Leeds Run For All 2008

As a brief stop between all the Japanese stuff, I thought I'd mention that I will be running the Leeds Run For All 2008 again. It's a 10Km run through the centre of leads out towards Headingley and back again.

Last year, with the help of many kind people including family, friends and work colleagues I was able to raise £500 for Macmillan Cancer Relief, and my performance was.. well, not too bad, clocking in at 1:03:58. This year, I hope to break the hour mark, and donations to the cause would certainly speed me onto that goal!

So if any kind souls would like to sponsor me for this cause, you'll be helping cancer sufferers around in the UK and abroad.

My justgiving site is here: http://www.justgiving.com/fp_rfa08. Remember to tick the Gift Aid box to ensure the taxman doesn't get his hands on part of it.

Thanks in advance,


Japan 3 : Side trip to Yamadera

So, having sorted out my accommodation for the next few days, I was free to explore. First up: the Shinkansen (bullet train) between Tokyo and Sendai. Now that I had worked out the basics of moving from train to train it was time to experience the best that Japan had to offer. Getting off at Ueno, on the Yamanote line, I bought a ticket and went down to the lower level of the station where the Shinkansen tracks were. Shortly afterwards, a long-nosed beast glided down the tracks; my first Shinkansen. In fact, there were 2 joined together - it was one of the trains that splits partway along the line, at Sendai - one heading towards Hachinohe and the other towards Akita.

Not being a train fan as such, I ride them when I have to in the UK; sometimes they work, sometimes not, and often they are hot, dirty and full of gits. It is for these reasons and more that the train network in the UK is looked down upon by its passengers.

However in Japan, its different; clean, fast, safe and reliable. To be a trainspotter over there is not looked down upon - after all, they're enthusing over a national icon; something they have to be proud of.

Anyway, I digress. I got on the train and it pulled away. As the sardine tins of Tokyo silently turned into the more relaxed semi-countryside along the Tōhoku line it occurred to me just how much more the Japanese must (and can) rely on this transport system to get them around. Arriving at Sendai, I checked my watch - bang on time. I got off the train - which was exactly in the expected spot, and found my bearings around the super-clean station.

Still being quite new to the travelling lark, and apparently making good time, I decided to take a side-trip while there to Yamadera, on the connecting Senzan line - as suggested by my personal guide for the trip, a copy of Japan By Rail, which is a very good book for getting around over there. Yamadera is a small town in the hills to the east of Sendai, known for its
Ryūshaku-ji temple high on the hill above it. If you can get high enough, the guide says, theres a shrine at the summit containing a golden Buddha.

Anyway, the Senzan train would be an hour, so I took the opportunity to pop out into Sendai, which starts with a nice open area around the station, smack bang in the centre of the city. Taking a stop-off on the floor of the ACR building that hands out hours of free internet and taking the opportunity to sort out some accommodation in Niigata for the trip back down the north coast, I then used the useful station coin lockers to store the heaviest of my bags and got onto the local train.

The journey to Yamadera was the first time I got to see a piece of 'picturesque' Japan. Winding our way through the small villages and towns, the landscape began to undulate and the green grasses that replaced the concrete was itself replaced with increasing amounts of snow-covered tree, hill and mountain. About an hour later, Yamadera, via an unassuming but brightly painted station building, appeared in a generous valley.

I looked at my watch. Not that much time before I had to be back. Taking into account the time it took to get there, I had about an hour to get to the top, come back down and catch the returning train. The book said leave twice that.

So off I trotted, the notion of getting from place to place at a canter rather than a relaxed walk was becoming commonplace. It was clear where I was trying to get to, it was stuck right out in front of me on the hill, but the entrance was a git to find. Fortunately, a guy got off the train with me who looked like he spoke English. Better still, he had been here many times before, so after getting some hand pointing down streets, I ran off to find the entrance only to get completely lost and, up until the entrance, progressed no further than this guy as he walked like a normal person behind me, patiently pointing the right way as I stood dumbfounded at each crossroads.

Anyway, after reaching the entrance, marked by a Torii, as most shrine entrances are, I made my way up at a hurried pace, taking photographs as I went. The road to Yamadera temple is a beautiful (but at that point in the year slightly slippy, snow-drift covered) trail to the top, passing through thick woodland covered with shrines small and large. Finally, I reached the top (although there are many areas you could call the 'top') and clambered onto a viewing platform, full of tourists admiring the view. The place was covered with tiny ribbons of paper containing peoples' messages and wishes, stickers and graffiti all over the walls from people signing their name over the years, and strangely, the business cards from a million sweaty businessmen pinned to the roof beams. This however, didn't spoil the view, which was gorgeous. The first proper attraction I'd been to and though it was exhausting, It reminded me why I was here.

After getting my breath back, taking many photos, and edging my way back down without breaking my neck, I managed to get back to the station just as a train arrived. Mountains and snow turned back into grass and concrete and I was back into Sendai. The next Shinkansen pointing north glided in once more and I was on my way to

Japan 2 : Break-Neck Hokkaido, Part 1

So then, after a night in my first Ryokan, I managed to get myself together enough to spend the next two days looking around Tokyo. Of course, Tokyo is a metropolis, so I couldn't see it all. That would be madness. However, it was a taste of things to come.

A little flashback...

See, I had spent a little time in my cosy house in my cosy town far far away not more than a few days earlier, mapping out where I would be on each of the 23 days of my trip. My plan was to visit as many places as possible on the way, and this meant I had to cut some corners in terms of relaxing in one place and having a sedate look around.

To cut a long story short, I had 2 days to do Hokkaido. Hokkaido is about the same size as Ireland. Even worse, it was 1 and two half days.

Plan 1:
Half day: From Aomori, travel into Hokkaido and find a place to stay in Sapporo.
1 Day: Travel from Sapporo on the loop that includes Ashiakawa, Abashiri, Kushiro and back to Sapporo.
Half Day: Travel from Sapporo back to Aomori in Northern Honshu.

As I sat in my house and studied my printout of what I was going to do, it became clear; this was insanity. I so much wanted to do the 'Hokkaido loop'; beautiful scenery and wildlife, snow-capped mountains and crystal clear streams, traditional villages with stations that were less buildings and more portakabins, and relaxing, natural beauty. But with only a single day to do it in, it was doomed to failure, not least because I would be travelling through it too fast to notice anything.

So I decided to extend the trip from 21 to 23 days. Not only would this provide me with an extra day here and there, it would also mean that I would leave on a Thursday instead of a Saturday, less crowds, and suddenly my flights went down in price by 200 quid. Everybody wins.

This extra flexibility was spent partially on Hokkaido. I figured an extra day should make things a lot easier. My brain mentally brushed over the scale on the maps I was looking at and like a wise old oracle on top of a mountain, came up with plan 2:

Plan 2:
Half day: From Aomori, travel into Hokkaido and find a place to stay in Hakodate.
1 Day: Travel from Hakodate on the northern part of the loop that includes Sapporo, Ashiakawa, and Abashiri. Stay at Abashiri for the night.
1 Day: Travel from Abashiri to Kushiro and then back to Hakodate via Sapporo.
Half Day: Travel from Hakodate back to Aomori in Northern Honshu.

That sounds perfectly plausable, I said to myself, without the slightest hint of fear or naivety in my voice. Perhaps there will even be enough time to pop over to Nemuro, on the easternmost tip of Hokkaido, near Kushiro.

Back to the present, I had decided to cut my time in Tokyo from 2 days to 1, and start the movement north a day early. This was because firstly, looking at my itinerary, the days trip between Osaka and Mt Fuji sounded a little long; so an extra day there would be useful. Secondly, Tokyo is an exhausting place to be. The constant battering of noise, people, neon lights and rushing about everywhere can drive a person to distraction; especially when they've just arrived. Thirdly, its such a big place to be in, there's no way I can see it all anyway, besides - I'll be coming back here in 3 weeks.

So my day in Tokyo was spent going around the Yamanote line, getting off at places that sounded interesting and getting used to the basics; where to get food, how to read the train signs, where and how to get train tickets, how to cross roads, some basic phrases ('sumimasen' being the most useful :) ) and general etiquette when interacting with people. I drank orange juice in a 'traditional English pub' in downtown Yurakucho, I travelled over the Rainbow Bridge on a computerised monorail that went round Tokyo Bay, saw Miyazaki's Clock on the side of a building, talked to a Japanese student who was passionate about British comedy, visited a typical supermarket that was posher than Harrods, and spent some time giggling like a schoolgirl over a guy who was clearly drunk, bodypopping randomly to various Michael Jackson hits in Yoyogi. (he had so much energy and cared so little about what people thought of him, he may still be there now). All in all, an interesting days' introduction to inner-city Japanese life. And all of it thoroughly enjoyable.

I also returned to Yurakucho to get accommodation for the next few days in the places I assumed I'd be at, trying to strike a balance between ensuring I have a place to stay in the next few days, and making sure I wasn't locking myself into a timetable I couldn't follow.

Then on the morning of the second day, I said good-bye to the elderly lady at the Suzuki Ryokan, tried in vain to take her picture, and then headed to Ueno station where I would get the Shinkansen north towards Sendai. My trip had begun proper.

Photographs for the this and my previous post can be seen in this album.


Japan 1 : What a place!

I got back from Japan about a week ago now and its still swirling about in my head. What a time I had!

For a homely lad who had only been outside jolly old England just the once, it was quite the culture shock; different language, different people, all sorts of little mannerisms and etiquette to remember, not to mention that I was head and shoulders over most people.

Since I was small, Japan has fascinated me; initially with its console games, but more recently for its culture, art and rural beauty, and I have for many years thought about going. This year seemed right; I was about to switch between jobs, I had a bit of money behind me for once, and I had just passed the ripe old age of 32 - my youth was quickly leaving and would soon be replaced by the typical shackles that thirtysomethings tend to get.

At 4am on a chilly March morning, I was now embarking on a hopefully not-once-in-a-lifetime trip to the far east; a 23 day trip with nothing but a backpack and a camera and a roughly traced route that would take me from Tokyo to the northern tip of Hokkaido, the southern tip of Honshu and a fleeting stopover on Shikoku Island. I had never done anything remotely like this before.

This blog was created to chronicle my time in that wonderful country, and I hope that I can return sometime soon. I also hope you enjoy reading it.

My first day in Tokyo went.. well it could have been better. Typical me, I had underplanned the day, relying on the idea that I would be able to find a place once I'd got there (forgetting temporarily that I have a thick Yorkshire accent and could speak precisely 14 words of Japanese). I landed about midday Tokyo time (GMT+9) after an 18h flight and, after wearily ringing my parents to let them know I hadn't fallen out of the plane on the way, drinking some Kirin red water that I assumed was strawberry juice but was actually some sort of tea, and sorting out my rail pass with a patient travel agent who had probably seen this sort of thing many times before I found myself waiting patiently at Narita Airport train station. I vaguely remember asking a guard there (in English) about when the train was about to arrive, and then having him guide me to a sticker on the floor. The sticker told me not only the train on that track but the exact place to stand to be in front of the door of my carriage. Then the train came; sparkly clean and whooshing in silently along the perfectly laid tracks, stopping exactly in the right place. I looked in wearied awe at the station guard who replied with a wry grin. He probably sees that look many times over..

Perfectly on time, the train slowly glided away out of the station. After the perfect unblemished upholstery (no vomit stains, no graffiti, no tears in the seats, and no dickheads to cause any of it) I noticed the legroom. Oh the legroom. Being quite a tall person (6'3"), I am used to cramping my knees uncomfortably either *into* the seat in front or wrapping them around my neck, doing a convincing impersonation of the last turkey in the shop. Here there was enough room for another set of legs on the end of mine!

As the intermediate stations came and went, my first views of Japan played out in front of me. Large and imposing buildings were replaced by small, cramped neighbourhoods, replaced again by villages and fields, then back again to the sardine tins and high-rise blocks and skyscrapers as the metropolis of Tokyo began to make its presence known. Then, in calm procession, everyone got off, and the small conveyor belt I found myself on turned into a massive intertwining roller-coaster as stairways and stations and corridors and ticket gates and shops and pillars holding the roof up and what felt like millions of people all headed exactly where they wanted to go, all mentally performing Dijkstras algorithm on the fly to ensure they got there in the shortest possible time.

Frankly I was lost. Even though I had just about gathered the wherewithal to look upwards to the dual Japanese-English train signs, I hadn't really gathered where I was going to go. Getting into Tokyo and finding a place to stay suddenly didn't sound half as easy as it did a few days ago looking at the maps comfortably in my front room. The noise was deafening and my backpacks (yes, I took 2, and yes, they contained things I never used) were getting very heavy. And I hadn't slept properly for about 40 hours.

Fortunately, this was Tokyo, and because of this, I eventually found an information kiosk where some people spoke English. They pointed me at the Yamanote Line, a central circular line that loops around the central cities of Tokyo. One stop south of Tokyo lies Yūrakuchō, and there, across the street from the station lies this building, and it was on a wet, rainy evening I found myself being led by a helpful studenty-type bloke to find the damn entrance and get to the 12th floor, where an office - more an oasis - exists where someone can translate my by now incoherent babblings into a request for a place for the night at short notice. The lady behind the counter looked around and managed to get me a place at a Ryokan - a Japanese style Bed and Breakfast - right next to Nippori Station (a couple of stops further along). Thanking her with more bows than what may have been deemed appropriate, I made my way there.

The Suzuki Ryokan was a culture shock in itself. Perched on the hill next to the station, the inside was traditional to a fault. An area to take shoes off led up some stairs - away from the area where the people who lived there made a home - to a network of corridors and low doorways. The elderly lady patiently (but running low) showed me my little room - with its own western toilet. A 2-room affair adorned with tatami mats and a little telly, plus some cushions for kneeling on and a little table to play being Japanese on. Two beds - futons on the floor with dried peas in the pillows - one mine, and as far as I could tell, she was going to have the other one filled as soon as the next soul walked through her door, but for tonight, this place was mine.

As a side note: In central London, a bed for the night in a bog-standard and suspicious-smelling Travelodge or similar would cost around £100. Here; a central Tokyo traditional guest house was going to cost me just £30 all in.

After popping out for a bit of fresh air and any food that I could find that I could recognise (and wasn't still moving) I made my way back to my little room, opened the room-height sliding window and looked out to the still bustling station. The repeated dingly-dongly music that played out every minute or so, the neon lights, the occasional shriek of a crow, the people rushing about their hectic lives and the slightly metallic taste in the air became my first and lingering impression of Japan, and my first half day there. As I settled in for the night, I counted the number of days remaining of my holiday (22) and my heart sank a little.


If that little lot put you off, please don't be. That lot in itself was an experience I wanted to find out about, and you don't learn much without plunging into the deep end. As I hope to convey in further posts, I had lots of fun and lots of unforgettable experience in weeks that came. Those beds were super comfy and the blankets on top were the softest, most beautiful furry material ever. The place itself was a fantastic maze of walkways and rooms, traditional bathrooms, beautiful woodwork and attention to detail, such as the fantastic cobbled floors, and the next day I met a room-mate - a guy from Australia who gave me some tips on basic survival and pointed out a few walks not a minute away to help get a more positive picture of the place. I began my trip in earnest on a fresh spring day and began to enjoy myself. It was the beginning of something fantastic.

Would I go back again? You bet. I am already planning it.