At the beginning of June I left Japan, and now reside in Sydney, Australia.
I was very fortunate that my job in London gave me the opportunity to move to Japan, but as a non-Japanese speaker there were always going to be limits on how far I could go in a job there. It’s amazing that I was able to go and work there at all, as this is usually an opportunity only afforded foreigners who’ve studied the language for many years prior to moving there. Whilst I spent six months learning Japanese, this was really to help me deal with the day-to-day demands of living in a major city where English isn’t widely spoken and was never used in my work. Part of my job over my 19 months spent there was to help build up the local team, and as there are now 3 native Japanese speakers in our department there, I was given the opportunity to move on and help establish another department in another region.
I would have loved to have stayed in Japan longer, ideally for another year or so, as there is so much more there that I wanted to see and do, but as my girlfriend pointed out, another year still wouldn’t be enough to do everything. I’m hoping that my work will continue to take me back there from time to time (I will have returned there twice by the end of the year), and so, with the prospect of starting another opportunity in a new country, I bid a sad farewell to Japan.
Moving out of my apartment was surprisingly straightforward. Like many ex-pats, I held a ‘Sayonara Sale’, whereby the understanding is that everything must go, and the seller is open to receiving stupidly low offers. In Japan, if you want to dispose of an item of furniture, from a small lamp, right up to a large sofa or washing machine, you have to pay for the privilege. This fee is levied regardless of whether the item is in good working order or going for scrap, so when selling up, it is cheaper to simply give things away than be stuck with them.
I did a couple of eye-wateringly low deals, and gave away everything else, and aside from a few items I shipped to Australia, managed to dispose of everything within a week. On the actual day of moving out I was visited by a succession of workers from the utility companies who issued me my final bills, and required cash payment on the spot. Needles to say, the Japanese utilities workers arrived when they said they would. As I’d recently paid my electricity bill, the final settlement was for about ¥300 (£2.27), nonetheless, I was delivered a meticulously hand-written receipt and a solemn bow, thanking me for my loyal custom.
A view of my office building from my neighbourhood
At the airport, when passing through immigration, departing residents are required to return their ‘Gaijin Card’ (foreigner ID). Doing so ensures that you are removed from local tax registers and won’t be stung for the hefty residents tax after you leave (there are horror stories of English language teachers forgetting to do this and receiving bills many years later). Attempting to give my ID to the immigration official caused minor panic and I was quickly sent to a special desk where another official, in a very serious tone, informed me of the grave implications of giving up my status. After confirming three or four times that this was really what I wanted to do (I was beginning to have doubts near the end), it was taken from my by white gloves and placed in what appeared to be an evidence bag, and with that I was expunged from the Japanese system and politely ejected from the country.
Japan is very generous when it comes to public holidays, workers receive 19 days, compared to the meagre 9 of the UK. This is possibly because without compulsory holidays, many Japanese office workers would remain at their desks all year round. At the end of April there are 3 holidays that all fall within days of each other – this magical event is known as Golden week. For the sake of taking 2 days paid holiday many workers (myself included) can have 9 days off straight, so it’s a cause for some excitement. Unfortunately this joy is also shared by the owners of hotels and airlines as prices rocket. However, the Japanese tend to be a people of habit when it comes to holidays, many of whom choose to stay in Japan (Kyoto and Okinawa are prime hotspots) or go for perennial favourites such as Hawaii and Bali, so if you’re prepared to go off the beaten track things remain affordable.
My girlfriend and I opted to go to Cambodia mainly because we both wanted to visit Angkor Wat and also because she’s been everywhere else in Asia.
We flew to Phnom Penh via a short stopover in Seoul. Korea really seems to be pushing itself as an alternative holiday destination to Japan at the moment. The airport is littered with promotional material to this effect. The displays of Kimono-like attire, fans, pottery and painted scrolls all practically shout “See, Japan isn’t the only country with culture!” At one point it became surreally immersive as whilst briefly studying a map of the airport terminal I looked up to find I was surrounded by a 17th Century Korean wedding procession, with 20-or-so people in full historic garb, serenely parading past. The fake beards were a bit of a give-away, as were the huge speakers being wheeled alongside them, but it goes to show the lengths they are prepared to go to in their bid to tempt a few international travelers outside the terminal.
Our plan was to start the trip with a few days in Siem Reap, the town closest to Angkor Wat and then head down to the South coast town of Kep for the rest of our stay. Unfortunately the logistics of this meant a night in the capital with no time to sightsee. We arrived late into Phnom Penh and immediately took a car to our ‘boutique’ hotel (their description) on the outskirts of town. The Lebiz Hotel was a little daunting from the outside, sitting on a shabby-looking street strewn with rubbish, and in the time it took us to remove our bags from the taxi we were accosted by two beggars desperate for our dollars. Inside, things improved considerably with a lobby lined with racks of books and a glass-lined decorative pool and waterfall. We checked-in, survived a slow lift ride that was accompanied by an ominous array of clunks and squeals (some of them ours) and were shown into a clean, spacious room featuring polished concrete, hidden lighting and a massive, black and white print over the bed – all very boutique. The glass-walled bathroom was a nice touch, however the view of the toilet from the bed was a touch too boutique, and we elected to keep the bathroom blinds in the down position for the duration of our stay.
The next morning we were up early and straight back to the airport for our flight to Siem Reap. The domestic departure lounge had a small cafe and a huge daybed upon which we sprawled with our coffees and fruit smoothies. Although Cambodia’s currency is officially the riel, US dollars are accepted everywhere. Cambodia is a very poor country, with an average salary of less than $5000 USD, so we’d been advised to stock up with 1 dollar bills as if we were “visiting a Las Vegas strip bar” as large notes can cause problems. Indeed, upon paying for our drinks with a $20 bill there was some mild panic and scrambling around for notes in order to give me my change. I stuck to smaller notes after that.
We flew in a modern twin-prop aircraft that bobbed around and made a fantastic noise as we climbed up out of the city (more pleasing to me than my white-knuckled companion). We flew the 200 mile route along the Tonle Sap river and lake, which during the wet season it’s possible to take a boat journey of a few days to reach the same destination. It is also possible to do the journey by car in around 5 hours, or bus in 6, but as we’d lost a night to our forced stop-over we decided to throw money at the problem and arrive in style. This attitude remained a theme of our trip as we resolutely rejected anything approaching what we termed ‘backpacker’ as we were determined to enjoy our Golden Week in style.
It’s great being a Japanese tourist. I’m paid in Yen, so benefit from a very favourable exchange rate, meaning that pretty much anything that requires the spending of money can quickly be rationalised by the assertion that it’s cheaper than in Tokyo, and _everything_ in Cambodia is cheaper than in Tokyo.
We were met at Siem Reap airport by our concierge and private driver, handed cool towelettes, bottles of iced water and then whisked to our 5 star hotel. At the exclusive reception area of The Privilege Floor we were seated on a silk couch, handed chilled flutes fresh fruit juice and hand-woven garlands of jasmine whilst the staff did their best to make the tedious process of checking-in as relaxing as possible. We were taken to our huge room to discover that a chilled bottle of champagne had been arranged for our arrival along with a selection of canopies and other refreshments waiting in the fridge. It took us all of two minutes to go from humble, open-mouthed wonder, to finger clicking monsters that expect to be waited upon hand-and-foot – and we pretty much were. The Borei Angkor hotel privilege floor has a team of 3 handling guest requests and generally being friendly and helpful. The floor has a snooker room that doubles as an exclusive dining room and cocktail lounge (which were of course complimentary for us).
Each day the team suggested an itinerary for us in order to make the best use of our time and see as much of the Angkor Wat site as possible. This was great, as it meant we had to do minimal planning and simply told our driver what time we would like to be picked up and we were sent on our way. We were even provided with a pre-paid mobile phone so that we could call our driver whenever we needed him. Having a private car was fantastic, as the midday heat reached 40ºC (104ºF) we sat in air-conditioned comfort, sipping bottled water and whizzing past groups of dazed-looking tourists, stuffed into open-air motorcycle rickshaws (tuk tuks).
Angkor Wat is the most famous architectural site in the area, but it is in fact just one of many huge such temple complexes. Dating from the 12th century the temples formed the heart of a large capital city. Due to invading armies, changes of Kings and a shift in religious focus, the city gradually fell into decline and the surrounding jungle slowly overran the buildings and swallowed many of the sites. Although Angkor Wat remained in use and was never ‘lost’, many of the outlying temple sites did disappear into the jungle and were rediscovered to the West in the 20th century, notably it was French colonialists who began uncovering them and revealing one of the most astonishing ancient sites in the world. The temples are on a massive scale, and the effects of some 800 years of being lost in the jungle have rendered them buckled and smashed which only adds to their appeal.
Walking through long, dark passageways and seeing the incredibly intricate stone carvings is to be transported into an adventure film and the sense that you are walking in some very ancient shoes. The illusion is heightened by an abundance of monkeys, elephants and tropical-sounding birds that roam the surrounding landscape. The sites are gradually being excavated and reconstructed, which makes a great deal of sense for their long-term preservation and tourism, but detracts from the mystery and excitement of stumbling upon a lost civilization. The sites that are still partially overrun by jungle, such as Ta Prohm whose walls are still being gripped by massive trees are all the more impressive for being ruined and have a charm way beyond the nearby ‘saved’ sites. Here also, the trees are being pulled down, scaffold put up and the walls are now overrun with tourists piling off the queues of tour buses. I’m aware that by visiting the site I am feeding this process of regeneration, which is undoubtedly good for the poorer people of Cambodia, but at the same time I feel glad that I got to see some the the sites now, whilst they still look like wrecked monuments swallowed up by the jungle. Once they have all been dug out of the ground, all of that mystery will have been lost, for at least another 800 years anyway.
After three days we were forcibly dragged out of ‘our’ private car and deposited back at the airport for our flight back to Phnom Pehn and to begin the second half of our trip. The car that met us at the other end wasn’t as nice, although our driver was certainly more fragrant. We consoled ourselves that at least it had air conditioning, until 20 minutes later it didn’t. The drive South from the capital to the fishing town of Kep took 2.5 hours, although it felt a lot longer as the traffic was a heart-stopping mix of seemingly out of control trucks, zig-zagging scooters and various oxen, chickens, dogs and pigs that would choose random moments to enthusiastically dive into the flow of traffic.
Somewhat bruised and exhausted we arrived at our hotel in Kep, the Veranda Natural Resort. When looking online this appeared to be only the second most expensive hotel in the town. The most expensive looked *very* nice, with its infinity pool and palm tree shaded pathways, but the customer reviews overwhelmingly spoke of shoddy service, dirty rooms and a general feeling of being utterly ripped off. No such worries for us at The Veranda as our huge room was spotlessly clean and the staff were all very nice. The hotel is made up of a collection of small buildings spread out across a jungle-covered hillside with lovely views of the Gulf of Thailand. The various areas are linked by wooden staircases and walkways that give the impression of running around in a giant treehouse. The hotel features an outdoor restaurant, a bakery and large swimming pool, complete with waterside bar.
Kep is a small seaside town with a long tradition of producing fine seafood and a particularly aromatic pepper. Before the murderous regime of Pol Pot took hold IN 1959, Kep had been a popular weekend retreat for French colonials, many of whom built impressive villas in the area and a large casino. The casino and villas are now moss-covered decayed shells and the area is still in the process of re-developing itself for high-end tourism. Much of the accommodation and food options are geared towards the more adventurous backpackers who make it down to this part of the country, or who pop over the nearby border with Vietnam. Local activities are as basic as renting a moped, visiting a pepper plantation or taking a fishing boat out to one of the nearby islands, but we did see a couple of large hotels under construction, a sure sign that things are changing. We really enjoyed the lack of activity and had a very relaxed time reading by the pool, stuffing ourselves with fresh crab cooked in the local Kampot pepper (reputedly the finest in the world) or retreating to our room to enjoy the air conditioning along with several particularly vocal geckos.
Cambodia doesn’t have the beaches that nearby Thailand is famous for, but we had heard that one of the best in the country could be found on the nearby Rabbit Island so we decided to take a look. Eschewing the backpacker option and a $5 seat on a crowded tour boat, we elected to pay $20 for our own boat and driver (natch) and went on our own schedule. The 25 minute crossing was pretty choppy but we were soon delivered to a lush desert island that appeared to boast a single unoccupied shack. We were quickly directed towards a narrow path that lead into the jungle, and after 15 minutes of nervously looking out for snakes and giant spiders (we saw neither) we emerged on the other side of the island and onto a lovely sandy beach. Whilst not quite golden sand and azure blue waters (Cambodia doesn’t do blue water, it’s all variations on light brown) it was a lovely spot to relax in a beach chair and enjoy the morning. The island doesn’t have roads, electricity or running water, but does have a small seafood restaurant and two rows of basic wooden huts that can be rented for $5 per night. Resident on the island were a few locals and a collection of tanned backpackers, happily getting drunk and smoking weed (no police on the island either). Whilst a nice spot to laze away a morning, we’d had enough by lunchtime and took ‘our’ boat back to the mainland for air conditioning and drinks by the pool.
Three days of doing very little went by surprisingly quickly and it was soon time to make our way back to Phnom Penh airport. Our flight wasn’t until almost midnight, but after our drive down we were both keen not to experience the road in darkness (no street lighting, and in places, no ‘road’ either) so we had the car collect us earlier and were back in phnom Penh by mid-afternoon.
We couldn’t decide how best to kill a few hours in the city, whether we should experience the excitement and bustle of a night market, or perhaps try the delicacies on offer with some authentic street food. In the end we went with what we knew and went straight to Raffles, the poshest hotel in the country. As luck would have it, it was happy hour at The Elephant Bar – a favourite haunt of Jackie Kennedy during her visit in 1967. We enjoyed a few excellent drinks at $4(£2.75) a pop, smug in the knowledge that we couldn’t possibly afford such larks in an equivalent spot in Japan. After drinks we found a table at one of the hotel restaurants and ended our evening with a fine meal and excellent wine, all served with near-creepy levels of attentive service. Suitably refreshed, we reluctantly returned to the airport, knowing that we would soon have to return to our jobs and less opulent lifestyle in Tokyo. Fortunately, we then discovered there was still time for a 30 minute massage in the airport terminal spa.
A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to go to Kuala Lumpur for business. It’s a very long way to go for the 2 days of meetings that were scheduled, so I took the opportunity to spend the rest of the week working out of our office in Singapore. The plan was to fly to Singapore on Sunday, have a lazy afternoon sipping cold drinks by the hotel pool and then fly to Kuala Lumpur the following morning, and this is what I did. However, due to flight availability I was forced out of bed at 4am on the Sunday in order to make a 6:30am flight, so wasn’t in the best of condition when I stumbled off the plane some 7 hours later, and out into the steamy heat of Singapore. Once at the hotel I discovered that I still needed to prepare for my meetings, so had to sit in my room with my laptop and didn’t manage to get near the pool at all.
In the evening one of my colleagues from the Singapore office invited me out for dinner, and we met for drinks on Boat Quay, a string of bars and restaurants that line the river in the centre of the city. The bars all appeared to be Irish or English in theme, and the restaurants a mix of Asian cultures, and this is a good analogy for Singapore as a whole as this kind of East-West mix is everywhere. We went to a crowded market and had the famous Chilli Crab. My colleague Luke, explained that in ordering our meal we would be subject to intensive up-selling and scamming. You order your fresh crab by weight, and this request is instantly met with profuse apology and an explanation that your chosen size is not available, but that a slightly larger one could be brought if you were willing to pay the extra. This is exactly what happened, but Luke was pretty clever in making his initial order about 25% smaller than required, ensuring that we’d end up with roughly what we actually wanted to pay for. Before cooking the waiter brings the live crab to your table for inspection and the creature that was brought before us was a monster, with particularly lethal looking claws flailing around in front of it. Ten minutes later I was eating said claws smothered in chilli sauce and trying not to think about poor Mr Crab.
The next morning it was back to the airport for my flight to Kuala Lumpur. The facilities on my Malaysian Air flight were excellent, with a state-of-the-art personal entertainment system boasting over 200 films and hundreds of television programs, so it was a shame that the flight was only 35 minutes long and I wasn’t given any headphones. I got a taxi from the airport into the city which took almost an hour, and made it to our office just in time to head out again for my appointments. Unfortunately my time in the city was spent in a car winding through the city’s chaotic traffic (it reminded me of India in that regard) and so I didn’t get to do any sight seeing. I was impressed by the famous Petronas Twin Towers, the tallest buildings in the world for almost 6 years, as they dominate a skyline packed with tall buildings. There doesn’t seem to be a spare patch of land in the city that doesn’t have a half-built skyscraper sitting on it, and there’s a great sense of development and expansion about the whole place. Whereas Singapore is clean and quite sterile in feel, Kuala Lumpur seems dirty and energetic and I would have liked more time to see it properly.
After a very long day of running around and meeting people I was asked what I wanted for dinner, and I said that I wanted to try some authentic Malaysia cuisine (lunch was in an Italian restaurant). I was driven along a pot-holed road into a tatty looking neighbourhood whose main industry appeared to be scooter repair workshops. Wedged between two such shops, was a local style restaurant, famous for a range of pork dishes. It was an interesting mix of fried, salty objects and their house-speciality of roast pork cooked in a clay pot with cuttlefish ink. It was an incredibly fatty, disgusting-looking dish of jet-black pork lumps, but was actually very tasty. I didn’t have seconds.
The next day was another blur of traffic, underground car parks and stuffy meeting rooms, and before I knew it I was sitting on the airport express train for my flight back to Singapore. The airport express was fast, on time and featured free wi-fi, which was another big plus for the city. At Kuala Lumpur airport I avoided the burger and pizza counters had a very nice meal of Malaysian spicy noodles and local beer, which by my limited experience seemed pretty authentic, apart from the standard airport prices.
Back in Singapore, the next couple of days were sadly, mainly work-focused and I didn’t get to see much beyond the hotel and the office. I did manage to nip out at lunchtime and made the short walk along to the harbour and see the famous Merlion fountain, and colleagues took me out one evening to a nice tapas restaurant, but that was about it. On the Friday afternoon I was back at Singapore airport and by midnight back in my Tokyo apartment, utterly exhausted. I didn’t see my girlfriend that night, she was away on business in Korea.
The first time I ever set foot (feet?) on a snowboard was last February when I went on a trip to Shiga Kogen, near Nagano, as documented in this blog. Having learned to ski at 16, I took the opportunity to change to snowboarding because I’d never tried it and because it’s apparently easier on the knees, which is something that bothers me more now than it did at 16. My single lesson last year consisted of learning to stand up on the board and consequently learning what it feels like to repeatedly smash ones coccyx against ice. By the end of that trip I was happy to be able to stand up and slide down a hill, albeit gingerly.
As mentioned in my previous blog post, the trip to Hakuba at Christmas was great fun and another opportunity to test my snowboarding skills. I was relieved to discover that the previous years’ training was still in place and that I wouldn’t need to learn to stand all over again, but would need to work on the ‘sliding downhill’ bit. You might imagine that you simply point the board down the hill and launch yourself off the slope. This would definitely work, but you’d be unlikely to reach the bottom alive. The bottom of the board is completely flat and if you try and slide down on that flat base you simply lose your balance and go flying (believe me, I’ve tested this principle many times and at a variety of alarming speeds). In order to travel downwards, in balance and in control, you must always have weight on one side of the board, enabling a metal edge to dig into the snow. The sides of the board are slightly concave, so when moving forwards, if you lean against one of them your path describes a smooth curve. The principal then is simple; glide down the hill in a smooth arc, at the end of which you simply shift your weight to the other edge and gracefully turn and ride back to the other side of the slope. Repeat as necessary to safely arrive at the bottom of the mountain to rapturous applause and enthusiastic high-fives all round. The practical application of this is slightly more challenging than my description may suggest.
In mid-January a group of us flew up to Japan’s North island, Hokkaidō to spend a long weekend skiing and boarding in Niseko, a popular resort. The slopes were spectacular, with great views of the magnificent Mount Yōtei, a huge volcano that dominates the landscape. I mentioned to the group that I was planning on taking some lessons but this was met with scorn and derision, and I was assured that if I stuck with them I’d soon pick up all the skills I’d need. Within moments on getting on the slopes, the other boarders disappeared off into the distance and I was left to wobble alone. My girlfriend, a skilled skier, stuck with me, but I could tell that she was doing it out of kindness and was craving the lethal black runs higher up. After a spectacular tumble when I almost knocked myself unconscious, I released her to the real slopes and limped back down the hill in search of a helmet and instructor.
Imagine taking a metal drinks tray, placing it on a 45º icy slope and then standing on it. You’d immediately launch downhill at a terrifying speed, wildly spinning around before smashing your head against a tree or the ice. Now imagine that during this ordeal a loud Australian man is shouting at you to put more weight on your front knee, straighten your back and ‘let the tray do the work’, and this pretty much sums up a snowboarding lesson.
Despite the sensory overload, by the end of a full day under the tuition of a particularly enthusiastic Australian, I had improved no-end. I spent the remainder of my weekend mostly upright on the slopes and performing the most basic of turns, which I was very happy with.
The town of Niseko was small and pleasant, with lots of restaurants and bars dotted around the place. We enjoyed some of the best seafood I’ve had in Japan (odd that we should have to go to the mountains for this) and discovered some lively little bars. In one bar where we were playing darts, a group of Japanese drinkers entered in various fancy dress outfits, including several superheroes a pirate and Jesus. It’s hard to think of another country where you could see Jesus at the bar having his photograph taken with girls, and nobody would bat an eyelid. When we arrived the temperature was -15ºc, but over the weekend it warmed up to a balmy -6º so there was a considerable covering of snow across the town. Most roofs were piled several feet high and the streets lined with walls of snow up to 10 feet high in places. We almost walked straight past a bar, seemingly carved out of the snow, where guest were required to enter via a fridge door. Needless to say, we ducked inside for a cold one.
For Christmas, I was invited to join a group of friends for a long weekend in Hakuba, a ski resort about 170 miles North West of Tokyo. After a mad-dash across Shinjuku station, 5 of us joined the Shinkansen (Bullet train) to Nagano, famously home of the 1998 Winter Olympics. Since living in Japan I’ve become a huge fan of the Shinkansen, the trains are fast, comfortable, very reliable and the in-seat service offers pretty decent snacks. We variously bought sandwiches and bento boxes (lunch boxes) and lot of cans of beer (unlike trains in the UK, the price you pay for alcoholic drinks is about the same as you’d pay in a shop) and had a very pleasant 2.5 hour journey. When we arrived in Nagano we were met by a minibus that took us a further hour North to Hakuba and our accommodation.
When we arrived in Nagano there wasn’t much snow to be seen, but on the drive up into the mountains it gradually increased around us and as we approached Hakuba there was so much that the road itself was frozen and we completed the last few miles driving on thick ice (all of the vehicles up there are filled with snow tyres and snow-chains). The lodge was very luxurious, comprising 3 double bedrooms, a bunk-room for 4, a gym, drying room, state-of-the-art entertainment systems and underfloor heating throughout. The largest bathroom featured a spa-bath for 4 people, with a glass wall that opened to expose bathers to the snow beyond. In total there were 9 of us in the lodge, and plenty of champagne, so it was a very lively evening, and a great start to Christmas.
Early the next morning (well, not early) we headed out to the rental shop and got equipped for the slopes. In my case, it was snowboarding equipment, but most of our group were on skis. Ski slopes are graded by steepness and technical difficulty, usually with a color code of Green being the easiest, Red intermediate and Black being for the pros. As this was only my second time on a snowboard I was slightly dismayed to discover that all of the lower, green slopes were closed, and so I joined the rest of the group high up on the mountain and did my best to get back down again. Fortunately, another in our group was a relative beginner and so the two of us stuck together and tried to share our limited tips and expertise. After a terrible first run of falling over and being buzzed by children doing 200+ mph, I managed to find my feet and had great fun riding the various ski lifts and scaring myself stupid on red runs across the mountain. I ended the day with bruises, but thankfully no breaks.
On Christmas day some brave souls from our group were out early and back up the mountain, but I chose not to push my luck and opted instead for a lie-in a a breakfast glass of champagne. The owners of our ski lodge were friends with some members of our group and had very kindly invited us up to their house for Christmas dinner. Whilst our lodge was merely luxurious, the owner’s place was more akin to a Bond villain’s lair, perching on top of a hill with panoramic views across the ski slopes below. We arrived, wading knee-deep through the snow and I was impressed to see that the large driveway of the house was completely devoid of snow, impressive given that we were in the middle of a minor blizzard. It seems that in these parts Bond villains don’t clear their own driveways and instead simply opt for heated ones, I could almost hear the individual snowflakes ‘hiss’ into nothingness as they hit the perfect tarmac. The interior of the house was equally state-of-the-art, with discrete control panels throughout to control all manner of hidden stress-avoiding technology, I spotted a transparent pool table in the corner and made a mental note to get to it as soon as was politely possible.
Dinner was provided by a private chef and assistant, brought in for the event and was excellent. Thankfully, nobody had insisted upon a traditional Christmas dinner (I’m not a fan) and instead we enjoyed a range of contemporary western dishes with Japanese touches. We enjoyed fresh ravioli in a rich fish broth, flounder, carpaccio of venison, a main of roast game cock and ending with chocolate pudding. Dinner was accompanied by some lovely wines from the massive, glass wine cellar that stood in the middle of the room. After dinner I enjoyed a (huge) glass of 18 year old single malt next to the open fire on the balcony, before getting down to business with the transparent pool table. Dinner was great fun, and it was a real treat to spend Christmas with such a fun and lively group, as Christmas isn’t usually much of an event in Japan.
At the beginning of November I had the chance to return to Australia on business, for the third time this year. As usual, it was a very busy trip with limited opportunity for sightseeing, but on this occasion I decided to take a holiday at the end of it so that I could travel to New Zealand and do some exploring.
I’ve wanted to go to New Zealand for years, ever since one of my friends sent me a postcard that featured a range of stunning mountains, which up until then, I hadn’t known existed in New Zealand. Years later I saw the Lord of The Rings films, which compounded my desire to visit. An old London friend of mine, Carl, now lives in Sydney with his girlfriend, and he also had some time off, so we planned a small road trip together.
We flew from Sydney to Christchurch with Emirates Airlines, who’s economy cabin was about the best I’ve flown in, with really good food (I had lamb tagine), wine and a state-of-the-art entertainment system. When we landed three hours later it was a shame to have to get off. Christchurch is New Zealand’s second biggest city and the largest in the South Island. Christchurch was very badly hit by a large earthquake in February this year, which added to the existing damage done to the city in another large earthquake in September 2010, with the result that large sections are now completely closed down. We visited the central district and were shocked by the scale of the devastation, some 9 months on and the city is still cleaning up the mess, with large scale demolition everywhere and cracks and buckles evident in all of the roads. Many modern tower blocks have already been demolished others remain waiting to be destroyed, boarded-up and spay-painted with messages from the rescue crews who originally evacuated the buildings. One tower, a large hotel, 26 storeys high, stands at a visible lean.
Because of the large-scale reconstruction going on in Christchurch, we struggled to find anywhere nice to stay as all of the major hotels were in the area now closed off. As luck would have it, one of my colleagues in Tokyo is from New Zealand and suggested that we stay with his parents at their tomato farm, some 30 minutes outside of Christchurch. I wouldn’t normally dream of imposing on someone’s parents like this, but was assured that they wouldn’t mind, and apparently are used to random people turning up at their house and announcing that they’ve come to stay. Trevor and Dulcie were excellent hosts, collecting us from the airport, giving us a tour of Christchurch and stuffing us with food. Their small farm sits on a lush hillside overlooking a bay, with dramatic mountains looming to the rear. They produce tomatoes using a soil-free hydroponic system, with pollination provided by bumble bees and pest management via rather nasty sounding parasitic wasps. The farm also had rows of plum trees and the whole place appeared quite idyllic, until you spot the large wooden posts supporting a surrounding wall – a reminder that they too were badly shaken by the earthquake and have had to re-build parts of their house. Courtesy of Trevor’s great generosity with the wine, the next morning Carl and I headed back to the airport feeling slightly worse for wear.
We took a very cheap flight (£30) down to Queenstown, 300 miles (500 KM) SW of Christchurch. Queenstown has gained a reputation as the unofficial ‘action sports’ capital of New Zealand, as it caters to all manner of adventure activities and is an essential destination for all backpackers in this part of the world. We booked into the Crowne Plaza Hotel, right in the centre of Queenstown. It was a nice hotel and due to the favourable exchange rate against the New Zealand dollar, we found everything to be very reasonably priced, and our large, twin room worked out at about £45 per night each. Queenstown sits halfway along Lake Wakatipu, which at at 50 miles long, is the longest in the country, and is surrounded by spectacular mountains, including the appropriately named Remarkable Mountains, and it is this combination of water and high peaks that makes the place so appealing as a destination.
Shortly after we arrived we took the gondola (cable car) up onto Ben Lomond, some 800 meters (2,624ft) above the lake to paraglide down. Paragliding is a bit like parachuting with the notable distinction that when you become airborne the supporting canopy is already safely inflated. We took part in a tandem flight, meaning that we were strapped onto an instructor who would be controlling the flight. Paragliding has a very good safety record, but it was still nerve-wracking to step off the sheer drop of the mountain and out into thin air. It was a spectacular experience, flying so high with nothing to separate me from the elements and feeling the rush of wind and the pull of g-force as we banked and spiralled our way to the ground. My flight lasted about 7 minutes, 3 less than Carl’s, mainly because I enjoyed the aerobatics so much that I asked for more which meant a more rapid loss of height, although I did regret this request when we banked so sharply that we almost became inverted and I was able to look down on the canopy and the ground beneath us!
The next day, not satisfied with spending any more time than necessary on the ground, we chartered a private plane and flew to Milford Sound, a spectacular fjord that Rudyard Kipling once described as the eighth wonder of the world. Carl and I were collected from the hotel and driven to the nearby flying club and met with our apparently teenage pilot. We flew in a 4 seater Cessna propeller aircraft which reminded me a lot of the original Volkswagen Beetle, both in size and sound. Donning our headsets and pilot-style mics, we bounced across the grass to the runway and were airborne within moments of our pilot hitting the throttle. It had been many years since I was last in an aircraft of this size and I’d forgotten how low and slowly they fly compared to a jet. We wound our way along valleys and lakes, gradually gaining altitude as we approached the Southern Alps, a range of huge mountains that run the length of the South Island. As we reached the highest mountains we didn’t climb and fly over them, rather flew between them, meaning that we had incredible panoramic views of spectacular snow-capped peaks all around us, and at points, dangerously close to the ends of the wings. Our pilot informed us that these were the peaks featured in the Lord of The Rings films as the mythical Misty Mountains. After about 40 minutes we dropped down into Milford Sound, a spectacular glacial valley with near-sheer walls. We flew the length of the fjord and out to the Tasmin sea, banked around sharply and flew back down the opposite side of the valley to land on the tiny airstrip at the end. Our pilot escorted us to join a small cruise ship and we enjoyed an hour sailing the length of the valley admiring the numerous waterfalls, fur seals and the occasional penguin. Afterwards, we were met off the boat and walked back to our plane, which was parked in amongst many other small planes in what appeared to be a car park. Our flight back was not quite as dramatic as the small planes use a sort of one-way system for flying in and out of Milford Sound, so we avoided the taller peaks, but it was still a flight filled with awe-inspiring views. The whole trip took 4 hours and cost about £200 each, and was worth every penny.
The next day we rented mountain bikes and bought half-day passes for the gondola, which enabled us to take the bikes up to the top of the mountain and follow the custom-build trails back down to the cable car station and go up again. There were several trails to choose from, and like ski slopes, they were graded according to difficulty, we chose the basic route which proved to be pretty challenging and as technical as anything I’ve ridden before. The trail was very fast, and dropped down the mountainside steeply, meaning that we and the full-suspension bikes we hired got a proper hammering. Carl went flying at one particularly tight and steep corner, but fortunately suffered only cuts and bruises and we were able to ride the route a few more times. We were only in Queenstown for three days but managed to pack a great deal in, and I’d be very happy to return for more adventures, and for more burgers, as the local Fergburger restaurant (apparently world famous) was excellent!
The following day we rented a car and drove NW to reach the West Coast. The plan had been to stay at a small town called Haast that we’d spotted on the map, but when we got there we discovered that there wasn’t much to see and decided to push on to Fox Glacier. The roads in New Zealand were excellent, and the traffic was very light, so it was easy to cover large distances with very little effort. It seems that many people who visit the islands rent camper vans (you see them everywhere), and in planning our trip Carl and I did discuss the idea, but neither of us fancied sharing a fold-out bed, inches from a chemical toilet, and so the idea was quickly dropped. I’m very glad that we chose a car over a van, as the long, twisting roads that wound along the cliff tops and mountain passes were great fun to drive in our nippy Toyota, and I’m not sure I could have got the wheels on a camper van to squeal quite so loudly on the mountain hairpins.
The Fox Glacier and the nearby Franz Josef Glacier are the only places in the world where glaciers descend to meet temperate rainforest and so are a must-see on any trip to the South Island. There are many guided tours available in the area, but these require a great deal of time, equipment and energy to see the best of the glaciers, and so, in the manner to which we had rapidly become accustomed, we chose to take to the air instead. There are many helicopter tour companies in the area, but we chose Mountain Helicopters, a small locally-run operation, because they offered a flight taking in both glaciers as well as Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain, and because they were the cheapest. We were driven out to a nearby barn that doubled as a hangar, got in the helicopter and took off. Just like that – there was no taxing out to the runway, no getting up to speed for take-off, our pilot just pulled back gently on the stick and we were airborne, it was great. The helicopter was very small and very noisy, but as we were crammed in the front next to the pilot, our view was amazing. We sped low along the valley floor and then right along the length of the Fox Glacier, climbing quickly up into the mountains and the snowfields that feed the glaciers. As we passed over the top of the mountain range the helicopter bounced around quite alarmingly and the temperature dropped quickly, but both Carl and I were having for too much fun to care. In the course of our 45 minutes flight we banked and swooped over the peaks and glacial valleys, circled Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasmin and, the highlight of the trip, performed a landing in the snow. The helicopter landed on a pristine bank of snow on top of one of the mountains, and with the rotor blades still spinning overhead, we jumped out of the cockpit and ran out across the snow to take photographs of the stunning views – definitely a great way to climb mountains and the best £140 I’ve ever spent.
We spent the next two days of our trip driving North along the coastal road up to the famous Pancake Rocks, an area of unusual rock formations on a craggy cliff top, before heading back inland and making our way East through the mountains. On our route we stayed near a small town called Arthurs Pass, which was home to a colony of Kea, a rare breed of Alpine parrot. The Kea themselves were large, fat-looking, green creatures that didn’t seem to be very elegant in the air or on the ground, and could be seen all over the town, squawking at tourists, flying clumsily into things and doing their very best to destroy parked cars with their formidable looking beaks. Whilst sat outside having coffee one landed on our table with a heavy thud and attempted to steal my cake, I was able to shoo it away, but not before it gave me a threatening squawk and managed to get its beak in the milk jug.
On our final day it was an easy 2.5 hour drive from Arthurs Pass back to Christchurch airport and to drop off the rental car. Although the various flying activities pushed the cost of the trip up, overall it felt like a very reasonable expense for all that we did, and it was one of the best holidays I’ve had in recent years. I’d definitely like to return to New Zealand as there was plenty more on the South Island that we didn’t see, and the whole of the North Island to explore, which has its own character and attractions. As a big fan of New Zealand wine I wish we’d been able to visit some vineyards, but that will be top of my list for the next trip.
At the beginning of November it was the anniversary of my move to Japan. I was going to say that I’d been living in Japan for a year, but given the amount of travel I’ve done in that time, I suspect the actual amount is substantially lower – a quick calculation reveals that I’ve spent over a month of the past year in Australia alone.
My move from the UK was a leap into the unknown, as although I’d been to Japan before and loved it, I’d never before lived outside of the UK, and was unsure as to how I would adjust to living in such a radically different culture, and with such a formidable language barrier. I’m happy to say that I haven’t regretted a moment of my move, and feel very fortunate both for the opportunity to live in Japan, but also for the numerous, great experiences I’ve had along the way.
In Bali I SCUBA-dived to the wreck of a torpedoed American freighter and white-water rafted through a jungle ravine carved with hindu gods. In Singapore I sat at a roof-top bar during a tropical storm, and zip-lined down a hillside to a shining, white beach. In India I breezed through the manic traffic and slums of New Delhi in the back of a huge BMW, and later tip-toed through a flooded building site to reach the offices of a major advertising agency. In Mumbai I sat and drank beer in a bar riddled with bullet-holes, and later sipped martinis in the rooftop bar of a luxury hotel. I’ve seen wild snow-monkeys bathe in hot-springs, and snowboarded within sight of Mt/ Fuji. In Seoul I ate amazing barbecue and was forced to take part in ridiculous drinking games (which I think I lost). In Australia I chased wild kangaroos through vineyards and swam in shark-infested waters (well, shark-infested by UK standards). I’ve flown up a glacier in a helicopter and paraglided down a mountainside in New Zealand. I’ve come in-to-land in a private jet over the frozen sea surrounding Anchorage, Alaska and hours later been placed under armed-guard in Oakland, California. And whilst not something I ever hope to repeat, I’ve fought to keep my balance in one of the most powerful earthquakes to hit Japan in living memory, and been spared tsunami and nuclear devastation.
- That’s a fraction of the things I’ve seen and done all in only one year! As I said before, I feel very fortunate indeed.
Japan is a famously volcanic country, and whilst notorious for earthquakes and the occasional tsunami, a nicer side-effect of all of this activity is an abundance of hot water springs. Onsen (hot spring baths) are a traditional part of Japanese life and can be found all over the place but are particularly famous in mountainous regions where they are a great way to end a days hiking or skiing.
Taking an onsen is a quintessential Japanese experience and, as with most things in Japan, governed by numerous rules and secret codes that ensure foreigners will get it wrong and cause embarrassment. Firstly, onsen are usually segregated for men and women, so going through the right door is pretty important, and the two identical doors are sometimes marked only by a few Japanese characters, so you have to pay attention. I have found a good method is to wait for a Japanese man to go inside first, and if this isn’t met by a chorus of high-pitched screams, it’s probably safe to proceed. Next, you must be naked, swim wear is an absolute no-no and I’ve even seen signs stating this in English which suggests it’s a rule that gets broken quite frequently. Tattoos are another ‘no’ for the onsen, as these are traditionally the mark of gangsters and other ne’er-do-wells, so these must be covered up somehow. Before getting in the bath you must first clean yourself, and there are rows of little stools, buckets and taps for this purpose. This is also the format for most Japanese home bathrooms too, my apartment has a wet room and washing area next to the bathtub. Most Japanese people wouldn’t dream of getting in the bath without taking a shower first.
Once suitably disrobed, cleaned and located in the correct section, you can proceed to the onsen pool. As you might imagine, the water is very hot, so you have to get in with the minimum of screaming and jumping around and find somewhere to sit quietly. The onsen may be as small as accommodating a handful of people, or big enough for twenty or so, so the best thing to do is to position yourself as far a way from the other bathers as possible, but not so far as it looks like you’re trying to avoid them. You are permitted a tiny towel, which is used for cooling the face, but you must not, under any circumstances let it go in the water. Many people balance these on top of their heads, where they remain quite cool, but this is actually quite tricky and I’ve had mine fall in the water a few times, resulting in an embarrassing splash that echoes around the room and draws disapproving glances. How long you stay in the water depends on your tolerance for piping hot water, but some onsen have a cooler pool nearby which means you can take a break from the main pool and cool down a little. I once sat in an open-air onsen on top of a mountain during a particularly active thunder storm, and was too nervous to stand up to get out so just sat there and cooked until the lightning calmed down.
Last weekend my girlfriend and I went to one of the onsen towns in the mountains North of Tokyo. It was a two hour train ride to a town called Kinugawaonsen. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before, but I really enjoy travelling by train in Japan, they are famously efficient, spotlessly clean (the train drivers look more like pilots and even have white gloves) and very comfortable, often featuring reclining seats and footrests. Even the immaculately packed sandwich and cold beer that I bought on-board were reasonably priced, and quite the opposite of the experience you get when travelling by train in the UK where food items are priced akin to precious metals.
We arrived in Kinugawaonsen, which appeared to be a slightly run-down tourist town built along a narrow ravine of milky blue water. During the economic bubble of the early 90′s there was huge investment in hotels and resorts across Japan and today many of these can be found abandoned, including entire theme parks and ski resorts. Kinugawaonsen looked like it is hanging on, but I still spotted a couple of huge abandoned hotels right in the centre. We didn’t stick around, and jumped on a local train which took us another 20 minutes further up into the mountains. We alighted at a station built inside a mountain and changed to a local bus to take us on a 45 minute climb up to our hotel. The terrain here was incredibly mountainous and the narrow, winding road hugged the valley wall with sheer drops at every turn. Much of the road was through huge tunnels, emerging onto bridges and exposing incredibly views of the valley below. When we eventually arrived in a small village, the air was noticeably colder and felt quite alpine.
Our hotel was in traditional Japanese style, featuring rooms with tatami matting and futons beds that lie out on the floor. As is the way at these places, we immediately changed into the hotel provided yukata clothing (think samurai dressing-gown) After our long journey we didn’t waste much time in heading straight for the onsen. This resort featured many private onsens, so we didn’t have to split up. These pools were situated out in the hotel grounds, each inside a small wooden hut, open at one end to the elements and a river, but positioned in such a way that it was impossible to see into the other huts. The style of onsen varied between huts, some featured separate plunge pools with underwater mood lighting, one was a huge, carved stone bath featuring a dragon’s head spouting water (see second image from top) and others were more traditional in style, constructed out of natural stone slabs. After a soothing soak, we went for dinner (still dressed in our yukata) in the hotel dining room. This was a large, long room with tatami matting and lined either side by private rooms, separated via sliding paper screens. We were directed to sit on the floor next to a charcoal pit where it emerged, our dinner was cooking. We ate a selection of grilled fish, chicken, sashimi, soup, noodles and various pickles and accompaniments as well as drinking the obligatory sake.
Sitting there, on tatami matting, dressed in traditional clothing and eating fish straight out of the fire, it was very easy to imagine life in Japan 100 years ago, or a thousand years ago for that matter, as so many aspects of Japanese culture remain preserved in this way. It was a real treat to get out of the city, and a much needed break. For anybody planning a trip to Japan, I’d highly recommend a trip to a traditional onsen inn.
My friend Caren is of Korean descent, and whilst living in London she introduced me to the wonders of Korean food (mainly barbecue and fermented cabbage), drink (Soju – tastes like vodka) and Korean cinema (the works of Park Chan-wook are particularly odd) and so I’ve long-since been intrigued by Korean culture and keen to visit, as in this corner of the world, Japan is generally regarded as having the monopoly on ancient tradition and crazy pop culture.
I didn’t have to wait long for my first taste of pop culture as when I checked-in I discovered that I was sharing my flight with boy band, Super Junior who are massively popular in both Japan and their native Korea. The departure lounge was quietly buzzing with teenage girls (and many older women) brandishing camera-phones and huddling together in groups, giggling excitedly. I had no idea who they were and blithely walked through immigration with them and wondered why more Japanese girls than usual were taking my photograph.
Whereas the small crowds that we saw in Tokyo were quite restrained, the scenes that met us upon arrival in Seoul 2 hours later were utter mayhem. There were dozens of girls crowding the arrivals area, along with press photographers and when the band members’ distinct haircuts became visible through the crowds, everybody went crazy and I was almost knocked over.
After my pop-star welcome it was quickly back to the normality of my business trip and a quick cab ride into the city to reach the office. From what I could see, Seoul is a large city rimmed by rolling hills and split by a wide river. I lost count of how many long bridges I saw that cross the river Han but they suggest the huge scale of the place. The greater population of the Seoul metropolitan area is over 24 million people, and it seems that the solution to housing this many people is in high-rise towers. These are big buildings, but it is the sheer quantity of them that is staggering, with dozens of huge buildings placed together in tight clusters. From the air on our approach to the airport, you could see hundreds of these great towers stretching off out to the furthest suburbs.
It was quickly to business, and aside from a brief moment of panic as it emerged that the office was being raided by Government officials, it was soon the end of the day and, at the behest of our Korean colleagues, time for drinks.
Korean bar culture puts Japan and even the UK to shame, in terms of the sheer quantity of booze people seem to put away. Our colleagues weren’t happy just providing us with beer, and also ordered lots of soju, which they insisted we mix with our beer to create what they ominously referred to as bombs. It proved to be a predictably boozy evening, which included some excellent Korean barbecue (and kimchi, the ubiquitous fermented cabbage you find featured in all Korean cuisine) before we wound up in a karaoke bar until the small hours. I actually felt fine the next day, but I think my colleagues were secretly hoping for another government raid so they could disappear somewhere quiet.
The next evening, my colleagues from Japan and I had a much quieter evening and went out for dinner in a very stylish part of the city which reminded me of Tokyo, as it was full of designer shops, and smart little bars. But comparisons with Japan were fleeting as the whole city feels very different both in terms of architecture and culture. The downtown area had long, broad avenues which reminded me more of American cities, and indeed, the Koreans themselves seemed to have more in common with Americans when compared to their Japanese neighbours, and whilst not exactly rude, were demonstrably more forthright and the city has a slightly edgy undercurrent which seems absent in Japan.
I was only in Seoul for 2 nights, and after my meetings on the third day it was straight to the airport for my flight back to Tokyo. I hope to get back to Seoul when I have some free time, as it seems like a very interesting city and in my short visit I only managed to see a fraction of it.
We arrived at the airport much earlier than expected, and as we had an evening event to attend in Tokyo (more karaoke) my colleague and I switched to an earlier flight. There was a relatively small fee for changing tickets, but one it transpired that put us in business class for our return leg, so I at least was able to leave Korea in the manner of a pop star, complete with champagne and fancy food!
When I moved to Japan I made sure to arrive with a valid international driving license, as although I had no immediate plans to drive, I’ve always felt it’s a useful thing to have when travelling. Indeed, when I was once trapped at Houston Airport for 24 hours, having a license meant I was able to rent a car and continue my journey to New Orleans by road, which made for a bit of an adventure and a chance to see a different part of the world. The international license is only valid for a year and as I’ve already been here over 9 months I thought I’d look into getting a Japanese license.
I quickly discovered that as a driver from the UK (one of many countries deemed to have a sufficiently high standard of driver testing. The USA is omitted from this list) I would not have to take a driving test and would be able to simply transfer my license. Nothing in Japan that requires paperwork is ever simple.
The first step, required before I could even apply for my license, was to obtain a Japanese translation of my UK license. This was done by visiting one of the offices of the Japanese Automobile Federation who provide this service for ¥3000 (£23). 30 minutes later I was issued with my translation and a helpful map of how to get to the central Tokyo driving test centre.
The full testing process in Japan is pretty thorough and, like the UK, includes a written test and a practical exam. In the UK the test is taken on the open road but Japan takes a possibly more sensible approach and makes use of a custom test track. I found the above image by looking up the centre on Google Maps and you can see the track is a perfect model town of traffic scenarios. Apparently applicants are advised to arrive an hour early and are able to walk the track to prepare. During the exam the examiners will often give very little instruction and drivers are expected to perform a set series of manoeuvres from memory.
At the centre I was spotted by a receptionist who instructed me to window 26 on the second floor and I was directed to follow a line painted on the floor that would deliver me to the correct area. The building was a mass of numbered rooms, windows, signposts and floor markings, and each area had well defined queuing zones and ticket dispensers. I found window 26 and handed over my paperwork: passport, UK license (both parts), photograph (NOT passport size – licenses have their own format which is odd as the photo you supply is not actually used on the license), translation, application form, declaration of no current convictions, and a letter from my employer stating that I used to live in the UK. This last part was of my own devising as the Japanese authorities ask you to prove that you lived in the country of your license for at least 3 months after it was issued. I suddenly realised that without any paperwork from the UK it is quite hard to prove that I ever lived there, and so I had the UK office send me a letter saying that I absolutely used to work and live there. This seemed sufficient and my papers were snatched away and I was sent to the waiting area.
After 30 minutes I was called back to window 26 and issued some paperwork in Japanese and told to report to the 1st floor, room 1, for an eye test. After passing a quick test to determine distance and colour-vision levels I was dispatched back to the 2nd floor to pay for my license. At the payment window my papers were inspected, stamped and money taken. I paid around ¥7000 (£55) which is double the regular amount but I also wanted to transfer my UK motorcycle license so was charged for 2 licenses.
In Japan motorcycles are classed into 4 categories: 50cc scooters, 150cc small bikes, 400cc medium bikes, and unlimited class. Testing for the unlimited engine class is notoriously difficult and requires an additional test with many advanced riding skills including slowly riding along a narrow beam above a shark tank (not really, but the beam bit is true). In reading about this test I was informed to dress conservatively and not ‘like a biker’ as apparently the examiners will fail people if they deem them to have the wrong attitude, and seemingly your dress can be enough to mark you out as a beatnik boy-racer. Statistics seem to prove this with a higher pass rate for people wearing sensible white helmets rather than anything more colourful and frivolous. I had expected to be issued a 400cc license but when asked if my UK permit was restricted and I told them it was not (they double-checked this on the translation) my form was stamped with the thrilling words ‘Unlimited Engine Class’ and I immediately made plans to buy a red helmet with flame-motif.
Having paid, I was sent back to see my friends at window 26, who did some more checking and stamping before sending me back down to the 1st floor to have my photo taken. Photo taken, I was was then send up to the 3rd floor to receive my license. The 3rd floor was full of examination rooms and a waiting area for new licenses. The waiting area was full of posters that appeared to promote polite driving and disuade all manner of reckless behaviour. There was even a mannequin, dressed as a Japanese traffic policeman looming over the masses of waiting soon-to-be drivers. Eventually my number was called (luckily of one the few I can recognise in Japanese) and I was given my license.
The next step was possibly to get myself a motorcycle to explore the city, but I have discovered that the owners of my building do not supply parking for bikes, and will not even rent me one of the three vacant car parking spaces, so for now my license is just for emergencies, but I have plans to visit other parts of Japan so may end up renting something and getting behind the wheel before too long.
In the meantime, this is what I imagine when daydreaming about getting a bike in Tokyo:
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