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April 1, 2005

The Big Thaw

Finally, it looks as if the big thaw has arrived here in Finland. The temperature's been gradually creeping above freezing, and the snow and pack ice are slowly melting away. Maybe I can put my thermal underwear away and stop feeling like my ears are going to freeze off when I take Ira out for walks at midnight now.

One of the surprisingly nice things about winter here is that most days the skies have been blue and the sun's been shining - compared to Britain where it's normally grey, damp and overcast. Suddenly now the days are growing longer and it isn't getting dark until 2100 - I guess by the time I get back from Japan it'll hardly be getting dark at all.

Here's a wonderful set of photographs that gives you an idea just how hard the winter can be here, taken from one of the ice-breakers as it worked to keep Finland's sea lanes open this winter.

April 2, 2005

Tokyo Bound

I'm in Munich airport just about to board my connecting flight to Tokyo, nursing a bit of a hangover from my last evening in Finland. Hope they have some Bloody Mary on board!

April 4, 2005

Landing in the Rising Sun

After changing planes in Munich's slick airport, I settled into the long flight ahead and tried to get some sleep. I'd just managed to get properly comatose when we touched down at a bright, sunny Narita airport. One of the first things that caught my eye was a girl driving a forklift truck as we headed to customs.

I had been expecting to be dropped into a hysterical mass of noise and people, but instead Narita was calm and peaceful. I bought a train ticket to Tokyo and headed to the big city, which is 60km away but costs less than getting into London from any of it's airports.

For once I'd prepared well and the task of finding my way through Tokyo to my hotel was no problem, with a subway guide & all the maps on my phone and Palm. The trains, naturally, were very modern, with screens showing adverts, plans, and information about the upcoming station.

Soon I was in Asakusa district, where the first cherry blossom of the year had just appeared - something of a Japanese obsession as it symbolises the approach of summer, and people were picknicking and photographing each other under it. I dropped my bag off at the hotel and decided to rejoice in my multi-culturalism by joining them. I bought some lovely looking meatballs from a food stand and sat down to feast on them. As I bit into the first one, however, I almost threw up. They were not meatballs but raw octopus balls. As I tried to hide my desire to puke from the Japanese families tucking into them around me, I looked up to see a smiling picture of an octopus laughing down at me from the side of the stall.

April 6, 2005

Tokyo at First Sight

On the first evening I caught the Metro into Ginza, one of Tokyo's many centres. Climbing the stairs from the station I was stunned by the scene - all around me were polished buildings covered with massive screens and illuminated with adverts. It was literally breathtaking. I walked around trying to take it all in as two sleek bullet trains passed above me on suspended railtracks. It felt like I'd been living in the dark ages all of my life. I stepped into Bic Camera, a truly massive electronics shop on nine floors crammed full of iMode phones and electronics I'd never seen before and wandered around awestruck until I had to force myself out to get something to eat.

After my previous meal, I decided to play it safe, headed to a pasta restaurant and ordered the chicken pasta. It was lovely - apart from the fact that they'd put a whole raw egg on top of it. I attempted to eat around it without breaking it, but didn't manage that for long, broke it, and just had to mix it in.

April 7, 2005

Electric Toilet Experience

I've just had my first electric toilet experience. First of all the seat is heated, which seems quite common even on less advanced toilets here, and I couldn't see the point of it as it's quite warm here at the moment. When you try it though you realise just how nice... and relaxing it is.

There's a control panel at the side allowing you to adjust the water pressure - I had it down at 40% and already it was beginning to feel like a pressure washer, any higher could feel like it would slice right through you! There's also four LEDs showing the current status of your toilet, and my favourite function marked 'Powerful Deodoriser' - which seems to work pretty well. There is, however, a warning on the lid saying that the seat may cause low temerature burns to people of a sensitive nature! I'm on the lookout next for some toilets with a better featureset, like adjustable direction jets and health analysis to test.

Update: I just had a chance to use a Toto Apricot toilet which really put the previous one to shame! The toilet lid automatically lifts as you approach, and it has precise jet controls and a blow dry! Here's a picture of the control panel with an explanation. Apparently, they also do a model that takes SD cards and plays mp3s. Still no internet access on it though?

April 9, 2005

Shinjuku Crowds

The more time I spend in Tokyo, the bigger and more crowded I realise it is. Many of the new parts of the centre have a slick, polished feeling like in The Matrix; everything is so clean and angular it feels computer generated. Other parts, in contrast, are grim, sleazy, and ablaze with neon.

The other evening I went over to east Shinjuku, the area of Tokyo which inspired the film Bladerunner. Even in Bangkok or London, I've never been in such crowds in my life. Shinjuku has the busiest railway station in the world, with over 2 million people going through it every day. At rush hour guards are employed on the platforms to push commuters into the trains just to get the doors closed. Stepping off a train you're instantly in a swarming mass of people heading frantically in every direction whilst you try to figure out which one of the sixty different tunnelled exits you should be heading for. Basically, it's a mad, mad place.

The Japanese are incredibly polite and friendly, however, and don't push and shove, but still, it's the first time I've ever felt a bit freaked out by being surrounded by so many people. Luckily, I managed to find an electric toilet nearby to nip into and compose myself.

April 10, 2005

Ridlng the Shinkansen

This morning I headed to Tokyo station and excitedly caught the bullet train, or shinkansen, bound for Kyoto. This was something I'd been wanting to do for a long time, and I wasn't disappointed. Inside it's more like being in a plane than a train, and as we quickly left Tokyo behind, I opened up my bento box and had lunch as we rushed through the Japanese countryside at over 300km/h. I tried to read a bit of my guidebooks but, very soon, we were arriving in Kyoto.

April 11, 2005

Big in Japan

l dropped my bags off and set off to see some of old Kyoto as soon as I arrived. Kyoto was Japan's capital for 1000 years until it moved to Tokyo. This, and the fact that the Americans considered, but decided not to drop an atomic bomb on the city in a god-like judgement, means there are more ancient temples and shrines here than in any other city in Japan.

What I didn't realise was just how hard work it would be getting around to see them. First of all, they're spread out in different directions around the centre, and closely surrounded by residential areas. Hence, each visit turns out to be a long trek and a hunt to find the temple. Kyoto's always a big tourist destination but it's cherry blossom time of the year right now, and so it's hugely popular with the Japanese themselves, touring the ancient monuments and photographing each other in victory salutes. The pavements in town aren't nearly wide enough for all the people so you end up stuck behind hordes of four foot tall Japanese women who appear to be older than the temples you're trying to get to.

There are some wonderful temples and shrines, however. One of the places I visited today was Kinkakuji Temple, or the Golden Pavillion - so called because the entire structure is finished in gold. Just a shame there's always ten people with cameras and tripods camped out in front of you when you're trying to take a picture of it!

April 12, 2005

Tokyo Tremors

I received an anxious sms from Carita yesterday, asking if I was still alive after the earthquake. Assuming that she'd just been smoking the old peace pipe again, I didn't pay too much attention, but apparently there was a 6.1 magnitude earthquake close to Tokyo sometime during the night that I was oblivious to. Which goes to show just what it takes to waken me up sometimes.

April 14, 2005

Expo 05

As I'm in Japan, I thought l should visit Expo 05, so I caught the shinkansen over to Aichi to take a look around it. As I was leaving the guesthouse, however, it began to rain - it didn't look like it would come to anything though so I chose not to go back for my waterproof jacket. Needless to say it pissed down all day.

One of the things I most wanted to see at Expo was the robot exhibit so I ran through the rain over to the exhibition hall it was in. The first thing to greet me was a Hello Kitty robot sitting behind reception, which shouted at me continuously in Japanese until I walked away. Next there was a demonstration of the PaPeRo child minding robot, which disappointingly refused to get irritated with the brats and begin shouting, "Exterminate! Exterminate!" The next robot looked like it could have - the dalek-sized Actroid security robot, designed to roam around offices and factories at night in search of prey. There was also an impressive two-legged walking dinosaur bot, a reception robot, and a whole bunch of cleaning robots, which are in operation on the Expo grounds every night. Looking a bit like the motorised street cleaning machines you see around towns, these work without any outside control, guiding themselves by gps, and working as a team to clean the site. One robot which was quite impressive was an automatic wheelchair, which they wanted to let me loose in - but the rain stopped that. Guided by gps, it takes the passenger to any destination pressed on it's touchscreen, whilst avoiding obstacles and terrifying neighbourhood cats with it's laser guidance system.

It took me some time to realise that the very human-like Actroid was in fact not an attractive Asian girl - but a robot, so just think of the possible consequences of being pissed when you met one. I've no idea what it does, but it looked and moved like a real girl, and won't drag you around looking at shoes for hours, so that's good enough for me!

Much of Expo was nothing special, however, consisting of national dislays from lots of countries - most of which used it simply as a tourism stand; the joint Nordic countries effort was particularly pathetic. The Thai stand was good for lunch. The Laos stand sold happy pizza. Expecting the worst (lots of pictures of Tower Bridge), the British exhibition was actually pretty good, with lots of interactive exhibits and a message about the environment.

Tho most moving display for me was in the United Nations exhibition, with the UNEP Focus on your World photography contest. Hundreds of the best shots to show the environmental changes taking place in the world were on show, some of which were truly powerful.

The downside of the whole Expo was that you had to queue for each individual exhibit, often for as long as 60 minutes, outside, in the rain, so there was a lot I didn't bother going to see.

April 17, 2005

Train to Kagoshima

As I had a 7 day Japan rail pass, I decided to get some value out of it and head down to the city of Kagoshima in the far south of the country.

After changing trains a couple of times I was on an express, going past old people working the fields by hand, as we approached the town of Shin-Yatsushiro. There, on the edge of town, suspended above the plain of green rice fields, was a futuristic, shining chrome and glass station. Our train terminated there and we all transferred onto a beautiful, brand new, white shinkansen that was sitting alongside. It was like we were going into space. It was the nicest train I'd ever been on - and I obviously wasn't the only one who thought that. The other passengers were all standing around with their mouths open & taking photographs. The interior was fantastic, with expensively upholstered, shaped wooden seats, and bamboo blinds. The railway staff on the platform remained bowed while the train pulled out of the station - if I'd had a corgi with me I would have felt like the queen.

Japan is busily extending it's bullet train lines all the way from Tokyo to the very south, and this line had just opened some months ago. One of the main differences between travelling on trains in other parts of the world and Japan is that here they don't bother laying railway tracks around hills and mountains - they just put a tunnel straight through. So, on the trip down to Kagoshima we were underground about a third of the time, but it was a really fast trip. At Expo, Japan Railways had been displaying their new maglev shinkansen which had just done 500km/h in trials.

I arrived and sorted out a room in a ryokan, or Japanese guesthouse, then jumped on the ferry. Kagoshima overlooks Japan's most active volcanoe, Sakurajima, and that was where I was headed. It used to be an island but during one of it's more recent eruptions the lava it threw out filled in the 70m deep channel on one of it's sides.

I was about 1000km south of Tokyo now and there were palm trees and flowers blooming everywhere. As I was walking along, I suddenly realised something. After ten days of being in Tokyo and Kyoto looking at tourist sights, I had finally come to a piece of the real Japan - and that made me happy.

April 18, 2005

Asses of Fire

The following day I caught a train to the onsen, or hot spring, town of Ibusuki with Shinya, a Japanese guy whom I'd met in the guesthouse. There, we had a huge noodle lunch sitting on tatami mats in a small restaurant I would have missed as all the signs were only written in Japanese script.

We continued on to what the town is famous for - burying people in hot volcanic sand. After changing into robes we walked out to the beach where a team with shovels were waiting to bury us. The whole area is very volcanic - signs warn you that going swimming in the sea at low tide can cause burns; the hot spring water gushing out of the sand is 80c. Being buried feels a little strange. The hot sand is very relaxing, however, and I could have fallen asleep if my arse hadn't soon begun to feel like it was on fire. Ten minutes is the recommended cooking time, after which you proceed to traditional Japanese style communal baths. These basically involve soaping yourself up whilst sitting on a small stool. I went to check out the sauna to see how it compared to Finland, and it was the first sauna I'd ever been to with a big television inside it! There was no way to throw water on the stove, however, as it was all electronically controlled at a constant 79c.

I left the spa feeling like my circulation had been given a good workout, and so relaxed that I slept all the way back to Kagoshima on the train.

April 19, 2005

Turning Japanese

My next destination was a small place by the sea called Hagi but I hadn't realised quite how difficult it would be to get there. It took eight different trains and the whole day before I finally stumbled into the youth hostel.

Having spent far too many nights in hostels over the years, I now realise that it's often a special kind of person who works in them. They're either straight out of the army or straight out of a psychiatric prison. While I was completing the check-in form I noticed the guy on the counter, who was very friendly in a disturbing Graham Norton sort of way, noting down random details about me - like the airline from my baggage tag and the make of my phone. Was he planning to creep into my room in the middle of the night, execute me with a samurai sword then take over my life? If so, I could probably do with a drink, so I left my bag in the coldest room in all of Japan and headed out.

I'd been walking for about twenty minutes, listening to my iPod, and trying to find the centre of town, when a police car pulled up. Rammstein (Matrix soundtrack) was filling my head and I wondered if I'd been walking in an anti-establishment sort of way. Two policemen jumped out and rushed over to me, shouting in Japanese. Maybe I've been here too long but it was only by shining a torch into my face that they realised I wasn't Japanese, and they were immediately very embarrassed to have stopped me. They didn't speak any English but seemed to think it was suspicious that I was walking around in the dark. I showed them my passport and a crumpled map, and tried to look lost to convince them that I was out to find a bar and not to rob one of their temples. With this they seemed happy, thanked me, and went on their way. I suppose this is why Japan has such a low crime rate.

April 20, 2005

Capsule Hotels

After wandering around Hagi's old buildings and temples I caught the first of many trains that would take me back to Tokyo and the big city once more.

It was evening by the time the shinkansen sped past Ginza's illuminated buildings and arrived in Tokyo's main station. I didn't have a room booked as my plan was to hunt around and find one of Japan's famed capsule hotels to spend the night in. I dropped my bag off into a locker and set off to look for my fibreglass coffin for the night.

In no time at all I was booked into the Riverside Capsule hotel in Asakusa district - and very nice it seemed to. You leave your clothes and belongings in a locker downstairs and a towel, toothbrush, razor and Japanese style pyjamas are provided for you. You then take the lift to the top floor where there's a traditional Japanese bath and sauna. Then you proceed to your capsule which has a television, radio, lighting, air-conditioning, and an alarm clock built into it. They're about 2m by 1m by 1m so it doesn't feel particularly claustrophobic inside and it's big enough to sit up in.

Apparently, as hotel prices have dropped over recent years in Japan, capsule hotels are becoming something of an endangered species, which is a shame as I think they should exist in other parts of the world as well. I'd read that they're often full of drunken salarymen who have missed the last train home, but I enjoyed a very peaceful, pleasant night there.

April 21, 2005

Seduced by Sony PSP

I couldn't resist one any longer and as the European launch has been delayed for months, I bought myself a Sony PSP the other day. Though I haven't been into gaming for years I suspect I could get hooked as the graphics and controls are just so good on it. It's also a great screen for watching movies or looking through photos on. Additionaly, there's a lot of rumours that Sony could use it as their next PDA platform now that they've dropped their Palm licence (quite rightly as Palm seem to have just stagnated over the last five years with hardly any imporvements to the OS). It's already been hacked to work as a web browser, ICQ client, and ebook reader,though I fully suspect that Carita is going to steal it away before I get a chance to use it for anything like that.

Update
: Sony just confirmed it won't launch in Europe until September.

April 22, 2005

Emerging Science Museum

I'm in the Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation at the moment and it's really quite impressive, set in a futuristic building in Tokyo's waterfront district that you reach by maglev railway over a high, arching bridge. So far I've been in a 300km/hr electric car, and finally got to see Honda's Asimo robot, who appeared to be stoned and just stared at me, nodding it's head continuously. They also have good displays on superconduction, micro-machines, robotics, and 'environmentally symbiotic housing' - whatever that is.

April 27, 2005

Flying Back to Europe

My last days in Tokyo turned out to be really hectic and I didn't get a chance to blog anything before I boarded my long flight back to Finland with SAS. It was a disappointing flight - the stewardesses were rude, especially to the Japanese, and the Airbus seats only reclined six inches, making me feel like I was going to have bed sores across my arse by the time we reached Europe. SAS had been boasting that they had wi-fi on all flights between Asia and Scandinavia but when I asked about it they replied, " Well, we do... but it's not working."

Eleven hours later we touched down in Copenhagen. I'd arranged to meet up with Lisbeth and Jesper for something to eat, and soon enough I'd been persuaded to see Nina as well, whom I hadn't seen since I was going out with her over two years ago. As usual, I'd left it too late to start packing on my last night in Tokyo, had ended up wandering around Japanese supermarkets at midnight, and had only managed to get a few hours sleep before heading to the airport. Hence, I was pretty spaced out by this time, and stringing simple sentences together was becoming something of a challenge. Nonetheless, meeting up with Nina and clearing the air turned out to be one of the best things I could have done with six hours in Copenhagen; but then again there isn't much else to do there.

After repossessing my ice skates and being forced to drink a lot of Danish beer I narrowly managed to catch my onward flight to Helsinki while they inexplicably paged me in Polish over the airport intercom. After flying westwards through seven time zones that day in a desperate attempt to stay young forever, somewhere over the Baltic time finally caught up with me and I arrived in Finland one year older. I felt bad. It was now 24 hours since I'd left the hotel in Tokyo, I was exhausted, aching from carrying too much luggage, and jet-lagged. Or maybe this was just what being 34 felt like. Getting out my seat was difficult. I collected my bags, which were the last on the belt apart from that one bag that no-one ever picks up as the person who owns it has died or been taken away by immigration, and it just spins around in the airport all night on it's own after everyone has left.

It was fantastic to see Carita again, who'd brought Ira to the airport to meet me as well, and it felt like we'd been apart for months. All the airport buses had stopped running by this time, however, and strangely it took us some time to find a taxi driver who didn't mind a Rottweiler in his car and we could finally get back to the flat.

The whole Japan trip was a fantastic experience in one of the friendliest countries I've ever been lucky enough to travel to and, as much of the time I was so busy there, rushing around trying to fit in as much as possible, I'll carry on writing about all the things I didn't have time to blog.

April 28, 2005

Toilet Attack

At the weekend I decided it was time to get to the bottom of Japanese culture, and headed to Toto's main showroom in Shinjuku to check out the home of the electric toilet. Toto are one of the country's main kitchen and bathroom manufacturers and their showroom and sales office is on the 35th and 36th floors of a skyscraper looking out across Tokyo. It was mainly full of young, childless (as seems to be the norm in Japan) couples, discussing the merits of the massive kitchen sinks and small, space-saving baths on display, but my interest was on the upper floor where some of the most advanced toilets in the world lay waiting to be explored.

Many of them I'd had the pleasure of using already, however, I particularly liked the mp3 playing model with a wireless LCD control console for all of it's features and optional plug-on speakers. Another toilet had a 'flush sound' button which, when pressed, played a recording of a flush to protect your modesty. I began to think seriously about buying one, with prices from around £150 and the entire mechanism built into the toilet lid, most could be retro-fitted to normal toilets and would surely make a huge improvement to my quality of life given the amount of time I spend in the bathroom. I somehow resisted though, and headed for the aptly named, Trylet Zone.

This was my big chance to actively participate with any Toto toilet of my choice. The problem was that I didn't really feel the need, but of course I resolved to do my best or else I would have just appeared rude. I chose the most advanced model I could find, with an entire armful of buttons and control knobs, and as I sat down the heated seat kicked into action. With so many controls, however, there was no room for the explanatory graphics that I had become used to; instead there were only Japanese characters, so I decided to play around and try to figure it out. After a couple of button presses I found an interesting looking one and hit it. A pressurised jet of heated water shot out, hit me in the balls, causing me instinctively to jump up! Such was the force that it sprayed my legs then flew across the cubicle, and pissed water all over my jacket hanging on the back of the door whilst I tried frantically to shut it off!

It was certainly time to leave the showroom. I tried to attract as little attention as possible as I sneaked out but several people noticed the trail of water behind me and were obviously wondering how I managed to get myself soaking wet.