Monthly Archives: April 2012

The orange cancer that saved Easter

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8 April 2012

I was ready to hate Jetstar and swear never to travel with them again.

Especially after the flight to Japan in which they reneged on the paid seating allocation and placed us in middle seats – we were eventually given aisle seats in the back row of the plane, right next to the toilets. And then forgot our food and drinks, and then when finally offered, did not provide a choice.

But check-in for my trip home was the ultimate slap in the face. In contrast to standard practice for long-haul overnight flights, I wasn’t entirely dreading this trip as, you see, I had managed to take advantage of a fortuitous business class sale, which meant I got myself into the pointy end of the plane for just $80 more than an economy seat on the same flight.

But panic ensued as the third-party check-in agents tried every possible means of finding my booking, without success. My troubles were escalated to the manager, the only person at the whole airport actually employed by Jetstar, who let me know that, in a stunning disconnect between what was booked and what was offered, I was in the wrong check-in queue as my booking showed me in economy class.

Oh, and I was in the wrong city too. Apparently, I was departing that night from Osaka, not Tokyo, which was news to me.

While I got what I paid for back in the end, it was a complete waste of half an hour that could have been better spent drinking $80 worth of scotch in the lounge. The check-in manager was apologetic, but not forthcoming with compensation, with the exception of a tiny fold-up stool to sit on in the check-in hall that made me feel like a little person.

But then I received a surprise. The inclusion of a Lindt chocolate egg on the dinner tray of my Easter Sunday red-eye flight home.

Lindt Easter Egg

Artists Impression of Lindt Easter egg - do not attempt to print and eat

Easter was an event I had simply forgotten about this year. With Christianity being the religion of only a very small minority of Japanese, the locals go about their daily business completely oblivious to the fact that more than billions of people worldwide are enjoying a holiday, regardless of whether they are Christian or otherwise. It is a little surreal when you realise that an event observed ritualistically every year since birth suddenly ceases to exist, barely noticing it’s passing.

It is also amusing watching the Japanese man next to me staring at the red ovoid with an inquisitive glance, his eyes silently questioning it’s significance.

He chooses not to eat it, and sleeps instead. Which was convenient, because it meant I could have two.

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The wind is like the air, only pushier – a story of failure

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3 April 2012

Sometimes, circumstance conspires against you to ensure that your best laid plans go awry, no matter what you do, the outcome remains the same. Failure. This succinctly describes our attempt to watch an AFC Champions League game between a Uzbekistani team and Gamba Osaka, who were recently beaten by Adelaide United in a shock upset.

Fail #1: The weather

A strong storm cell emerged over the northern island of Hokkaido, which caused what was described by the local media as ‘typhoon-like conditions’, with seemingly little regard for its meteorological definition. Regardless, is was miserably cold, barely hitting 10°C, pouring intermittent rain, and my favourite, blowing the kind of gale that makes attempting to use an umbrella a pointless exercise.

Thankfully, the people of Osaka have realised their weather isn’t always particularly pleasant, and have built ridiculously elaborate and complex underground shopping centres strung together with more shops and more underground walkways stretching kilometres. It is entirely possible for many people to travel from home to work and home again via the shops without actually seeing natural light, or anything green.

Nevertheless, we were determined to get to the game, so we took the next step.

Fail #2: Finding a place to buy tickets

Motivated by the 500 yen ($6) per person discount for online ticket purchasing, we were keen to pre-purchase. Sure, we could have bought tickets using the internet available at our accommodation, but then the problem was printing it out.

The solution seemed simple, all we needed to do was find an internet café, and we were in Umeda, the business centre of Osaka. It couldn’t be simpler! Or so we thought.

We spent an hour, walking around the underground labyrinth, including a couple of hotels, for a computer with printing facilities with no success. Eventually we opted to search for an internet café using Google Maps on a local phone, but that also proved difficult, given they’re not actually called that in Japan.

For future reference, convenience stores (combini in the local parlance) often have printers available, and we believe internet cafés are called media centres if you are trying to search for one.

Fail #3: Buying the tickets

Of course, after finding a computer, and paying the 425 yen ($5) to use it for half an hour, I quickly discover that because we had left our run so late (2 hours before kick-off), online ticket purchases were no longer available.

Having resigned ourselves to paying the surcharge for buying at the gate, we printed out the access instructions for the stadium and continued on our way.

Fail #4: The subway is closed

Attempting to catch the Midosuji Line in peak hour, Osaka Municipal Subway’s busiest line, is never normally recommended, but we were men on a mission, and we had to do what we needed to, to make the game. What we encountered at Umeda subway station was pedestrian gridlock. And after making our way through the ticket gates and down to the platform we found out why.

An announcement is made over the PA, Michael listens, and relays the message to Sham and I; due to the adverse weather, the subway wasn’t travelling all the way to the end of the line, where we needed to go.

That’s alright, we thought, there are other options to get the stadium. So we headed to another line where we were able to get to the stadium by transferring to the monorail system at the terminus. Or so we thought.

Fail #5: The monorail is closed

So of course when we arrive at the monorail station, we discover the monorail is out of action for at least half an hour for reasons that couldn’t adequately be explained by the station staff.

I watched as my watch ticked past 7pm, kickoff time for the game. We would struggle to make it there by half time if we had to wait for the monorail to reopen, so intelligently we cut our losses, returned to Umeda, and sought an Irish pub to watch what was left of the game on TV.

Asahi in a glass

File footage of a delicious beer

Fail #6: The Irish pub

We immediately prop ourselves up on bar stools in front of the television, which was playing an Australia vs New Zealand rugby game from many years ago. Having politely asked the bar staff to switch to the Gamba Osaka game, which in theory would be popular in Osaka. She fumbles around through a few sports channels unsuccessfully, and returns to tell us that she cannot find the correct channel.

To add insult to injury, she leaves on the screen a local game of baseball, a game I know little about beyond what Wii Sports has taught, which is mainly just wrist control, and that comprehensively flogging someone early in the match invokes a mercy rule. We reluctantly watch.

So after roughly five hours of constant failure, we managed to watch zero gameplay of the soccer, in what could be a good contender for the biggest fail streak ever.

Nara – the natural habitat of deer and moss

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2 April 2012

Deer in Nara

Tourists engage with a passing deer

On the strong recommendation of our Kansai tour guide Michael, a day trip was made to the historic capital of Nara. It is a short 45 minute journey from Osaka on the JR Yamatoji Rapid train, as long as you get on in the correct direction, which in the afternoon we thought was a silly idea and one that we neglected to use.

Two things defined Nara, deer and moss.

Deer are to Nara what canals are to Venice and murder is to Washington DC – they make the place. They roam freely through the streets, tamed and trained though years of conditioning to pose for photos and stalk tourists for food. And they are protected. A plethora of local laws dictate what can and can’t be done with deer, such as limiting food supplies to the biscuits sold by roadside vendors, and the townsfolk are extremely protective. It goes without saying that deer have right-of-way on the roads.

Mossy walkway

Moss lines the lanterns tucked away in the rainforest

Moss is another prevalent feature of Nara. It may simply be the age of some of the features, with some over a millennium in age, but it was quite prominent. I’m not entirely sure whether we copied others or not to begin with, but our enthusiasm for taking photographs of this potentially prehistoric moss was readily copied by other tourists.

But Nara is not all about flora and fauna, it was once a capital many centuries ago, before even Kyoto, and also a place where the Buddhist beliefs and Shinto rituals began to forge a strangehold, as evidenced by the majestic temples and shrines nestled within the foothills on the periphery of the city centre.

I attempted to cleanse myself of bad luck and spirits by showering myself in the smoke from a burning incense stick, but I don’t think I did it well enough – I got sick a couple of days later.

Burning incense outside Todai-ji

Burning incense outside Todai-ji

We’re not in Kansai anymore

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1 March 2012

Atomic Bomb Dome

Atomic Bomb Dome - one of the few buildings not levelled by the bomb

To satisfy the history buff within, we went for a day trip to Hiroshima, to visit the incredible museum dedicated to the memory of those who died from the world’s first use of the atomic bomb on the city in August 1945. It is an extremely moving and insightful place, and I cannot recommend the visit highly enough. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is set in a beautiful park land built on an island that was levelled by the bomb.

The whole experience is very humbling, and really gives you a sense of fear when you discover that while that one bomb could kill 200,000 people, the world remains in possession of bombs that are several orders of magnitude more powerful.

The bomb, ironically dubbed ‘Little Boy’, caused supersonic winds, torched the earth to 5,000°C, and if that didn’t knock the buildings over, the resulting fires would have.

It was interesting to note that the museum did not take sides or point blame, merely presenting facts in a very cautiously objective manner.

Okonomiyaki

Delicious modern Okonomiyaki - noodles, pork, veges with an egg cracked over the top

After all the learning in Hiroshima, what better way to cap it off than with an Asahi and okonomiyaki  – noodles, pork, egg and vegetables served as a round portion that comes in somewhere between a pizza and an omelette. Very delicious! Some places even let you prepare it yourself at the table.

The charm of Kyoto

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31 March 2012

Kyoto is an amazing place, a city of incredible contrast. It is so easy to stumble in a very short space from the cherry blossoms blooming in the spacious Imperial Palace Gardens, to the wealthy downtown shopping precinct, and onward across the Kamo River to the traditional Gion geisha district. So, it is not hard to see why the city becomes such a black hole for tourists, and I dare say, the Florence of Asia. But while it was a place that catered well for foreigners, it thankfully did not seem overrun with them.

Two things stood out as being very commonplace throughout the city. Firstly, there are marks of wealth everywhere – high-end department stores, expensive cars, impressive streetscaping and inestimable numbers of classy restaurants. It all said, in no uncertain terms, Kyoto is very affluent. Secondly, there is an incredibly strong French influence in the town, for reasons unbeknownst to me. Scenes like that in the picture to the right would have you second guessing if you actually were in Japan.

Unfortunately, I only had a full day to explore the city, so had to do the best I could to see what I could.

Teramachi Shopping Street

Teramachi-dori

Teramachi Shopping Centre

Our first port of call was the heart of the downtown shopping precinct, Teramachi-dori. This street, and numerous side streets constitute the main shopping area for the city. Despite the plethora of cultural attractions nearby, the allure of the neon lights, exciting displays and gimmicky music dragged us to the arcade to indulge in some good old fashioned games.

Well, not old fashioned at all really.

Japan really is at the forefront of arcade gaming, and the machines you see at Timezone really seem to be the leftover scraps. And the most amazing thing is, the skill tester machines not only actually allow you to win something, but they are also designed to reward persistence. I won a remote control trolley on my third go – total cost 600 yen ($7).

Kyoto Imperial Palace Gardens

Sakura

Pink sakura at Kyoto Imperial Palace Gardens

We came for the cherry blossoms. And we found them. Unfortunately, because of a colder than average winter, they were not in full bloom as expected, but there were enough buds amongst the odd bloomed flower to provide a scintillating array of pink and white.

As for the palaces themselves, not much you can see when it’s hidden behind a tall wall.

Nijo Castle

Nijo Castle

Sakura line the walls of Nijo Castle

I was intrigued by the design of the castle, every room received natural sunlight and fronted a veranda. Rooms were laid out in squares, and all fronted a veranda with views of a tastefully arranged garden. The best part was, the castle was surrounded by a moat, does it get any better?

Dinner

BBQ dinner

5000 yen steak can be seen on the left

Sham was in search of a barbecue dinner, Korean-style, so we ended up at a place that achieved that, with a Japanese flair. He took the waiters suggestion and dropped 5,000 yen ($60) on a piece of stage that would be barely 100 grams, seemingly without realising the attached price tag. Suffice to say, it was delicious.

However, the novelty of cook-it-yourself wore off pretty quickly as the total bill approached an ichiman (10,000 yen, $120) making it the most expensive meal of the trip so far, and to earn our money, all they had to do was bring us tiny portions of meat! Sadly, the portions were so small, we had to visit a fast food restaurant on the way home to fill up on burgers.

Gion

Gion is the cultural epicentre of Kyoto. By night, this is where all the action happens, where the restaurants mix with the geisha girls. The streets buzz until late; women in kimonos walk the streets alongside drunken businessmen and fully made-up club-goers. Illuminated lanterns line the busy streets.

But by far and away, the best was saved until last. Shimbachi-dori, said by some to be one of the most beautiful streets in Japan, and indeed Asia. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

Shimbashi-dori

Shimbashi-dori - apparently the most beautiful street in Japan