My Japan

It’s been an interesting year for me. Not-so-great things happened in the years before, but this year it really felt like things were starting to look up again. It’s been great to be able to go on holiday to Japan and spend some time away from the drudges of daily life, while also being in the right mindset to properly appreciate the time away. Today, sitting at the riverside, listening to music, it felt amazing to just take in the scenery and be in the moment. It’s something I’ve not done nearly enough lately.

I’m getting older. I’m not the same person I used to be when I lived here, already more than ten years ago. I’ve got different priorities, different hobbies. Being back here feels like I am meeting my past self, exposing all those changes I otherwise don’t really think about. There’s some things that my past self and I have differing opinions on, and being where I used to live a long time ago those differences become readily apparent. It’s a valuable and interesting experience, because it helps me appreciate how I’ve changed, for better and for worse.

Lastly, I was able to test if I could still enjoy Japan in the same way that I used to enjoy it back then. This, at least, is one part of me that hasn’t changed. I don’t think anyone I’ve met here has experienced Japan in quite the same way I did (and that’s only natural – everyone has their own story to tell). The way I intrinsically appreciate Japan is mine and mine alone, and not something I can easily put into words. But even after 17 years that feeling is still there, and I can still find those golden moments here. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of Japan.

Happy new year everyone.

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What I love about traveling in Japan

I always end up feeling lucky when I travel in Japan. It’s a country that rewards you for being unprepared. For example, yesterday we had to get from Kawaguchiko to Shizuoka. There’s no easy way purely by train, but Kawaguchiko has a bunch of busses, so I left it until the morning we left to decide how we’d end up in Shizuoka. It turns out the bus line I found online wasn’t running, but the ticket office attendant suggested we take the local bus all the way around Mount Fuji to end up in Fuji town at the seaside.

The local bus turned out to be a great pick: if took us past all the surrounding lakes on a scenic tour of the area. There were only 5 people in the entire bus, since it’s the off season. Most tourists end up taking the trains or buses back to Tokyo. I really enjoy experiences like this – it’s little off-the-beaten-path finds that make otherwise crowded tourist destinations even more enjoyable. And with a beautiful blue sky as the backdrop, what more could you want?

It’s hard for me not to contrast this experience with that of other countries. Some other countries might ‘punish’ you in this situation, by forcing you to spend more money or time to get to your destination. When we traveled Cuba we tried to take a bus from the far end of the island back to Havana and had to wait until the last minute until we were sure we’d even get a seat, despite having been reassured that we wouldn’t have to reserve. And then of course that bus randomly ‘turned off’ several times in the middle of the night as we were moving, causing the driver to have to clutch-drop on a downhill to get the thing going again. Or England, where I’ve run into plenty of cases where public transport was just cancelled or delayed without further notice. But in Japan, supported by its excellent infrastructure and incredibly helpful locals, you are rewarded, because there’s always another way to get to where you want to go.

People travel for a lot of reasons: culture, meeting people, activities. As for me, I get a lot of enjoyment out of taking in the scenery. The aesthetic of places always appeals to me, and it’s usually one of my main goals each trip to visit a place with a beautiful view. But I also appreciate the easthetic of ‘boring’, normal locations. A long road leading from the suburbs into a city, with restaurants, car shops and malls on either side, might sound pretty generic, but there’s a uniqueness in how each country (and each city) plays the theme. Perhaps it’s not beautiful in the traditional way, but Japan’s take on it is definitely unmistakeably Japanese. That, to me, makes it interesting. It’s great to be able to experience that again.

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Mission to Japan

Foreword by me: when I mentioned to my wife that I wanted to write more during this trip and that I was going to write a bit about our travel woes she said she’d write something too, and she was happy for me to share her account of the proceedings here. What was interesting to me is how she highlighted different aspects of the same experience. Below is her version.


It started like any other trip, we called for an Uber to the airport.

In a change of pace, we opted to fly from LCY. It was an eye watering £70 but with the Tube down and us having luggage, we considered it worth the cost, but I hadn’t bargained on the eggy fart from the driver. I think he had issues with his windshield jets as he kept having spray screen wash on from a bottle and then wiping it off. A little disconcerting particularly on a densely foggy and frosty morning.

We arrived at LCY in good time, passing the time at Costa and Pret. Between the time we dropped our bags off and queueing for security, disaster struck. Our flight to FRA was cancelled.

We queued up at the BA desk and was given the option of booking on a flight from LHR connecting at HKG in a few hours or our planned flights a day later. We opted for LHR. Upon closer inspection of the ticket pass, it turned out that we were flying into HND and not NRT as originally planned. Ho hum, Tokyo is Tokyo.

Looking at the inclemental weather, the chap at the booking desk advised us to take public transport. We weren’t convinced and the earliest Uber was six minutes away. As we were by the Taxi rank, we opted for a black cab and the cabbie advised taking us to Paddington and then Heathrow Express. Time was of the essence.

As we drove through London, we came across some of my stomping grounds near work. The roads were quite busy and I hadn’t realised just how higgledy-piggledy the roads were from Spitalfields to Euston.

We eventually arrived at Paddington and caught the Heathrow Express without much fanfare.

When trying to check in at the kiosks in T5, we got an error alerting us to see a person. We were then directed to a queue which just didn’t seem to be moving fast and time was ticking. Up to now, I had been feeling strangely calm, I could feel my heart racing, adrenalin coursing through my veins. In an act of desperation, we flagged down a very helpful chap who was initially unsure as to whether we’d make our flight. His supervisor thought otherwise and we were elevated to the front of the queue.

It was a bit touch and go at the counter. The dull but very helpful chap was having difficulties getting us checked through the second leg of the flight but eventually got through. We wouldn’t be sitting next to each other on the first flight to HKG but at this point, I’ll take whatever I can get.

Security, dinner and boarding was fine but we were held at the runway for an indeterminable amount of time due to last minute change of staff and paperwork. Once again, time ticking away, the chances of us making the second leg of the trip was dwindling fast. Rather annoyingly, I wasn’t getting reliable signal on my phone and couldn’t message my significant other. The seat to seat chat didn’t seem to be working either (in retrospect my significant other told me he couldn’t find the chat button). It was a fairly uneventful flight, the only thing of note was that they ran out of sweet and sour chicken by the time it got to my row and I didn’t sleep a wink.

As expected, we missed the connecting flight at HKG but were greeted by very helpful ground-staff. The next few moments felt like a whirlwind of events. We filled in the health declaration, collected bits and pieces for a COVID test, got swabbed, filled in more paperwork, picked up our baggage and issued a meal voucher.

I’m impressed by the organisation of the COVID tests, there was no waiting and everything was very smooth.

For a major international transport hub, I must say that I’m quite disappointed in HKG airport’s eating options. We tried to spend our $HK 150 once we made it airside and it seemed that pretty much everything is shut at 23:00 and reopens at 7:00am. Not even a cafe was open. Vending machines were few and any that were there didn’t accept foreign cards which is not useful at an airport. The take home here is to always pack snacks.

Our flight to NRT was pleasant, JAL’s service was swift and efficient, as you’d expect from Japan’s flagship carrier. Even the food was a few notches about BA.

As soon as we were on the final leg of our trip everything went fairly smoothly. There were some disadvantages to being in NRT super early (before 7:00am), namely that most things are shut apart from the conbini which was a sight for sore eyes.

I’ve lost all sense of time and I’m not even sure what day it is or how long it’s been since we left Cholesbury but we’ve finally made it to Kawaguchiko. I guess it could’ve been worse, we could still be stuck in London since snow has blanketed the country. At last we made it to our final destination and begin the vacation proceedings.

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A Travel Story

Has air travel gotten worse since covid? I certainly think so. It’s been a while since I’ve gone on a long trip, and today was without a doubt the worst experience I’ve had in decades. Normally I’d keep my rant to myself, but one of my goals for this trip is to write more, so the tale of how we got to Japan seems like a good place to start.

TFL was the first hurdle to overcome. That’s not a new thing though, they’re always pretty unreliable. It turns out that there was maintenance work being done on all the train lines that could connect us to our London City Airport flight, so our options were to either take several rail replacement buses and do multiple tube transfers in London, or take an Uber. Uber it is. As we were driving to the airport I definitely noticed the thick fog, but it was not something I could do anything about.

Let’s talk about flight check-in post-covid. British Airways’ method is horrendous. They ‘partnered’ with an app called Verifly, and it just did not work. Verifly is not up to date with the latest covid requirements for each country, and the verification result never seems to make it back to BA, meaning that we could not check in online and pick any seats for our long haul flight, at least not without paying BA more money.

Despite our online check-in woes the check-in at the airport went fairly smoothly and we dropped our bags off as soon as the bag drop opened. It was at the security gate where our troubles began. It didn’t let us through. Seconds later a guy came up and told us our flight was cancelled. We rushed back downstairs to the BA service desk to get ourselves rebooked, but there was already a hefty queue in front of us, and BA’s customer service desk at LCY isn’t the most populously staffed. When it was finally our turn the only replacement flight on the same day departed from Heathrow, in about 4 hours. Having no other option, we took it. The guy at the desk assured us that we could make it if we took public transport and left immediately, which should be doable given that he assured us all the bags we checked in were already waiting for us.

That turned out not to be true, and we had to wait a while to get our final suitcase back. What follows could be described as a “mad rush through London” but was in fact a quiet taxi ride to Paddington where we took the Heathrow Express (yes, I know.. but we were in a hurry and I fully intend to get this reimbursed from BA). We ended up taking a taxi because public transport seemed iffy according to the TFL site at the time (what a surprise) and the Uber didn’t show up in time. It turned out to be a good choice because the taxi driver said we’d be better off driving to Paddington and taking the train rather than driving all the way to Heathrow, given the weather and road conditions. We ended up at Heathrow with about two and a half hours to spare. We never did find out if the original flight was cancelled because of the thick fog or because of something else.

Our original flight would have had us transfer at Frankfurt and onwards to Tokyo Narita airport, our replacement flight would take us to Tokyo Haneda via Hong Kong, arriving only a couple of hours later than originally planned. At least, if we could make it on to the flight in time. We got to Heathrow with a reasonable amount of time left, but when trying to check in with the machines all we got was a piece of paper that said “Request assistance”. Despite it being BA’s main terminal at Heathrow, the general check-in area was woefully understaffed and handling of each person in the queue took forever. We were still very far back in the queue when I realized that we wouldn’t make our flight, and asked for assistance to a random BA member of staff, who saved us by bumping us up in the queue. The person who checked us in seemed to indicate that the reason we needed assistance checking was again that the covid certificate from Verifly wasn’t logged in their system. Once again, Verifly + BA just does not work.

Despite all the setbacks we managed to get checked in for the Hong Kong flight and headed through security. While doing that I was fortunately able to cancel our first night’s hotel at Narita free of charge, since our new flight would take us to Haneda instead. We got to the gate with minutes to spare and even had time to pick up some food, so I was pretty happy. Surely that was the last of our problems.

Hah, no. After we boarded the plane it sat at the gate for two full hours, apparently because some of BA’s crew members had to come in at the last minute and they had to get paper(!) approval from the Hong Kong authorities before they were allowed to board the flight. So by the time the flight finally left Heathrow I already knew we missed our connecting flight, which departed about two and a half hours later from Hong Kong.

This opened up a whole new world of trouble. We were supposed to just transfer at HK so we wouldn’t need to worry abouy any additionala covid restrictions that would have been required if you went landside. My assumption while flying was that they’d get us a replacement flight that’d be reasonably close to the original flight, so we could still sort it out at the transfer desk without going landside, but as soon as we got out of the plane a person from the airline was there waiting for us to guide us through the airport to get us landside. BA did get us onto a replacement flight already, which was nice, but it was about 6 hours later, which was not nice, because that meant we had to go landside to pick up our luggage and check in from there. And that meant that we had to do a covid test and sign all the documentation needed to enter Hong Kong. We passed through a whole area of sterile covid test cubicles, all fully staffed, but no passengers in sight other than the two of us and one other person who missed his connection. I’m not sure if that’s just a matter of timing and being between flight arrivals, or if just not a lot of people go to Hong Kong any more given the covid situation there. I suspect the latter but I can’t know for sure.

After going through all that we picked up our luggage and our guide brought us to the departures area, where we had a long wait for our final flight. British Airways kindly provided us a lunch coupon for our troubles, but our guide warned us it might not be valid since BA didn’t renew their contract with the airport vendors. This turned out not to be an issue because all the shops were closed anyway.

From there on it was finally smooth sailing all the way. The Japan Airlines flight was excellent as always, and we didn’t have any issue going through immigration and customs at the Japan side. Though it wasn’t clear to me that the Japanese covid site’s “quarantine pre-screening” part was required for the ‘normal’ arrival process to happen, given that we only required proof of vaccination. We managed to finish it before arrival though, and basically just walked through by the time we got to Narita – Yes, our replacement replacement flight took us back to Narita instead of Haneda. I had already cancelled the hotel, but that was fine though since we ended up arriving the next day’s morning instead.

We made it to Japan! It’s been a couple of years, but it feels like forever.

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As promised, I put the pictures online ^_^

Abandoned theme park

Kinugawa Onsen

Countryside pottery 

I'm sleepy now. I should go to bed. Photoblog pics later.

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An unexpected 2008

It still exists. My lifestyle here. My life is like having a party on Friday night with friends and sleeping the whole Saturday and then watching a movie with people from all over the world. My life is like going on a crazy trip with people and having a lot of fun. But most of all, my life is like returning from a trip during the last hours of the weekend, going to the conbini at midnight to pick up some food, and receiving an email on my phone from someone telling me that the trip was really great, and that it's going to be a GREAT 2008. How can I possibly argue with that?


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Europe by train

Europe by train!

Click on the picture or here to go to the trip gallery at Picasa. Yes, I know it's only 12 pictures -____-. It would have been less too, but I figured I should at least include some pictures of France and Switzerland, even though the weather was terrible at times and I lacked inspiration for taking good photos. I made a lot more photo's of course, but I'm hardly proud of showing them to anyone except my friends, just to show them where I've been. Photographically they are hardly worth noticing. I've also uploaded some of the phototechnically more interesting pictures (eg. the best ones >_<) to my photoblog, where they will be appearing the next couple of days, so stay tuned.

Well, that was the crazy trip. I somehow made it back to Japan after everything, and I took this weekend to relax and get better, because I've caught a serious cold on the way :( At least it gave me the time to sort the pictures and get settled in again. I'm ready for another year. I think.

The trip started on the 27th of December. I went to Amsterdam to meet Kamil and Liou. Meeting Kamil was memorable as always. Because the toilets at the station cost money he tried to use the toilet inside one of the trains and almost ended up on a train to Alkmaar -_-. We managed to get out just in time though...

The 28th we went around Groningen, my province, where we took pictures of sheep, cows, churches and windmills (as expected). That night we left for Cologne with our 5-day free train pass. The 29th we stayed in Cologne, and the 30th we spent looking around Koblenz.

We were supposed to take a train to Strasbourg on the 30th, and look around Strasbourg the whole day on the 31st, but we ended up going to Denmark and Sweden by night train instead! It was the crazy event that our trip was missing, and it ended up getting us away from the crappy weather in central Europe. The weather in Denmark was great, and this day was by far the best of the whole trip :) Copenhagen is quite a nice city, and in my opinion easily the nicest city of all the cities I've seen in Europe so far (except Groningen maybe :D ). Sweden was fun too, but we could only stay a couple of hours before taking the night train back to Switzerland o_0

So,  we decided to do Strasbourg anyway in the morning of January 1st, after which we continued on to Neuchatel, where we had booked our last hostel of the trip. That night we went around Neuchatel to visit the castle and we dined at an insanely expensive restaurant, which was a very nice experience.

For the last day of our trip we went to the castle in the early morning and then by train to Geneva, where I had to catch a plane back home. We had some time to walk around the city too, which was nice. Geneva is quite nice as well. It somehow just feels nicer than German and French cities. It's as if a German and French city had a baby and called it Geneva. Although the daddy calls it Genv and the mommy calls it Geneve...

After that I said my goodbyes to Kamil and hurried along to the airport, as it turned out for no reason. The plane was 2 hours delayed, just as any other plane leaving Geneva, apparently. It gave me a nice chance to read 'The memoirs of a Geisha', and by the time my train finally pulled into Groningen station I had just finished the last page. Quite a nice book. I've watched the movie yesterday and it does not compare at all to the book. It just didn't translate well to a movie IMO. Oh well, at least the book was great. I can recommend it to anyone, no matter if you've been in Japan or not. There is little relation to current Japanese culture, but it does give some interesting insight in classical Japan.

I was barely home and I already had to pack my bags again, because my flight back to Japan was on the 3rd. It finally occurred to me to check the departure times, and it looked like I had to get up really early too, since the plane left Amsterdam at 10:00 and I had to take two and a half hours to get there from my place. Fortunately my parents could bring me to the station and I managed to arrive there with time to spare. Swiss Air was excellently on time, and boarding was finished 10 minutes to 10. One hour later I was in Switzerland again... The flight to Japan went fine too, with a couple of setbacks though. I chose an emergency exit seat with lots of leg space when I checked in online, but as it appeared the seats in the plane did not match the ones on the website, and I was stuck with an isle seat one row in front of the emergency exit seat I wanted... Besides that, and the guy with the huge nose who sat next to me and kept on making breathing noises that were louder than the airplane's engines at full thrust, everything went well.

I have to admit my life feels quite empty right now. I was looking forward to this trip a lot, and now that it's finally over I don't have many things planned for the future. There's a ski trip next weekend. That should be a lot of fun. After that I have nothing planned at all. I have no idea where I will be this summer. That is exactly the way I want it.

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