisk) to prepare the perfect cup (70 centilitres of water at 80 degrees Celsius). Apart from memorising the correct sequence and placement of the utensils, whisking the Matcha powder with the water correctly to prevent bitterness is a real skill.

Hanging scrolls and flowers decorate the room and the host, perfectly attired in traditional kimono, pays respect to both the tea and the invited guests who, in turn, reciprocate with appropriate bowing. Apparently, following the preparation of the tea there’s polite conversation where controversial topics are avoided and the chatter is more about the heritage of the tea-making equipment.

Mastery of The Way of Tea, learnt in special schools, can take ten to fifteen years but, in the end, what you get is a beautiful art form and the perfect cuppa.

Photo of Day 10: Ryokan

Ryokan

I was expecting Japan to feel stranger, more alien to me, than it turned out to be. I assume this is because Tokyo is a major world city that exhibits the characteristics of such a sprawling urban mass: and that turns out to be quite familiar. Plus, many of the signs are in recognisable (and, therefore, easily readable) Roman characters and there’s a Starbucks wherever you turn.

Kyoto was a little different; a smaller city with narrower streets, what seemed like a temple on every street and, it seemed, more people in traditional dress. It was also the place we stayed in a more traditional Japanese Inn, a ryokan. Although I think the one we stayed in was straight out of the 1950s rather than 1650, it was simple with a tatami-matted room, public bath and basic facilities (if you count air conditioning and wifi as basic). Sitting on a cushion on the floor, sleeping on a mattress rolled onto the mats & drinking green tea is probably a tourist stereotype but it made for a different way of doing things and was unlike any hotel I’ve ever stayed in. I’d recommend it: even for a few days, if your knees can cope.

Photo of Day 11: Disney Resort, Tokyo

Disney Resort, Tokyo

When planning the Japan trip, there was a full day in Tokyo following the return train journey from Kyoto and before the flight home. Somehow, and I am not sure I recall how we came to this decision, we decided to visit the Disney parks in Tokyo.

In many ways this was an odd thing to do. Disney is the undisputed global king of the theme park but, surely, the experience is identikit and it would be a waste of a day that could otherwise have been used for more authentic local experience.

In the end I am glad we did. Aside from being quintessential Disney there are some subtle differences that we would have missed if we’d done something else. Plus, of course, it’s a theme park with enough rides and queues to fill several days.

There are two parks, Tokyo Disneyland, which I imagine is from the ‘how to build a Disneyland’ manual. And the nautical-themed Tokyo DisneySea which, according to its Wikipedia entry, was the fastest theme park in the world to reach the milestone of 10 million guests.

Apart from the fact that Disney doesn’t have another park like this one (although many of the major attractions do appear in other places), the most subtle difference can be seen the enthusiasm of the guests for all the Disney characters; for some reason I noted a lot of Donald Duck fans. And this is from visitors of all ages. It would be natural to expect the kids to jump with joy with an unexpected Chip & Dale encounter but not so much their fathers. Almost everybody was wearing a Disney character about their person; there’s a factory somewhere churning out thousands of pairs of Mikey ears for each day. And what makes it most interesting is that the enthusiasm is infectious. It really is a happy place.

A fun ending to an amazing trip.

More Japan

The first pictures from my trip were posted yesterday. I think there’s another couple of Japanese posts: a summary and my Instagram pictures. All to come.

A Visit to Japan

Bringing together my impressions of Japan in words and pictures: the first week was spent in Tokyo.

Looking at the calendar I see we are already at the last Sunday in February which means it’s time to fill your timeline with the hashtag #sols once more: Sermon Of the Last Sunday. It’s my attempt to write something new each month on my site (although, a few days ago, I felt the need to write Will The Internet Kills Television?).

Apart from fulfilling my #sols need for February, today I am also keeping my personal site commitment of maintaining a copy of things I post elsewhere.  Two #sols birds with one #sols entry.

At the end of January I took a holiday in Japan.  Japan, and particularly Tokyo, was a destination that I have always wanted to visit but it’s taken until this year to get there. I was not sure what to expect: would everything seem radically different from life in London or would it maintain the familiarity of a big city?

As always when on holiday, I took a lot of photographs. Increasingly, these are taken on a phone which is both portable and has many other uses aside from pictures (in Tokyo, having constant access to Google Maps was enormously helpful when trying to navigate a big city). Having all the photographs accurately time and geo-stamped on a device which makes uploading easy is another significant advantage.

I decided that each evening I would review all the pictures I’d taken and post a single image that summed-up the day to an album on Flickr. It’s a little Japan vacation retrospective.  I also decided to post a different kind of picture each day to Instagram. Combined they might make a small, but hopefully interesting, summary of the visit for me to remember and for others when researching Japanese holidays.

I’ll post the Instagram pictures later in the week but this is my Japan collection. However, I am dividing the pictures into 2 parts. Week one was primarily Tokyo and the second week was Kyoto.

Japan Vacation Retrospective 2017: Tokyo

Photo of Day 1: Godzilla through the years.

Godzilla through the years.Movie posters in the lobby of the Hotel Gracery, Tokyo. There’s a large Godzilla climbing the outside of the hotel.

Photo of Day 2: Meiji Shrine in Shibuya, Tokyo.

Meiji Shrine in Shibuya, Tokyo.A torii, or traditional Japanese gate, at the entrance to the Meiji Shrine in Shibuya, Tokyo.

This Shinto shrine is dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken.

An amazing forest of 120,000 were donated by people from all across Japan when the shrine was built.

It’s simple, peaceful and very relaxing. There is beautiful simplicity to the architecture and the more religious customs.

Photo of Day 3: A robot at Robot Restaurant, Shinjuku.

A robot at Robot Restaurant, Shinjuku.For some reason whenever I think of Japan I think of robots doing useful stuff. We haven’t found any of those yet but we have found the most bizarre cabaret show, The Robot Restaurant, where the hostesses walk around the room – boxing ring style – with signs asking you to turn off your Bluetooth and wifi enabled devices for fear of interference with the controls for the show.

Ironically, most of the ‘robots’ are people in costume but there are some remote controlled participants in this video-game inspired 90-minute strobe-lightathon. There are no words to describe the craziness which seemed entirely appropriate in this neon-lit district of the city. After the Robot Restaurant’s bought what it needed, the fact that there’s any neon left for the other venues is really a modern day miracle.

Photo of Day 4: UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mt Fuji

Photo of Day 4: UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mt FujiStanding 12,388 ft, Mt Fuji is the highest peak in Japan; a World Heritage Site and, apparently, still classed as an active volcano. It’s snow-capped peak has become a symbol of Japan, which I imagine, is something of what makes it attractive to hikers and climbers. According to our tour guide the climbing season starts in July and officially ends in September but he wasn’t recommending anybody attempt it after the end of August. Given we were all quite happy in our heated, wifi-enabled coach, I’m not expecting to see any of my fellow tourists climbing next season.

We got got as high as 2020m (of the 3776m which make up the aforementioned 12,000 or so ft) before the road was closed due to recent snow falls. Still, the air was crisp, the sun was out and you could see the peak. It’s quite an impressive sight, although at the 4th station it’s the surrounding peaks you’re looking at rather than the one immediately above you.

There also seems to be an annual photographic competition which might help explain the abundance of stunning images of the mountain on the internet, as well as the large number of people carrying tripods & camera bags around the tourist locations.

My picture may not be up there with the greatest but it’s all mine. Taken at the first tour-stop, Lake Kawaguchi-Ko, one of the “five lakes”, it was our first proper Mt Fuji sighting. When they said you never forget your first time, perhaps it was views of Mt Fuji they were talking about.

Yes, I’m sure that’s right.

Photo of Day 5: Tokyo Imperial Palace Tea House

Photo of Day 5: Tokyo Imperial Palace

Covering an area of 1.32 sq miles the space was, during the height of the 1980s Japanese property bubble, valued to be worth more than the sum of all of the real estate in California. So, it’s decent bit of land to own. It is the main residence of The Emperor of Japan as well as home to a bunch of the kind of administrative offices needed by the ceremonial head of a nation.

Unlike, say, Buckingham Palace which you can stand in front of and photograph, it seems quite difficult to get up to The Emperor’s front door. There is some kind of limited daily tour – conducted only in Japanese – that visits some non-public areas but I can’t tell you about it because we didn’t do it.

However, the East Gardens are open to wander around and are a fascinating collection of horticulture, including areas given over to cultivating roses, tea, bamboo and a plot of land where trees representing each of Japan’s 47 prefectures have been planted. There’s an area called Cherry Blossom Island which, I imagine, will be amazing in a few months. Surprisingly, at least one tree was in bloom but it stood out against the bare winter branches of most of the plants.

Towards the end of your wander around the gardens, if you follow the route suggested in the free map (and why wouldn’t you?), there’s a 18th century Japanese garden complete with running water, pool and wooden bridge.

Around the gardens there are examples of guard houses, a museum and a beautiful example of a tea house (pictured). There’s also a late 1960s concert hall and buildings named Gakuba and Shoryobu on the guide (which house some of the aforementioned administrative offices; for the Music Department & Archives Department).

All-in-all, a place of beautiful, traditional tranquility in the heart of modern Tokyo. Open from 9am if you’re interested.

Photo of Day 6: Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

Tsukiji Fish Market, TokyoSome reports suggest that Tsukiji Fish Market is the largest wholesale seafood market in the world. I can’t vouch for that but it could take several hours to walk around the stalls of all the intermediate wholesalers. Although, as a sightseer, you don’t get several hours. The inner market is open to tourists from 10am, by which time most wholesalers are packing-up & the professional buyers have taken their fish away to be served-up across the city. That’s not to say there’s nothing to see; just most of the selling is over for the day.

If I was being strictly accurate, the market is open to 120 sightseers from about 5am if they were to have queued through the night to see a portion of the frozen tuna auction. Our guide wholeheartedly recommended not bothering and, anyway, you can’t watch the fresh tuna auction. I’m not entirely sure why.

Apparently, we were lucky to see the market in it’s current (post-1923) home: a move to a more modern facility that should have happened last November has been postponed. Cue local newspapers running “something fishy” headlines.

We took a tour of the market with local food writer & guide, Atsushi, the Tsukiji King, and I’m very glad we did. Tsukiji is a fully functioning fish market, complete with high-speed delivery vehicles & special band saws designed to chop huge chunks of frozen tuna. It’s not a place you’d particularly think to enter as a tourist so a guide proved especially welcome as I don’t think we would have wandered the warehouses alone. Atsushi showed us the inner & outer markets, explained the selling process and provided a guide to all the food paraphernalia that’s also for sale in shops around the area. I’m continually amazed by the pieces of plastic sushi that are mainly used by restaurants to show-off their ‘dishes’ in their windows.

There was the added bonus of using an expert guide; he recommended the most amazing sushi place for lunch at the end of the tour: every piece hand-made in front of you from the very freshest ingredients. I thought I’d eaten good sushi before but now I know differently.

More Japan

The second part of my Japan 2017 Retrospective (pictures from Kyoto) will be uploaded tomorrow but you can review all the pictures right now in my Flickr Album.

#SOLS

Sermon Of the Last Sunday is my attempt to ensure that there is something published on my site very month in 2017.  You can read about my attempts to force myself to write or my first post of the season (which is another challenge) in which I decide read a book every month this year.

The full #sols collection has a handy site tag, sols.

My 15 for 2015

It’s become something of a tradition for me to take a nostalgic look back at the year just gone based on some of the photographs I have taken. The earliest example that remains online is from 2004. You can read about some of the thoughts behind that on 2012 and 2013s summaries. Ten years later, 2014 was represented as a short video summary of Instagram photos which I’m not sure does that year justice. [Skip the words and jump to the pictures]

For 2015 I could have, once again, relied on the automatic curations from Facebook or the Best 9 on Instagram but, instead, I decided to go back and manually collect 15 photos which sum-up 2015 for me.

The first four of the pictures were taken on holiday in Vietnam, Cambodia and Hong Kong. The time spent on board a boat on Halong Bay (including an amazing Kayak experience) and the silent tea shop in Hội An were some of the most tranquil moment of the year; the Hindu/Buddhist temples in Cambodia were an awe inspiring sight that will stay with me for a long time.

Lord Hill’s Column, outside Shrewsbury’s Shirehall is, apparently, the tallest Doric column in England. When I lived in Shropshire the statue was, effectively, at the end of my street. On a visit earlier in the year it was a pleasant surprise to find it open for viewing as part of the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo (interesting to note that the last stone was laid on 18 June 1816, the first anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo). There are some fantatsic views of Shrewsbury from the top.

I had a business trip to New York in the first half of the year and got to view that city from on high too: the sunset from the top of The Empire State Building was pretty impressive.

Another highlight of the year was taking advantage of the hidden London tours and going in the opposite direction – underground – to the disused Jubilee Line station at Charing Cross. In November 1999 the Jubilee platforms at Charing Cross were closed to the public when the line’s extension to Waterloo was opened. However, the escalators and platforms still exist behind some blue hoardings; the lines maintained for operational reasons if not for commuting. The platforms are also used for film & television representations of the modern underground (Spooks and the Bond film Skyfall filmed there, for example). In June I went on a tour and it was really fascinating to see how the platforms looked and to peek behind the scenes of a working Tube station. Although I’ve not uploaded as many pictures to Flickr this year, there is a set of the pictures taken underground.

The summer also meant another pilgrimage to Silverstone for the British race of the 2015 Formula One season. Lewis winning both that race and the season. Jenson, featured in the picture, coming somewhat lower down the rankings.

In 2012 I didn’t volunteer as one of the Olympic Games Makers nor as one of Boris’ London Ambassadors. It’s something that looked like fun and subsequently I did volunteer at the Ride London event. However, 2015 was the first year that the Ambassadors scheme (branded Team London) finally sought new recruits. I signed up, went through the training, and had a really great time at Parliament Square. I’d swotted-up on a little of the history of the area but mainly got to point people in the direction of Churchill’s War Rooms. Thankfully, the bright blue Team London jacket came in helpful during the rain that seemed to accompany all of my shifts.

Later in the summer I donned overalls that might not be out of place behind the wheel of an F1 car to become part of Secret Cinema’s Empire Strikes Back experience (I think I was supposed to be some kind of rebel fighter). The imagination, thought and level of detail that went into the event was spectacular. There’s a great summary video on You Tube. I’m already booked for their 2016 show with no idea what the film will be.

Towards the end of the year the Rugby World Cup came to the UK. I saw New Zealand play twice: against Namibia at the Olympic Stadium (they won 58-14) and in a great final at Twickenham where they beat Australia 34-17. Fortunately, we were sat behind the goal where most of the points were scored. The Olympic Stadium also played host to The Race of Champions which, according to the event’s own site, “brings together some of the world’s best drivers for a unique head-to-head race in identical cars to see who really is the fastest of them all”. Sebastian Vettel was crowned champion.

I’m often asked what my favourite dining experience has been. I’ve written before about Duck and Waffle which was excellent but, for some reason, never about the Fat Duck. I thought I’d try and record the best of 2015: the very enjoyable Not Afternoon Tea at the Oxo Tower could have been the highlight had it not been for a visit to Restaurant Story. Here, on the site of a former public toilet, is an amazing restaurant where each course of the set menu comes with its own little story. An entire afternoon of food pleasure.

At the end of the year I visited Liverpool for an amazing Duran Duran concert and to sing karaoke at a family party. No videos of my performance will be allowed on the internet. Duran Duran was really an exceptional gig with just the right mix of classics and newer material. The office Christmas party also featured a live band; I was introduced to the music of Jungle which, in spite of the modern sounds, seemed to have 80s inspired synth roots and would site nicely next to Duran’s material.

The 2007 Collection

The 2007 MosaicAnother New Year and time for the regular yearly review as seen through the pictures that I take on my mobile phone. At least this year I am posting the pictures at the very beginning of the year! This year’s mosaic features 7 rows (for 2007) of 5 pictures.

The original idea was that pictures captured on a mobile phone provide an interesting view of the year. This year the Flickr photostream for my mobile shots shows 74 photographs – but many are from earlier in the year. See the full collection at Flickr. Of course, they only represent a snapshot of the year; a fuller collection for the year can be seen under the 2007 Flickr tag.

36 For 06

I have been re-arranging and organising some of my photographs on the site today. In a bid to ease the effort it really would take to maintain this site I am moving all my online photographs to Flickr. I have been using Flickr for a number of years and my installation of Gallery on this site had not been used for a long time. So, shortly, the domain for photos.curnow.org will point to a new page about my photographs.

2006 Mobile Mosaic As a result I realised that I had not created the mobile set for 2006. In recent years I have been collating photographs taken with my mobile ‘phone camera into a story board for the year. In 2004 I selected 100 but for 2005 I only managed 50. In 2006 I was again able to select 100 images that told a brief story of the year. You can see the 2006 set at Flickr. The last couple of sets were illustrated by the inclusion of thumbnails of each picture. I decided against that this year and instead created a mosaic to showcase a random selection from the 100 best mobile picture.

So, the mosaic is a brief selection of the 100 mobile pictures that tell the story for 2006. Click here for the full set and feel free to comment the set at Flickr.

50 – 05

It’s that time of year again. I get to look back at last year based on the photographs stored on my mobile ‘phone camera. This year I had the Treo 600 and a Nokia 6230 to use but I didn’t seem to be a prolific as last year as I could only really find 50 pictures to sum up the year.

I have been using Flickr more and more this year. I find it’s the best place to store and share photographs. You can see more of these pictures (and comment on them) in the Flick feed for mobcam 2005.

Again, they’re very raw but they do show me what I did in 2005: Spain, winning the Olympic bid party, Formula 1 and more work travel including Egypt. I enjoyed it all.

2004 In Pictures

I don’t think it’s such a bad idea to mark the passing of time. I am, ultimately, sentimental. So, although I am not going to write a great deal about 2004, there is one thing that has fascinated me this year: some of the pictures of the year.

In January 2004 I acquired Treo 600 mobile ‘phone. This was the second ‘phone I had with a camera on it and it certainly isn’t the best mobile phone camera on the market. However, I took a few photographs and then, towards the end of the year, I realised that I had a photographic record of much of the year and it had been created unintentionally. It was quite a shock to look at them and put the year into context. Sure, many of them were taken with friends after a few drinks but I don’t think that matters too much. It certainly sums up a lot of the year!

A couple of days ago, I sat down to review the pictures. There were 265 of them. Some are blurred and useless, some pointless and some I really don’t want to show anybody else. However, I thought it might be an interesting idea to get the pictures down to a collection of 100 that sum up the year and I can keep as my Moblog memories for 2004. It’s a filtered collection limited by the technology (the pictures are very low res) and by the photographer (I am not keen on holding my phone and pointing it at people) but I think it does represent 2004 quite well.

Click on the image for the larger version and, if you want to read the captions, see 2004: A Review in my gallery.

Piccadilly Circus, March 2003

I acquired a new mobile ‘phone earlier in the week and it has a tiny camera in it which I used to take a picture of Piccadilly Circus at night

Piccadilly Circus At Night
From A Mobile Phone

I acquired a new mobile ‘phone earlier in the week. I didn’t actually choose the model because I was sent it. It’s bigger and heavier than my previous mobile and it doesn’t have a radio – which I really liked when I was walking to work. It does, however, have a calendar function which I am finding quite useful and it does have one of those built-in cameras that people rave about.

It’s not the greatest camera in the world but it is quite cool having a camera that you carry with you all the time. For no real reason, on Tuesday night I decided that I wanted to take a shot of Piccadilly Circus (I work just round the corner). I have just pulled the image off the ‘phone. It’s not a great photo (in fact it’s a pretty poor one) but I am really quite happy with it. There is something about the colour and the light that suggest the real buzz you get from walking across Piccadilly Circus at night. Now, let’s see how many more photos I post.

Obviously, I am not the only person in the world to have a camera in a ‘phone, I am not the only person to get excited about it and I am not the only one to blog it. Guess there’s very little unique about me!