I think its rather a long time since I blogged anything and there’s probably nobody left here listening but this blog is as much for me in the future to look back upon as it is for everyone else to read so I’ll go ahead anyway! I really haven’t found much that I felt like blogging about since our return to Vietnam, we’ve just been working away and getting angry at the locals for one reason or another every once in awhile. Thankfully its NFL season so it most definitely could be worse =)
Thankfully for the previous two weeks I finally got around to reaching one of my life’s ambitions that I’ve held since being five years old: visiting Japan. Ever since I fired up my old Megadrive and Sonic and heard SEGA blare out of awful 14 inch CRT TV in super tinny sound I’ve wanted to get out to the Land of the Rising Sun. I’ve come close a couple of times; I went to uni to study Japanese and was expecting a year out there in my second year, I dropped out. I was going to be heading there in May and that got stuffed by the Tsunami so this time it was finally on.
I was all prepped and ready to go, doing my last minute packing and charging camera batteries when I decided to check my flight times, one last time. Oh FUCK. I misread the times. I’ve missed my flight to Kuala Lumpur from Ho Chi Minh. Cue MELTDOWN. Multiple curses are thrown out in a stream of profanity and I punch the wardrobe. Seriously pissed off, Linda is trying to calm me down. I finally manage to stop uttering swear words and we start looking into new flights to KL, my flight to Japan is the best part of a day away so as long as I can make it out Ho Chi Minh that night I will be okay. Breathe. This can be sorted. One Hundred and Eighty English Pounds later AirAsia will get me to Kuala Lumpur. Vietnam Airlines policy is to cancel your second flight if you miss the first as they are a bunch of wankers. I vow to never fly with them again.
After flying from HCMC to KL I check into the Concorde Inn near Kuala Lumpur airport to catch some sleep, the room is functional and the next mornings breakfast is of the instantly forgettable buffet variety. I sat with some Americans who offered to pay for my trip, I asked them to pray I didn’t miss any more flights. After that I head back to the LCCT for my flight to Tokyo. Which I thankfully don’t miss.
Arriving in Tokyo I grab my bags as quick as possible (why am I always the last bag off the plane dammit!) and get through customs. I ask the lady which train I need to take to Asakusa, I need to take one and change. I’m on the third to last train out of the airport for the evening. As I’m pulling into the next station a helpful Japanese woman asks me where I’m going as we come off she says to run and get on the train across the platform. I decide to trust her and jump on it; good call its the last train of the evening to Asakusa. If I missed that its a 12,000 yen taxi to the hostel. One hundred pounds. Thank you helpful Japanese lady =)
I got to the hostel rather late but thankfully had the security code to get in and an envelope with my name on and a key inside was waiting on the counter for me. After demolishing the mixed kebab (it was 2am, don’t judge) I picked up on the way to the hostel I got my head down for some sleep.
The next day I lived out a dream I’ve had since my teens when I went through my ultra geek phrase and spent most of my time with Matt Gardner, Richard Harvey, Paul Metcalfe and a host of other geeking out and playing hosts of computer game. That dream was to visit Akhihabara, the area of Tokyo famous for its arcades, electronics shops and palaces full of games. I walked out of the station to be greeted by a SEGA acade. I of course had to get my photo with it. I then spent three or four hours poking around and seeing what was going on. I’d set myself a budget of 5,000 yen (45 quid) to spend on games and etc while there, I could of course have spent rather more but my budget was pretty tight before I missed the flight.
I ended up in a shop called Trader full of wonderful amounts of old games, having a pure geek out, the man behind the counter nicely drew me a map of where to find the other two retro gaming emporiums (Camp which was too expensive and Friends which we will get to shortly). I had a good poke around Trader and found a copy of Streets of Rage (Bare Knuckle in Japan) for the Megadrive but I decided to investigate the two other places before spending anything.
Friends was my DREAM retro gaming shop, run by a family, everything lovingly cared for, all kinds of games on all kind of formats, I could have maxed my credit cards then and there. I had a good root around and ended up picking up a copy of Streets of Rage 2 and the soundtrack for my favourite game ever, a 4 disc boxset for Final Fantasy 7. Both were in ridiculously lovely condition, considering the game is 17 years old and the boxiest is around ten years old this was amazing.
On my way back I dropped into Trader and picked up Streets of Rage, a 20 year old game, of course in beautiful condition. The CD boxset was 3,000 yen, Streets of Rage 2 1,000 yen and Streets of Rage 790 yen, 4,790 yen. Just under budget. I could have spent an absolute host more though. We are considering teaching in Japan next year, if I get to go back I think both shops will be seeing plenty of my yen!
From Akhihabara I headed back into Tokyo itself and over to the Tokyo Dome for that nights baseball game between the Yomiuri Giants and the Yokohama Baystarts; I love going to sporting events in different countries and a night at the baseball sounded an excellent idea. On my way to the stadium my umbrella snapped in two and was promptly dumped in the trash. Thank god the Giants play in a dome. I got to the ticket counter and blagged myself a student ticket using my medical emergency card from the school I teach at in Vietnam. Awesome.
I headed straight inside to get away from the rather inclement weather and took up my seat a good hour before the first pitch, this allowed me to watch the teams warming up throwing balls that came from a supermarket trolley full. An excellent system. The game itself was pretty good. The Baystars took an early lead and were up 5-0 late in the game, the Giants then hit a grand slam (or a bases loaded homer as I referred to it to an American friend who laughed at me) to make it 5-4 but they couldn’t muster another run, a long hit just falling short of being a homer with the very last hit. Ouch. I must mention the beer girls walking around the stands with a small keg on their back so you can get a draft beer without getting up. Amazing.
I have to give kudos where it’s due to the Japanese fans, they shouted as the hit went up, sighed as it was caught, expressed dismay at the loss, chuckled and got on with their day. No rage, no depression, no fighting, no lunacy, sports as it is meant to be watched, it’s nice to know it can happen somewhere as it certainly doesn’t these days in England.
The next day was a day of travelling, I got up early and had a wander around the very picturesque Senso-ji temple located around the corner from my hostel, which was unbelievably well cared for, something the temples here in Vietnam could most definitely learn from, some of them are awesome but would looked damn better for a wash and a lick of paint! From there it was down to Tokyo station for something I’d been waiting for since I was a little kid.
The one and only SHINKANSEN, also known as the bullet train, it may not be the fastest train the world (an article I just found says it is number 3, which still ain’t bad considering they began operating in 1964) anymore but it’s by far the coolest looking. I loved looking at pictures of them in my transport books as a child and I most certainly wasnt passing up the chance to travel on one, so I bought my ticket from Tokyo to Nagoya for a little over 12,000 yen, the best part of a hundred quid!
Before getting on I took rather a lot of photos before settling into my seat. There was nobody set next to me for the entire journey so I chilled out with my iPod and a book and flew at over 200mph from Tokyo to Nagoya. Inside the train was lovely with wide comfortable seats and a complete lack of graffiti, chewing gum or anything of the sort. The train of course stopped everywhere on time and had us in Nagoya about one hour and forty-five minutes later. Quick.
I was in Nagoya for the F1 race and by the time I arrived I decided not to do a lot with that first night, this trip was already costing me a fortune, a bowl of beef at the beef bowl (see how that works? :P) and a check out of all the happening on the internet later and that was my evening. I made arrangements with an Aussie guy, Adrian, that I’d met at the hostel to get down to the circuit at Suzuka for the Friday practices the next day.
We got up what we thought would be early enough to be at the circuit for first practice and headed back to the beef bowl. From there it was trying and get the correct train tickets in a Japanese train station time. Once we had found the correct office (different lines, different companies, different offices) we came up with our tickets to and from the circuit, for 2,500 yen, still twenty pounds a day but better than the 5,000 the guy in the hostel had told me it would be! From there we took the train 50kms from Nagoya out to Suzuka. The circuit has its own stop and from there is about a fifteen minute walk (or 45 if you spend time wandering around trying to find the ticket collection place like we did – note to Japan more signage would be welcome!). After everything we did eventually make it into the circuit for the last five minutes of FP1.
The nice thing about the Friday of the Grand Prix weekend is that a lot of the ticket holders dont show up so you’re allowed to sit wherever you like which is awesome as you can check out the rest of the corners around the circuit. The Japanese grand prix was by far the most I have seen on a grand prix Friday at any of the seven races I’ve been to yet (GB, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, China, Belgium being the other six) however there was nowhere close to the same numbers wearing F1 merchandise, at other races especially Europe the fans are all togged out in team gear, in Japan most people were wearing their casual get-up!
We had a good look around and saw the action from 130R (which looks way cooler on the TV, its barely a corner in person) and Spoon among others. The possible highlight of my day was going on the Suzuka Circuit Ferris Wheel, its always part of the background shots for the F1 races and has been every F1 game since the year dot, even as far back as Virtua Racing. To go on it and see the circuit from high in the sky was an awesome experience for me and for once it was something in Japan that wasn’t too expensive – 500 yen – a touch over four pounds – very reasonable!
From there it was queueing next to a decidedly weird Japanese guy who kept staring at us and making weird noises while waiting for the train and a cheap bite at McDonalds to finish the day. On that note god bless the 120 yen (one pound) menu, it literally saved me from going bankrupt in Japan, during my time there I consumed more than a few Cheeseburgers, McPorks and many Shaka Shaka chickens. If I do end up teaching out there I feel it might be the polar opposite to my year in Vietnam with zero McDonalds lol!
Day two is qualifying day and with all our train tickets already booked we breezed into the circuit without problems seeing the confused looks on the faces of many in the same situation we had been the previous day, one of the reasons I always head down on the Friday, the second being I’ve paid a fortune for my ticket, I’m damn well getting my moneys worth!!!
I found my actual seats and arranged to meet up with Adrian to head home as we were in different stands, I was quite mad to find out that my grandstand had been labeled as having a TV and one could absolutely not be seen from my seat. I did move around during qualifying so I could see the screen, quali with no TV is utterly pointless – the order of the cars on track has nothing to do with how they are doing so you have no idea. Thankfully not everyone turns up on Saturday and I managed to find a spot. It was a pretty exciting session with Vettel coming out on top again, which was not so exciting for a finale!
Sunday of course is the day of the race, we decided to set off earlier to compensate for the mass of people and managed to get to the circuit without incident. We had some time to kill so we decided to troll the merchandising stands; I’d been deliberating since the Friday if I wanted something Jenson Button or something Kamui Kobayashi and in the end decided to go with Kobayashi as I was at the F1 in Japan. So I picked up a sweet t-shirt in red that wasn’t too much damage to the wallet and changed into it then and there. In a moment of panic after putting it on I though I’d lost my ticket but thankfully I had mistakenly put it in my pocket, which is embarassing but much better than the alternative of my ticket having gone elsewhere!!
After that we decided to head to our seats, thankfully we did so early as at some point we took a wrong turn and found ourselves way over the other side of the track, thankfully all this meant was a good hike around the circuit and still settling in in time for another boring Porsche Cup race where the Garmin car finished about half a lap ahead. Yawn. A portion of steak on a stick later, yes steak, actual quality things to eat at a sports event and not tasteless crap, fancy that, it was time to take my seats and get settled in for the race.
The race was an absolute pleasure and thanks to the American girl KK and her father sat next to me who had a Kangaroo TV I was fully updated on all events in the race that happened out of my view so the TV wasn’t so missed after all! The race was a great one, one of the better ones I’ve been there for in person, a good amount of passing and action and a great viewpoint (apart from the missing TV) to watch it from. Jenson Button came through to win the race in style although Vettel still clinched the championship despite the Englishman’s win.
After the race in Japan they let you walk the west part of the circuit, from the chicane under the tunnel, through spoon and back down through 130R so I caught up with Adrian and we had a good wander around, taking photos in the best corners and checking out the barriers were Sebastian Buemi had left his mark on them earlier in the day. It was pretty cool to get to walk around the circuit and see that what looks so perfect on TV really isn’t close up. You can still see the paint from old advertisements on the in field and that the tyres for crashing into haven’t been painted in some time despite them looking a brilliant white on the TV. A pretty cool experience.
On the way out the Sebastien Vettel champion t-shirts were already on sale but my wallet couldn’t take one so it was back to the waiting line for the train and back to the hostel, with a pitstop on the way for a few Japanese beers. All in all an awesome F1 weekend.
To save some pennies I had booked the night bus from Nagoya to Tokyo for the Monday night so that gave me all day Monday to have a look around Nagoya; first I took in Nagoya Castle, which is kinda cool but knowing its replica not as cool as it might have been; the original was destroyed! From there I headed down to the world’s largest planetarium, having never been to one I was quite excited, until I found out all the tickets were gone for the day. So I was pretty bummed out as I headed to the Atsuta Shrine, the last thing on my list of places to go in Nagoya. Thankfully the shrine was an oasis of peace; I chilled out, chatted to a few tourists, read my book, watched the koi carp in the pond and fully cheered myself up. Lovely.
In Japan even the nightbuses are cool, on the back of your seat is a visor you can pull down over yourself like some sort of Star Wars character to help you sleep, which of course I did. This was an absolute pleasure, so much so that I nearly missed my get off point when the bus got there 45 minutes AHEAD of schedule. Only in Japan. From there it was back to my hostel with time for a quick nap before meeting up with my friend Ayaka whom I studied my CELTA with in Australia; she’s still living out there but was home visiting family, so it was cool to catch-up. We had some noodles; I forget the kind but they were yummy and had a wander around the Ueno part of town. A pretty cool day.
That night I headed down to the Hard Rock Cafe in Ueno; to satisfy one of my addicitions, as is now obligatory I picked up the pin badge from the rock shop and proceeded inside and had myself a huge plate of ribs and a smooth dark beer. The ribs were an absolutely massive plateful but they were succesfully dealt with. I chilled out for awhile afterwards, checking out the memorabilia and writing my postcards (which I never got round to posting in Japan and still have here, I’m sorry family they will be with you soon(ish)). Despite my girlfriend protestations I have to say I love the HRC, what a place!
The next day I managed to catch up with Adrian after getting our wires crossed the day before and we headed out to see the Emperor’s Palace Gardens and then onto one of the highlights of my trip: the Studio Ghibli museum (warning to anyone going, you need to buy tickets in advance from a Lawson convenience store, you can’t just turn up) the museum was an absolute delight; I haven’t seen all of the films but the ones I have are wonderful, I think my favourite has to be My Neightbour Totoro; I think it might be because Totoro reminds me of me haha!
Sitting down in a giant Cat bus, getting my pic taken with the Iron Giant (its outside so you can, inside the museum is a no camera zone and the experience was better for it; instead of taking pictures of everything you look at it and enjoy it, in museums from now on I’m going to try to be less camera happy and spend more time enjoying what’s infront of me) and watching the stroboscope (sp?) were among the highlights. I spent some time considering my gift shop purchases for the missus and my sis who are both big fans and bought them both some things I thought they would enjoy! (no Sara I won’t write it here, it’s a surprise :P)
From there after some train changing mishaps I made it just in time to meet one of my ex-Students from Oz, Izumi, for Sushi, I hadn’t had it yet on the trip but I figured I would save it for when I was with a Japanese friend so I would know what the hell I was eating and wouldn’t get ripped off. We went to an awesome place in Ueno (a lot of things seem to be in that area) and I tried all kinds, crab, tuna, a Japanese fish I forget the name of, some kind of soy-nut like thing, white fish, salmon and all of it had one thing in common: deliciousness. The best part of the restaurant might have been that to work out the price at the end the server had a handheld device that scanned your stack of plates (different colours, different prices) and automatically added up the total. Wow. Awesome. I made him stop before he did it so I could video it!
That night I was sat on my Mac in the hostel common area when who walks in but KK and her father who were sat next to me for the F1 race, what a surreal experience, its a small world no doubt!
After saying goodbye to Izumi it was time for my last sleep in Japan but I wasn’t flying until 11:45PM the next night so I had time for one last stop the next day; the Tokyo National Museum which I caught up with Adrian for and had a good wander around, its bloody massive and well worth the entry price. Some pretty cool samurai swords, armor and all that kind of thing, definitely worth a look if you’re in the vicinity although be warned you could max a credit card and decorate your house in the shop, some of the stuff is beautiful, especially the prints, WOW!
After that it was travel home time. Flight from Japan to Malaysia – 8 hours. 9 and a half hour wait in Kuala Lumpur Airport. 1 hour 40 minute flight and I prepared myself for long passport cues and my bag being last off the plane one more time. Inexplicably it was none of that, I went straight through passport control and my bag was the FIRST ONE off the plane. I scooted out of there and grabbed the last taxi that was waiting and was home within 25 minutes of my landing. I gave Linda her presents and passed out. Zzzzzz.
Now its back to the grindstone and putting the hours in for the cash as we’ve booked to head to America in Jan/Feb, so I can meet the parents, friends and family (don’t worry people – Linda is coming to England in August), if anyone is going to be in the Arizona/Nevada area during that time holler at me, it would be GREAT to catch up =) As it is I have a long long day at work tomorrow and its getting late so I’m going to go shower and knocked out a few Zzzz. I will try to be more regular with the blogging. I promise.
Love and Akhihabara