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.

Improved By Design

A couple of months ago I wrote a thing about receipts and the utter pointlessness of P, T and M on that piece of paper. Admittedly, it’s not the most exciting piece of writing was it? On the other hand, it appears I’m not alone with this line of thinking. Jack Dorsey, you know one of the chaps that invented Twitter, apparently spoke at the US National Retail Federation’s annual Big Show conference (I suspect they are, close to what I thought was, a receipt industry) about this problem and ways the receipt can be better used as a communication tool to customers. If I was so inclined, I’d claim credit. You know, something along the line of how smart people follow my thinking. But, that’s pretty much a long-shot huh?

A little digging is a fascinating thing. It seems all sorts of pieces of paper could be improved with a small amount of design expertise. I was drawn to the idea of improving the receipt during an extended attempt to claim expenses for a recent trip. That trip included a train, a flight and several taxis. I know taxi paperwork is being improved: Uber and Kabbee do a great job of just emailing you the receipt after the journey – no more scribbled bits of paper that are incomplete. How many times have you had to add information to a taxi receipt yourself so that it was obvious what it journey it was for? They’re clear on where I have been and how much the journey cost. And email makes them easy to retrieve when it’s time to claim those expenses from the people that sent you there.

Peter Smart's Boarding PassAs it turns out there are plenty of other people who think train tickets and plane boarding passes could also be improved. These are a bit more complex as, unlike many taxi receipts they have to be shown while the journey is in progress. To that end they contain lots of little nuggets that mean nothing to you and me but might be crucial to the ticket inspector or air stewardesses’ ability to quickly interpret the ticket. I like Neil Martin’s version of the British Rail ticket (others have had a good go too). But for some innovative thinking, take a look at Peter Smart’s version of the airline boarding pass. If you’ve ever had to look twice at your pass to see which terminal/gate you’re going from then this redesign couple be really helpful.

What I particularly like about both of the examples I’ve shown is the removal of industry speak. Those little airport codes, you know LTN to WAW, are really London Luton to Warsaw Chopin in real, human, understanding. Why not just say that? Unless the product is a business-to-business tool where the people using the system speak the language of the industry it’s never a good idea to confuse with codes and jargon; and even in industry-specific systems I’m not always convinced. In the airport the departure screens don’t show WAW so why should the ticket?

There will be those who think a digital ticket/boarding pass is the solution but that experience needs improving too. My British Airways mobile phone app once showed a partner airline’s flight number for the journey – so the on-board crew were very confused – and I’ve known people who have stood at the front for five minutes or more rebooting a crashed phone so they can show a ticket and take their seat. Paper may be around a while for those things.

Now I just need an original idea for something to redesign.

Further Reading: This post is a follow up to I Don’t Want A Useless Paper Receipt and is also the third in my BEWA posts. The first a rather random post, BEWA: Sound the alarm! All the letters have been taken. Last week’s post was Elsewhere: Writing the perfect RFP.

A Mastery Of Technology

Technology is good for us. But sometimes it gets the better of us. Like today when it wasn’t that helpful. My train was rebooted this morning. I was heading to the airport and sat in my train seat waiting to leave the station. I had a nice cup of morning coffee in my hands (I was still in England, it’s civilised like that).

I am writing this episode of .org on one side of the screen while watching an episode of Queer As Folk (US version) on the other side of the screen. I’m playing it from my computer’s built-in DVD. I am doing this as I am sat in a hotel room in Oslo. See, the relentless march of technology allows me to mutli-task in ways I would never have imagined a few years ago.

You could almost say I am stunned. But I am not. I am just bored in a hotel room.

Having said that, it would be great if all that technology stomping around the world managed to get a coffee machine or kettle in this hotel room. As it is I had to take the lift and fetch a cup of over strong coffee from the reception area. Really, Scandinavia is supposed to be so much more advanced. All this wood, heated bathroom flooring and sweet herring is all well and good but I want a good old fashioned cup of Costa Coffee and there isn’t one to be had.

Sorry, back to that relentless technology marching. I am seeing sleek back and silver gadgets marching in perfect unison through Red Square; USB cables tightly rolled and ready to attack at the first sight of an invasion. General Mac and Air Marshall Windows quietly surveying their battalions with stern pride and swelling chests full of medals. But this is modern tech. It would fail. It would let you down. The connector would be the wrong size or the driver would be missing. The intruders would conquer and a few bits of bare wire and broken hard drives would litter the streets.

See, I am well aware that technology is not fool-proof. How many times have you sent that email to somebody who should not have been on the cc list? How many times have you wasted half the paper in the printer because you forgot to check how that document would print? How many times did your Sat Nav take you the wrong way down a one-way street? How many times have you called somebody on your mobile that you didn’t mean to call? How many times have to had to reboot your train?

Yes, honestly, my train was rebooted this morning. I was heading to the airport and sat in my train seat waiting to leave the station. I had a nice cup of morning coffee in my hands (I was still in England, it’s civilised like that). I was thinking ‘which terminal?’ and wondering if those people on the platform were going to be charged excess baggage for the small van-load of cases they were taking. Then the train driver announced a small problem they were working on. A few minutes passed. We were late. The driver came on the tannoy again: now the power would be turned off and back on again. We weren’t to panic as we were plunged into darkness and the doors locked themselves. So we sat there in darkness with all the power gone. And then somebody switched us on again and – as with all turn it off and on agains – we were good to go. So we did. Go, that is.

Seriously, they turned my train off and then on again to fix it.

And it was at that moment I knew that technology had gotten the better of us. Machines now rule and we are relegated to the bit parts (every pun intended).

Powered By Rotting Fruit

The Swedes, god-bless their efficiency, have come up with a train that is, effectively, powered by that rotting fruit.

I don’t know if it is the glorious sunny weather or something else altogether but, right now, commuting life in London seems so much more pleasant than it used to be. I have no idea why that is but my morning battle with overcrowded South West Trains doesn’t feel to bad right now. Perhaps these new trains really are making a difference. Of course, if it is getting better the rail bosses have still managed to stir up controversy again by suggesting further peak-travel charging for using the railways. There’s nothing likely to get people stirred up than a story like this. I mainly feel for the poor people from the rail companies having to justify these statements. Lost in all the furore about this was the news that the Swedes, god-bless their efficiency, have come up with a train that is, effectively, powered by that rotting fruit you throw away each week. What a great idea.

A Pointless Rant About Trains

I am not shocked at the mediocre service. I am not shocked that the staff on board couldn’t care about the confused passengers. What amazes me is that I took two trains and for the majority of both journeys the trains were full.

Today’s illogical rant follows in a moment. Do not be alarmed. An emergency exit is located here and here.

Virgin Trains have made a big deal about the investment in new trains. And the trains were very nice – the airline style at-seat audio was a nice touch. But the service was still below par. On the way north last weekend  the train had been changed and so seat reservations were no longer valid (yet our seat numbers were still there). They seems to have removed the at-seat buffet (which is handy on a full-train so you don’t lose your seat) and the train terminated early.

I am not shocked at the mediocre service. I am not shocked that the staff on board couldn’t care about the confused passengers (are you in my seat or not?). What amazes me is that I took two trains and for the majority of both journeys the trains were full. And by full I mean people were sitting in the parts between the carriages, on the floor in the cold, draughty bits (as an aside, how come it can be so draughty and ventilated and the toilets still smell?). Every train I ever take is full. To work in the morning. Home in the evening. North to visit my parents. South to visit PY’s parents. So why do we always hear about the lack of money in the railway system?

Aliens Eat London Commuters

It stunned me that I could walk onto a platform on the Northern Line at Charing Cross station and find it deserted.

rush hour
rush hour

I posted this picture over a Flickr tonight as it stunned me that I could walk onto a platform on the Northern Line at Charing Cross station and find it deserted. All the best movies had alien invaders clearing the streets while our lonesome hero wandered the empty streets and echoing buildings. It was very strange indeed and a great relief when somebody else made it to the platform and stood waiting the few minutes for the next train. I’ve spent the day in central London training some customers on our software products and so have been on my feet all day, talking. I find it quite hard to be engaging for six hours of so and do find it very disconcerting when I can see the participants interest wane. I imagine it’s a great relief for all that we make it to the end of the day. I was glad to head of for a meal with friends – which is why I was taking the train!