Sunday, June 29, 2014

And another trip to Japan winds up..

I write this from a high speed train heading Tokyo to Narita airport, as I now have some time to reflect on what has been a super trip. I've spent the last 9 days in Japan, primarily for my friend Justin's wedding, but was able to take some extra time and do a bit of touring, and this time decided to get out of Tokyo and the major cities for a bit and see what the Japanese countryside has to offer. 

Following on from my first Ryokan experience in Tokyo I jumped on a train towards Hakone (station Hakone-Yumoto  about 2 hours west of Tokyo), then a bus up to my B&B in Kowaki-en. The B&B was a bit of a rushed booking, and turned out not all that crash hot, but it was in a great location in the mountains and along the route that most people take through Hakone. This route ses you riding the train out from Shinjuku to Hakone Yumoto, then a bus through the mountains to Moto Hakone-ko which is situated on Lake Ashi, from there its a boat trip (on a 
pirate-themed boat) across the lake to Togendai-Ko, then onto a aerial cablecar up to Owakudani and Kamigora, then a cablecar train to Gora, and finally a train from Gora back to Hakone-Yumoto to board the train to Shinjuko. And you do it in 2 days (or one if you leave Tokyo early). Phew.

A pretty interesting trip and great to see some nature in a land where I've only really experienced the big city (apart from snowboarding adventures up in Hokkaido). Lake Ashi is quite spectacular. Mt Fuji is normally visible on a clear day, but unfortunately the clouds had moved in. Owakudani is a rather active part of this volcanic region and has thermal vents ejecting heat and gases all day, with a strong smell of sulphur in the air. A highlight here was the 'black eggs' which are cooked in some of the thermal pools at the top, and the eggs adopt a black colour from water. You can hike up to these pools where there is a better view of the surrounding area, and watch the cooking in process. There is also a cable-egg-transport-system carrying fresh eggs up, and black eggs down to the visitors center. You get 5x eggs for 500Yen, with salt of course. The eggs taste just like normal eggs, perhaps tastier because of the experience.

After all of that I met up with Justin in Tokyo and we headed up to Nikko (about 2 hours north of Tokyo). The Nikko region is home to a large number of Onsen and near Tobu-Nikko is the World Heritage Area which has two shrines and one temple. The Toshogu Shrine is where the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate is enshrined. Nearby is the original three monkeys sculpture (see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil). A short walk away is the Rinnoji temple, founded by priest Shodo in 766AD. A number of the sites here were undergoing significant preservation works, with the Rinnoji temple completely inside a larger structure whilst large swathes of the timber was removed, inspected for damage/infestation, and replaced. A lot of walking was followed by some well received onsen time. Justin returned to Tokyo for further preparations and I stayed an extra night and ran up a local hill, and visited Lake Chuzenji before my return to Tokyo for the big day.

I've never been to a Japanese wedding before, and it was an experience to remember. The bride and groom wore kimono for the formal ceremony after which they did a dress change during the reception, after which the groom wore a suit and the bride a traditional white dress. DUring the ceremony there is also an exchange of letters from the parent of the bride to the bride and likewise for the groom, with advice for their future together. We were also treated to an insight into how they met with a video put together by the bride and groom. One of my friends was the Kampai master, tasked with leading the toast with "Kampai!" after the breaking of the Sake barrel. So many things with specific meaning happened during the ceremony and reception, it was very enlightening and enjoyable. I made it through the 3-4 questions I was asked about the groom by the MC on the microphone, after which I was able to relax. Very impressed with how Justin and Shigeko went, they had clearly put in a huge amount of effort in organising the day and it all went very smoothly.

After the wedding reception we indulged in further chilled beverages into the night. During my last night in Tokyo I saw Paul Gilbert doing a album launch at Empire Records, followed by drinks with the gang at Hooters (of all places).

And my flight will shortly be boarding, so I will leave it there for now. Pictures will follow.

Monday, June 23, 2014

3am running, plane trips, and Bunkyo-ku

And onto Japan, this time with a new attempt on sleeping on the plane. So a friend called out for ppp4spa over at Maroubra sports clubs, a 24 hour running event to raise money for Suicide Prevention Australia. Silly me thought doing 3am-5am would be a good idea. Well it wasn't so bad, but I probably should have taken more than 3 hours sleep that night. Bedding down at 2330 for a 0230 rise didn't feel super awesome. Arriving at almost 3am to see 8 runners on treadmills on a stage, a DJ and MC, plenty of bananas, it was actually quite fun, but bloody warm under the lights. Big shout out to Ben for providing a comfortable sleeping couch and transport to Maroubra sports in the wee hours. And Laura for getting people onto it, great work and good effort keeping the treadmill stacked - hope everyone made it through the 24 hours.

So after almost 2 hours on the tready, quick shower and off to the airport for the 8am flight. Flying JAL this time around, never been with them, but it was pretty good. The route SYD-NRT was on a 777-200. Economy class cabin is showing its age but had good entertainment options on a small screen, and the meals were good (but no Japanese options - hoping for this on the way back out of Tokyo!). After eating, I did manage to sleep for a good 3-4 hours. So if you need any tips for sleeping on the plane, get absolute minimum sleep for a night or two leading in, do a long run right before your flight, and you should be fatigued enough to kip out on the plane. Or just fly business or first, thats probably easier.

Enough about sleep. Following a quick border control check in Narita, and the customs officer suprised/amused at my small amount of luggage for a 10 day trip (refreshing to see after hauling around a snowboard bag on every other trip), I began navigating to Bunkyo-ko to find my Ryokan for the evening. Each other time I've been here, I've stayed in a hostel, but thought it best this time to upgrade, and the Ryokan is the traditional japanese hotel. Think low-rise traditional building, shoes off at the entrance, host escorts you to your room and a quick tour of the place, traditional futon on tatami floor in room, green tea and hot water at the ready, traditional yukata robes and downstairs a separated male and female bathing space where you strip down and seated-shower then relax for a short time in an large onsen-temperature bath.

That is if you can find the place. Luckily my human compass was somewhat calibrated, with some basic mapping saved on my phone from the last wi-fi experience, it was an easy 15 min walk from the station (after a quick 5 min turnaround when I realised I was walking the wrong way), guided by the expanse of Tokyo University campus on my right hand side. After checking in, plugging in all my devices, picking up a meal, I donned my robe and took a quick bath and felt the stresses of the week melt away with the warm heat. 

Japanese Style Room with Futon
Unplugging from 24/7 internets has been good. You start to realise how much of it you rely on during the day to day, when flung into a new unfamiliar downtown area. Where do you eat and sleep? How do you get where you need to go? You start to rely on the hardcopy materials more, maps, handwritten directions. Its refreshing and somewhat liberating, as you try new things without checking a review first, go a new direction without necessarily knowing where it will lead, ask people for directions (rather than google) and are forced to be much more in tune with your surrounding environment. I was wondering earlier what it was like travelling before the internet was born, alas an experience I will never have (other than the well organised trips planned by my parents, which I didn't take any role in organising). My guess is that you would lean on the guidebook more, and the telephone or the hope that the 'no vacancy' sign is not lit up. Or carry a swag.

Ok enough for one night, time to finish the suntory premium malts and hit the 'western style bed' in my Hakone pension for my second night, its no Ryokan, cheap, and I'm missing my futon on tatami already...

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Time well spent

Well after 5 weeks of training and competition in the Austrian and French Alps I can say its been time well spent, and my body is well spent also. It wouldn't have been helped by the foregone 'rest days' in week 3 due to a winter storm providing powder riding opportunities, but who would pass up good pow to go have a rest anyway?

The snow was pretty unreliable for the first two weeks of January, perhaps seeing the impact the unseasonable warmth across a large part of Europe. 

Back home to the usual grind (and regular coffee grind). I must say its good to be home, although going straight back to work is a bit of a bummer. Once the jetlag fades and I have some idea of what is going on at work I think I'll be resting easier. Plenty of time to plan the next trip!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Helsinki - Berlin - Salzburg - Saalfelden.... big day

Flights from Helsinki to Salzburg went off without a hitch and I saw about 2 hours of Germany courtesy of a quick stopover in Berlin :/ Checked into the hostel late and went off in search of sustinence in the form of a Burger King meal (how nutritious) and kipped out. 

Following what I thought was a well earned sleep I set out in the morning for a run around town in an effort to see as much as possible in the several hours I had there. Ran up Kapuzinerberg near the hostel which I luckily found the entrance to via an opening between a number of shops on the road. Trail was a mix of asphalt changing to gravel / hard leaf-covered rock (a good challenge for the trail-less legs over the last couple of months), right up to a lookout overlooking Salzburg. Then down along the river, through town and up to the Fortress Hohensalzburg which stands out as it is located on the other hill which surrounds the city. 

Easy to miss - entrance to Kapuzinerberg

Salzburg is a pretty nice city to run in, however Saturday mornings are very busy due to countless shoppers going about their way so it was a bit of a case of dodging the 'moving trees'. Later walked around the city for a bit of touristy happy snaps... the Cathedral is huge... there is a bridge with a huge number of padlocks... and the old town is right on the edge of the mountain leading to the fortress

Padlocks on Makartsteg
Left in the afternoon to RV with the team at Salzburg airport, and following some minor hitches with transport arrived to Saalbach in the evening. Wallner Kaserne barracks will be our home for the next couple of weeks whilst we do some snowboard training in Leogang / Saalbach Hinterglemm, prior to the RAF competition.

Inside the Arctic Circle

So I've been in Finland for the last week over NYE - first flew London to Helsinki for a night (stayed near the airport - no interesting stories apart from my first authentic 'Finnish Sauna Experience') then up to Rovaniemi for a night where I checked out the local museum (Arktikum) to learn something about the local people and culture, and later met up with Dan for a beer. Rovaniemi is right on the Arctic Circle and famous for being the official Home of Santa Claus (their claim, not mine :) with the somewhat touristy Santa Claus Village nearby. 

The local brew - Karhu (Finnish for 'bear')

First run in the wet snow the next morning was.... educational, and although it didn't go as bad as I thought it would, I had to cut it short due to a light rain and my feet being saturated (which doesn't bode well when the ambient temperature is barely above zero). Its much easier running in subzero temperatures as I would find out at Levi.

So after a morning sauna to defrost (in the personal in-room sauna... awesome!), I met up with Dan and Siiri and we drove up to Levi which is about 150km (2hr 15min on snow-covered roads) north. Levi features a good size ski resort with about 17 normal lifts, mostly surface-type (i.e. t-T-Bars), a good thing as it keeps you out of the wind. This was the first resort I have been to where they have more gondolas than chairlifts. The elevation of the resort is from around 200m at the base to ~500m at the peak. So commenced daily snowboarding and nightly partying and reindeer meat eating. 
Hmm ... Bars Closed

NYE was tamer than usual due to a more intense night out on the 30th, but we went out to dinner and a 30km snowmobiling trek around the lake (so quiet out on the trails at that time - you could hear nothing and only see the faint glow of lights reflecting on the sky in the distance). We then returned to the cabin for beers and the obligatory NYE countdown which didn't really work as everyones phones were out of sync so we didn't know the true time, and wandered into town to the club, observing random fireworks being set on the street throughout the night.

NYE snowmobiling around the lake

Also managed a post-NYE run (first for 2014... yay) up towards the summit. Although this also had to be cut short due to the freezing effect of the wind near the top it was great to be running through the mountain road and not seeing a single person, only the crunching sound of compacted snow. Unfortunately the weather has not been kind to show the northern lights as it has been cloudy and not cold enough.

Early morning post-Drinking snacks - Finnish Style... the meat content is printed on the pack... which was (in this case) slightly disturbing
So I now have a good set of flights to get down to Salzburg. Rovaniemi - Helsinki - Berlin - Salzburg. Will be looking forward to sleep tonight!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Oxford... land of oxen and fords....

Blog Update - 26 Dec 13

I write this from 36000 feet over Norway as I'm now flying to Finland, so I will post it from 0 feet. The airline does not yet have wi-fi which is probably a blessing, finding locations where external communications does not work (phone/internet) is becoming rarer with each passing day. There isn't even in flight entertainment. I'm enjoying basking in the serenity.

Since returning from Ireland and driving straight to Oxford I met up with two friends I've known since school: Mel who is working here, and Anthony (working here also - however London) from the train station in what was some pretty awesome rain (hello England). We proceeded to indulge in some of Russia's finest vodka and lemon wedge (read: probably not from Russia and hmm... needs more lemon), later followed by pepsi courtesy of a dial in pizza jobbie. Following a night of jovial conversation and discussion of world affairs, breakfast was had in the usual post-drinking session cook-up style, we then collected another school friend Jodie (this is turning into a reunion somewhat), and checked out the town. 

Merton College from Christ Church Meadow
Oxford is pretty awesome, the University is made up of 39 colleges, many of which are located in some epic old buildings, some dating back from the 1200's. Perhaps what you would come to expect from one of the oldest universities in the world. Many of the buildings here featured in the Harry Potter films. The great hall at Christ Church college was used in the feature film and is still used to this day by the students as their dining room. 

Christ Church Cathedral and College
A trip to Oxford wouldn't be complete without some geekery and there are a number of museums to satisfy, on this occasion we visited the Museum of the History of Science which had an interesting collection of scientific instruments (my favourite was the 'Radium kit for home experiments' which carried an apt warning for the user not to hold the radium sample too close to the eye or view it for very long). There is also a preserved blackboard from when Albert Einstein gave a lecture at Oxford in 1931.
Einstein Board (1931) - Museum of the History of Science
Nightlife in Oxford on Saturday night was OK; we started on an early pub crawl but didn't quite manage to sneak into a club (and the music didn't seem worth the fiver cover charge). Somehow home around 1am in a rather inebriated state.

Sunday was roast lunch day with some of Mel's colleagues, and a bit of afternoon running in the rain between the colleges to see what we could get into. Christ Church college happened to be open (whereas many had closed for the holidays). This college features the main cathedral for the shire (Christ Church Cathedral) as its chapel which was constructed around years 1160-1200, featuring a tomb, stained glass windows with some interesting stories to tell, and evidence in its construction of expansion over time and the use of several architectural styles (Norman and Gothic). After that we eventually found our way (its well hidden) to a pub called The Turf Tavern - notable as the site where former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke set a world record for consuming a yard glass in 11 seconds, and where former US President Bill Clinton, whilst studying as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford allegedly "did not inhale".

Great weekend with great people, will miss hanging with these guys. Oxford I'll be back (missed out on visiting that pesky Great Hall at Christ Church, the Bodleian Library, Radcliffe Camera and a few others - next time!).

On the way home I dropped into Bletchley Park (near Milton Keynes, about an hour north east of Oxford), which is the site where the Codebreakers worked during World War II. Unfortunately much of the equipment was destroyed following the War for secrecy reasons, but they do have a number of the original huts (a few undergoing maintenance/rebuilding), the old farm mansion, and at the National Museum of Computing - a working Rebuild of the Colossus which was used by the British for the cryptanalysis of the Lorenz cipher (used between high level German commands during the war). There are also some exhibits which focus on the Bombe, Alan Turing's electromechanical machine which was used in decoding Enigma-enchiphered messages. 

Working 'Rebuild' of the Colossus MKII at the National Museum of Computing (UK)

Paper tape used in the Colossus MK2.
The reader operates at 5000 characters/second.

Thats my nerdiness for the week. Next post from Finland :D

Friday, December 20, 2013

Exiting the Emerald Isle

Phew... its been a busy 7 days since setting off from the UK over to Ireland and we've covered over 1200km, most of it under the cover of darkness owing to the short days here - 8am - 4pm provides very limited amounts of vitamin D. What we have seen though has been great. Visited many relatives along the way through Dublin, Kilkenny, Cork, Letterkenny, Buncrana. 

Glass blowers at the Waterford Crystal Factory
We also saw some good sights along the way including the specialist glass blowers and cutters at the Waterford Crystal factory in Waterford, some spectacular coastline in the north around Co. Donegal, and today had a look at the Thompson Graving Dock in Belfast which was one of the final finishing locations for the Titanic (in 1911) before her maiden voyage and the RMS Olympic - two of the largest ships of the time. 

Two of the three pumps -  two operating would pump out the dock (21 million gallons) in 100 minutes
Thompson Graving Dock
Long day of driving ahead... Dublin to Leicester to Oxford.  Below is our route through Ireland.

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