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Towards Tokyo

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

Ueno Sunset


JR East run double-decker Shinkansen in and out of Tokyo. They seem to move at various speeds: e.g. the 17:44 Max 218 from Utsonomiya to Tokyo would go at a maximum of 218km/h—significantly faster than the train I got on the way up. It pays to note these little details, because the whole of the central area seems to be one big commuter belt.

The train’s layout means that when you sit downstairs, you’re so close to the tracks that it feels like sitting in a racing car hugging the pavement. Or it would do, if the damn track wasn’t walled in by noise-barriers.

I moved upstairs, leaving the backpack in a corner. Although the train was much bigger than the ones I’ve travelled on so far, it was more crowded and I wanted to avoid bumping into people with my pack. Of course the crowds meant that all the window seats were taken.

I excused myself at the next stop and moved back downstairs, worried about my backpack: not that it might disappear, but that it might trigger a terrorism alert. But nobody had taken any notice—and the walls were gone!

Face pressed against the glass, hands cupped to block out the cabin light, I saw Japan streak past one last time, the city lights glittering like jewels against the darkening sky.

I had a lump in my throat. Today was the final day on my JR pass. For a moment I thought about taking the train back out of Tokyo, catching one last exhilarating ride, but all good things must come to an end.

And then it was over, like a dream. We pulled into Ueno Station and a quick glance at the map confirmed that I’d better get off here.

I found myself in the termite hill that is Greater Tokyo.


# # # # #

Tokyo: Ueno Station Area

Nikko: Rain and Shrine

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

Nikko: rain and shrine


I was glad for the umbrella I bought on the way: at first it’d just looked like a brief shower, but by the time the train approached Nikko, heavy clouds had closed in from all sides.

They say that, for three days after a Typhoon, the weather is completely clear. Too bad that today was Day Four post-Fitow.
[read on]

Utsonomiya: Coin-locker Conundrum

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007

Nikko: torii gate


Today was supposed to be an easy spot of sight seeing. Or so I thought.

Nikko was only an hour’s journey away by local train, and I thought that it would be best to leave my backpack at Utsonomiya Station since I’d have to change there for the Shinkansen. There were coin-lockers on every floor, even some that accepted SUICA cards.

The concept is simple: you put in your luggage, push down the lever and press your card to the ‘SUICA’ icon. You then take your numbered ticket.

It’s so simple that even a small child can understand it. Even one that can’t read (Kanji). But not me.
[read on]

Fuck Yahoo

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007

(Cross-posted to LJ.)

You may not have been able to contact/PM me over the last couple of days or weeks, because Yahoo Mail constantly goes down.

With the company being as bloated as it is, there are no easy explanations, and I couldn’t read the helpdesk reply if there was one since I can’t access my account.

In an attempt to shed light on the problem, I have even joined Yahoo! Answers, but of course it won’t allow me to post a question from either Firefox or IE. I have the option to ‘preview’ or go to ‘previous’ in a never-ending loop.

I have two options open to me: use my Gmail account as my primary account (however reluctantly, after six years on Yahoo) and change over all my contacts/links/sites, or activate my website’s email option and ditto.

Having a personalized email address may actually be cute in an age of universal Gmail/Yahoo. My current host is reliable—dare I say even more so than Yahoo (they deal with actual financial transactions, and I reckon that reliability is in direct correlation with the amount of money that is at stake).

Utsunomiya: En-route to Nowhere

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007

Utsonomiya Station View

09/09/2007 (cont.)

The trip to Nikko took five hours, so perhaps leaving that afternoon had been the right decision. Then again, perhaps not

Up until now, Japan had been one continuous conurbation. But, gradually, the lights outside the train window grew fewer. When I disembarked, an almost eery silence greeted me. No ruffling of steps, no muttering of crowds, no gonging of gongs.

The station had the feel of a small town. Outside, the air smelled of pine trees

Had it been earlier, I might have tried to catch a bus to the nearby campsite, but by now it was dark and the square in front of the station was deserted. The street lights were subdued, giving the place the feel of an English village lit by sodium lamps.

There were no illuminated signs pointing out hotels or restaurants.

I turned on my heels and took the slow train all the way back to Utsonomiya.

Since Utsonomiya is on the Shinkansen line, it should have a station hotel. And since it is still a way to Tokyo, prices should be affordable.

Hopefully, it would also have restaurants. I noticed that I hadn’t eaten enough today. It’s not easy to eat regularly in a country where munching in the street is frowned upon and where there are few places to sit and have a picnic. Consequently, most people tuck into their bento boxes the minute they step into a train, but I hadn’t been in the mood for bento today.Utsunomiya: gyōza meal

The lights outside the train window grew more luminous. And as we pulled into Utsonomiya station, I spotted several brightly lit hotels. I was back in the metropolis.

I found a cheap stuffy hotel with no apparent English name (although it turns out to have a website). The windows in my room did not open, there was no aircon and no fan, but there was a heater. I checked it: it was off, but the temperature in the room must have been in the mid-thirties.

It must have been the first time on this trip that I walked into the street to cool off, but I was pleased with my destination. There was a good choice of food places and I settled for an excellent gyōza set.

Somehow, this was exactly what I needed.

No Nara

Monday, October 22nd, 2007

No Nara

Todaiji Buddhist temple in Nara.
Based on a public domain image.


The train I’d boarded on impulse turned out to be JR after all—the slow train with many additional stops for commuters. The subway uses a different station.

And that was the cause for my troubles.

Today would be the first day in almost a week when I didn’t get to visit at least one World Heritage Site, even though Nara boasts no fewer than eight of them. It does not, however, boast many hotels.

This time, I’d had the foresight to print out a map in the foyer of the excellent Toyoko Inn in Himeji. I didn’t seem to need it as I spotted the ‘Super Hotel’ from the station. It wasn’t open for check-in until 3 p.m., but I could live with that. After all, the Toyoko Inn didn’t open until four. However, the reception wasn’t staffed, and I didn’t want to risk coming back later, only to find it fully booked, with lines of destitute travellers queuing down the street like the homeless in ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ which I’d watched last night.

So, map in hand, I went to look for alternatives.

Of the five hotels listed in the area between the station and the park, three didn’t seem to exist and the remaining two were too expensive. But the ‘Super Hotel’ wasn’t listed, so the map wasn’t aimed at budget travellers. I would just have to look around.

The sun climbed into the sky. Before long, rivulets of sweat were streaming down my face and into my eyes. By noon, it was as hot as Bangkok.

I was about to give up when I spotted a sign for the tourist information.

***(Long entry—1,500 words—but worth it if you want to read about me making an arse of myself)***
[read on]

Shin-Ōsaka: In a Loop

Sunday, October 21st, 2007



‘Shin’ doesn’t stand for ‘station’ as I’d mistakenly assumed—unless it refers to ‘Shinkansen station’. This means that Shin-Ōsaka does not equal Ōsaka.

And this is why I couldn’t find the train to Tennoji/Nara.

After circling a few times, I whipped out the phrase book, stared blankly at the transport section for a while, then stepped up to the information counter and said meaningfully: “Nara?”

The poor guy was trying to sink into the ground when he spotted my approach. He ended up scribbling on his pristine timetable, circling Shin-Ōsaka several times with a black ballpoint pen, then drawing a short line to Ōsaka.”Fifteen,” he said pointing at the platform signs. “Fifteen or sixteen.”

He said it in Japanese. I have counted to ten in Japanese for what must be hundreds of times over the years, but trust me not to understand until he scribbled the platform numbers on his timetable as well.

I’m an cretin when it comes to travelling. I constantly get lost. I can’t pick up any phrases unless I’m reading the words at the same time, and if I do pick up a few words, I mis-pronounce them. I’ve given up getting uptight about it and have accepted my role as a gibbering idiot. But I endeavour to do better. Next time.
[read on]

Watson: the Saga Continues

Sunday, October 21st, 2007

So it turns out that the article which may have ended Watson’s career and public standing has been written by a postgraduate student at the Cold Spring Harbour Lab who seems to have a crush on him.

Not content with the damage she has already done (albeit justifiably), she goes on to gush about how ‘his’ scientists wouldn’t be able to function if it wasn’t for their Master’s encouragement, how the war against disease would be lost should Watson not hold their hands in the lab.

If you think I’m exaggerating, read the thing.

The Times Online is a respected source, otherwise I would suspect this to be a hoax. As it is, it must be the first time that I have cringed because of my science background.

Perhaps the Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory should be more discerning in the selection of their postgraduate students. Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe is the proverbial elephant in a china shop. Thankfully, after a brief moment of glory, Google News has moved on.

Choice Quote (but there were many)

“Colleagues expect Watson’s conversations to be peppered with ‘un-PC’ comments. It is part of his character. He wouldn’t be the man he is and have contributed so much to science if he wasn’t a little different to everyone else.”

All I can think of is Rosalind Franklin.

It is time for the nasty old men to go away.

Another Charming Evening in the Pub…

Sunday, October 21st, 2007

…and I’m not talking about the Rugby.

After the match we huddled around the stove, drawing on our cigarettes as if for warmth. The guys kept feeding logs into the fire but it barely managed to stave off the cold, although we were sitting directly in front of it.

At least it kept our teeth from chattering, so we talked. Being latecomers, John and I mainly listened.

A: “I’ve just moved here from Reading.”

B: “Good for you. Less hassle around here.”

A: “There’s too many Blacks there.”

C: “Wot, you mean Niggers?”

A: “You’re not supposed to say that word any more.”

Me: “You know, I last heard this kind of language when I was hitchhiking in South Africa—in 1984.”

A: “Ohmigod, in 1984 I was—wait—3½!”

What, all year?

Me: “Yeah, I’m old” and wise, I didn’t say.

A: “I shouldn’t even talk like that, ‘cos of me cousin.”

Pregnant pause.

“He’s half-cast. Innit.”

Watson in Race Row

Friday, October 19th, 2007

At the time of writing, there are 4 comments underneath the Times Online article.

Looks like 3:1 to the racists, although the first commenter may just have been confused.

EDIT: Hmm, it now stands at 16:13, pretty close to half-and-half. What is alarming is the great proportion of unashamedly racist comments and the number of commenters who are convinced that race has a genetic basis (it doesn’t). Then there are those who think that, just because a Nobel laureate scientists says something, he must be right/must have made a discovery.

Watson making a discovery? Don’t make me laugh. If this mess has shown anything then it’s that there is a time when eminent scientists should announce their retirement. Perhaps they ought to be tested for senility, like old people having to retake their driving tests.

Anyway, in case you thought racism was rare, read the next entry.