No excuses

I’ve lived in Japan for nearly three years now and I’m still in awe about their fantastic train service. For someone who lived in England for 14 years, the Japanese trains are bloody amazing!

When I move back to England, one of the things I will miss even more than the irresistible Japanese food (that has over the past 3 years added about 10kg on my waist) is the stress-free bang-on-time train service that I have been using to commute to work every weekday and to travel near and far around Japan during weekends.

You see, England is country whose train service can hardly be referred to as ‘bloody amazing’ and thus, I will have to soon again get used to all sorts of excuses as to why I won’t be able to trust that my train will be on my platform when it should.

This might be a bit mean to the English government (that seems reluctant to make any investment whose benefits last beyond their term in office) and to English train companies (whose only aim is to make profit for their shareholders regardless of how appalling a service they provide their passengers in the process) but I can’t resist pointing out that the English train operators’ three typical excuses for delayed, cancelled or overcrowded trains seem rather moot in comparison to the conditions in Japan. They appear to be the following:

1. Weather and natural disasters

Japan has a multitude of additional and frequent natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis and typhoons. Regardless of these, Japanese train operators manage to provide a fantastic service. For instance, the average delay annually of the Shinkansen, i.e. the bullet train is between 20-50 seconds depending on the year (this includes delays due to uncontrollable causes, like earthquakes!).

In comparison, in England, trains are cancelled as there are ‘leaves on the tracks’.

2. The number of people

English train operators often defend their poor service by saying that the volume of people in modern day England does not reflect the capacity of its Victorian infrastructure. Namely, the platforms are too short for longer trains whose use would enable less overcrowded trains. I’m guessing the company/government decision-makers are not stupid, and thus they are aware that one could (a) modernise the platforms to reflect the needs of the modern day or (b) run a more frequent train service without extending the platforms. However, extra trains and longer platforms mean investment, more man-hours and higher fuel costs, all of which result in less profits, so the government and the companies are as eager to change the platforms or add extra services as your stingy auntie is to turn the heating up in the winter.

About 120 million people live in Japan. This is roughly twice as many as in England. Regardless of this huge number of people, the commute to work in Japan is generally relatively stress-free. If you do not fit onto the train you were expecting to take, you simply join the queue on the platform, and take the following train, which is likely to arrive a couple of minutes later. Therefore, not fitting onto the overcrowded train creates a delay on average of about 2 minutes.

The train and tube connections between different lines are unbelievably well thought through and executed. As your first train pulls in to the platform, your connection is usually already there waiting for you, or it will arrive within 30 seconds. So, all you need to do is basically just walk out of your first train and walk into your connection on the other side of the platform before it leaves 30 seconds later. It’s like magic! I assume English train companies’ intention is to provide something similar, but they haven’t quite managed to hone the operations to the point where passengers can enjoy their connection waiting for them at the platform instead of it arriving 45 minutes later (if even then).

3. Old equipment

Maybe a valid point is the functionality of the train company’s equipment. We get to the importance of investment here again, but let’s assume that one had to make do with pretty old trains. Would this be a valid reason to let your train service perform like a pensioner with a heart problem using a zimmer frame?

Well, in Japan it’s not. In Japan they have their high end bullet trains (would you not agree with me that they look like platypuses, see photo below) and they are investing now in the Maglev, the super fast magnetically levitating bullet train.

 

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Platypus

 

But in addition to these super fast, super reliable long distance trains, local Japanese train companies (many of which are privately owned), such as the one I have been using for the past three years to commute to work and back, use less sophisticated technology (see photos below).

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What I love about the aboves photo, and what to me gives an indication of the rigour and determination that the train companies and staff have about their schedule is the old-fashioned pocket watch on the dashboard. Every time the train stops, the driver checks the watch to make sure the train leaves on time. I suppose my point with the picture is that: good train service is not just about the equipment.

And ass I pointed out above, I think it’s not about the weather or the number of passengers either.

So what is it about?

I think it’s about attitude. I think it’s as simple as that. If train operators wanted to put passenger satisfaction first and provide good service, they would simply adjust to the needs of the modern society and to current passenger numbers, even if it meant a little less money for themselves/their shareholders.

But in a country with a long history of dog-eat-dog competition, where can we find the train operators or their decision makers that are not only concerned about money?

 

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One more point relevant to trains, but from a slighlty different perspective: Even though the train operators don’t care about their passengers very much in England, other passengers on the train do (only occasionally you are unlucky enough to encounter a person whose BMW was broken down and they’ve had to take the train. These are the people who behave on the train platform like their time is more valuable than everyone else’s). In England, if for instance an elderly person or a pregnant lady is on the train, you can be sure that someone will give their seat to these people. Japanese people on the other hand rarely offer their seat to anyone even if it was obvious that the other person needed the seat more than they did (see photo below of me carrying my sleeping 4-year old for a 40 minute journey from Kyoto to Osaka).

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Is this really Japan?

One thing that is wonderful about Japan is the fact that it has so many different types of places to visit. What I mean is that you go on a domestic holiday within Japan but it feels like you have gone abroad, and you sometimes forget that you are actually still in Japan. A beach holiday on a small Okinawan island feels like you have gone somewhere like the Seychelles (you can find some of our Okinawa photos here). You go to Hiroshima and the scenery you are greeted with at the Inland sea makes you think that you are not in Japan but somewhere in South Asia (you can find some of our Hiroshima photos here). Tokyo looks like a metropolis smilar to New York or London, but it’s clean, people are typically extremely polite and the infrastructure functions exceptionally well (recall that there are frequent earthquakes and typhoons in Tokyo and it deals with these better than London deals with three flakes of snow) (you can find some of our Tokyo photos here). And maybe you could say that Kyoto looks like ‘real’ Japan with its temples, shrines and kimono-wearing ladies heading to the closest tea ceremony or Ikebana class (you can find some of our Kyoto photos here).

Last weekend, with some Japanese friends, me and the kids headed to what I think is the ‘Switzerland’ of Japan, namely to Shirokawago in the Gifu prefecture.

Early Saturday morning our friends in their 8-seater rental car pulled outside our apartment to pick us up for this ‘Alpine’ adventure. Our kids and their kids are good friends so I assumed the 4-hour journey would be a piece of cake with ‘I spy with my little eye’, Top Trumps, joint book reading and a carefully controlled iPad quota, but it actually turned out to be pieces of cake, everywhere. Not only were the kids monkeying around with food, they were also making a mess with nose bleeds, vomiting, dirty shoes on the seats, and the usual stuff most parents would expect on a 4-hour car journey. But even though the car’s interior was having a road trip from hell – in between vomits and nose bleeds, us passengers were having a great time.

We had reserved Sunday for Shirakawago, so when we got to Gifu on Saturday, we first went mountain biking in the town called Hida. Actually, when I say ‘mountain biking’, I don’t quite mean your typical mountain biking. We had the mountain and the bikes but instead of revving across unbeaten peak paths, we jumped on bikes that were attached to a frame, which in turn was attached to an old train track. The younger kids sat in between the two bikes like royalty and enjoyed chauffeuring service provided by us adults and a 12-year old (to make up numbers).

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Somewhat typically for Japan where most cyclists’ seats have been adjusted so that the cyclist’s knees seem to hit their chin when pedalling, when I sat on the bike, the seat was uncomfortably low. No self-respecting Finnish outdoor shop owners’ daughter would accept knee-to-chin style inefficient pedalling. So, I asked a staff member to adjust the seat. He explained that it was in its highest setting. There we were again, in a situation where Japan ever so effortlessly makes a normal size Western woman feel like an Amazonian. My 150 cm, 40kg female friend and her only slightly bigger husband found it hilarious that their Finnish pal’s long legs (hardly!!!) were not compatible with (what I would call a child’s) mountain bike. Luckily us Westerners as well as the Japanese looked equally unflattering in our crash helmets.

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Two-by-two us and the other 15 cyclist pairs leisurely cruised 3 km down the hill. It was awesome. The sun was shining but there was a slight breeze (which you would appreciate if you knew how painfully hot Japanese summer days can be) and the view was amazing. Little did I know (due to slight translation problems) that once we were down the hill, we would have to cycle that 3km back up! Yikes! Maybe it was for the best I didn’t know what was coming, or I wouldn’t have enjoyed the ride down through the old train tunnels and lovely mountain forests as much as I did. Anyway, when we got down to the resting spot at the 3 km mark and the staff swiftly turned the bikes round towards the direction we had come from, it hit me that we would have to cycle back up the hill, which now, thinking about it, kind of makes sense. Luckily, the bikes were installed with battery operated pedalling aids. However, when I was huffing and puffing up the hill (regardless of the pedalling aid) worrying that the cyclists behind us would start ringing their bells at us crawling up the hill like an overweight turtle after a too ambitious CrossFit class, I would have paid good money for the exchange of my bike for one of the staffs’ mopeds at the front and the back of the line of us mountain cyclists.

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Apart from my unacceptably poor physical performance, the ‘mountain biking’ experience was good fun. All of us adults, and the kids loved it.

After mountain biking, we drove to Takayama, a town known for its historical old town.

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In addition to the beautiful old buildings, Takayama had several sake shops.

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Since my husband missed the trip due to having been in England at the time, I thought I’d buy him some sake, his favourite drink. Entertainingly, I got a bit tipsy sampling some delicious local sake in the search for very dry sake for my husband (I’m more of a sweet plum sake person while my husband prefers nail varnish remover). As you can see in the picture below, I eventually found a ‘little’ something for him.

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We also noticed many bird nests around. I was told that the Japanese believe that swallow nests bring good luck and thus, people are very creative in coming up with workable ways to share their habitat with the nests. In the photo below the umbrella hangs underneath a nest to protect the taxi from anything that might drop down from the nest.

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Our hotel in Takayama was great. The hotel had indoor and outdoor onsens (hot springs) and it served one of the best buffet dinners I’ve ever had (which included for instance sushi and sashimi made to order, pizzas baked to order in a proper stone oven and personal table-top BBQs). After the buffet we headed for a relaxing session in the hot springs.

A word of advice to anyone else slightly self-conscious about the circumference of their waist: Don’t go to an onsen after a buffet dinner. After all, similarly to Finnish saunas you go to onsens naked, and thus, you can’t hide the earlier overdose of sushi, tempura or Chinese dumplings. The post-buffet-look really isn’t flattering even for the petit Japanese ladies let alone someone who carries around her waist a 10kg ‘lifebuoy’.

The following morning we drove to Shirakawago in the mountains of Gifu.

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Due to its location, Shirakawago gets lots of snow in the winter and thus, similar to many houses in the Alps, the angle of roofs of houses in Shirakawago is relatively steep.

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Not only are the roofs unusually steep, but the material of the roofs in Shirakawago is predominantly thatch (presumably to insulate the cold in the winter). And Shirakawago did not leave a fan of old British thatched houses cold. The village was beautiful with the old thatched houses, lovely forests around it and a river running through it. No wonder it is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centres.

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We had a great weekend experiencing a new side of Japan (to us). Now the only thing to do is to start thinking where to go next.

 

Nutty Professor

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Greetings, not from Osaka, but from Taipei! We are currently on holiday in Taiwan. Our first impression of Taipei is great! It’s slightly warmer here than in Osaka, and so it already feels like the spring here, people are friendly and helpful, food is good, and there is lots to see.

We took the taxi from the airport to the hotel last night, and I am happy we did, as otherwise we would have never found our hotel. Even when the taxi driver pointed at the entrance, it took us a good 15 minutes to find the reception – partly because the hotel had changed its name since our booking, partly because the reception was on the 12th floor, and party because they had done a pretty good job in camouflaging the hotel amongst the local street vendors’ shops (see a photo of the entrance to the hotel below).

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But when we did manage to find the reception, the hotel staff were extremely helpful, they even wrote down the name of the closest English speaking hospital in Chinese for any emergencies. You see, I forgot to take with us our daughter’s emergency injection, a glucagon vial + syringe, which we are meant to use if her blood glucose level falls so low that she passes our and/or convulses. We’ve never had to use that injection before (but many other parents of Type 1 diabetic children have) and our preparation for the journey was a bit chaotic due to the fact that my husband got to Japan only two days before our holiday, and me having been very busy and stressed for work until literally moments before we headed to the airport, so I just forgot all about the glucagon injection (until we were already in Taiwan).

Well, so far so good: No-one’s passed out or convulsed, although I did nearly have a fit when I discovered what my husband had packed.

When we were packing our bags for the trip, I asked my husband to pack the scales. Given that we have to carefully monitor our daughter’s carbohydrate intake, so that we can give her the equivalent amount of insulin to counterbalance the carbs that she’s consumed (thus, we need to weigh pretty much any carb-containing food before she puts it in her mouth) I assumed that the term ‘scales’ was enough to translate to ‘kitchen scales’. But obviously it wasn’t since when I checked our hand luggage at Taipei airport for some travel documents, I discovered a full size personal scales in my husband’s hand-luggage. Like what the hell!? Have you lost your mind? Why have we ferried a bloody personal scales from Osaka to Taipei?! Maybe my husband is sending me a message along the lines of:

Just in case you wanted to see the damage that those 3 pork buns you munched today have done…

In any case, for the next two weeks, we’ll be weighing 4-year old’s portion sizes on those personal scales i.e. things like three grapes or 20g of porridge oats! But on a positive note, at least I can keep my own pork bun intake in check.

When we got to our hotel room, while I was getting the kids ready for bed, my husband went back out to buy some bottled water (apparently it’s not advisable to drink tap water in Taiwan) and some food as an evening snack before bed. I mentioned to him that he shouldn’t buy any fresh foods, due to the fact that fresh food in Taiwan might have been washed in tap water (or not stored properly) and may therefore have hepatitis A, typhoid or the germs that cause gastroenteritis (this is not my advice but the vaccination clinic’s advice in Osaka). So I suggested that he should buy something like pot noodles or cup-a-soups, crackers, fruit with peel on (like bananas), and some wine. He came back with some sushi! I didn’t kick off because instead of wine he had found some Strongbow cider, the encounter of which makes my brain scream Hallelujah!

I should say that despite my slagging off my husband, I think that generally he is quite switched on, especially at work. Maybe he is a bit like one of those nutty professors who talks about brain science all day but then can’t remember where they have parked their car. To back this up, his handwriting is indecipherable, even to him. I think sometimes he writes half a word then can’t be bothered writing the rest and so finishes with a little squiggle.

After having now spent one night in our hotel, I think our room is not bad, but my husband is a little disappointed, namely because we don’t have a good view from our room. And not just a good view, we don’t even have any windows! Well, unless you count this little fellow (see photo below).

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Our hotel room window

And if you do count it, then I suppose we do have a view. The window just kind of gets a bit in the way of things (see photo below).

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The view

 

But who cares – we are not going to spend that much time in our hotel room, when we’ll be exploring what Taipei has to offer.

The only Westerners on the Island

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Yesterday, we visited Yurigahama, a sandbank about 1 km from the shore of Yoron Island. Yurigahama is peculiar in that it is only exposed for a couple of hours during the low tide, after which it is hidden under water again. The island guide leaflet says that one can only visit it a couple of times a month and only if it is your destiny!

For several days before our trip, the boats that run between Yurigahama and the coast of Yoron were pulled out of the water due to a typhoon warning. It must have been our destiny because they were running the day we visited.

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My aim here is not to make you Brits and Finns reading this feel bad and think ‘We won’t see the sun again until next June and you bastard brag about the sunshine’ but Yurigahama was amazing! I can’t possibly put it into words how beautiful it was. Maybe the photos above and below give you a feel for what it was like instead (and maybe you can go and visit sometime). There was clear turquoise water and white sand, turtles and colourful fish swimming in the corals, a fabulous location very close to the far edge of the reef where you can see the dangerous waters beyond the reef (but are yet in the safe, shallow, waters of the reef), and importantly, a lack of German tourists hogging all the sun loungers, Brits boozing their way through the day, Americans acting like they own the beach and Finns looking as miserable as the sharks on the other side of the reef.

What might make you feel better, is the knowledge that when we got to Yurigahama, I noticed that my husband had forgotten our towels. When going swimming, one might consider forgetting towels a bit of a disaster, but not my husband. His plan was to use his spare boxer shorts as a towel. You can’t but love a man that thinks outside his wife’s comfort zone.

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As, throughout our Yoron holiday overall, we were the only Westerners on Yurigahama. Yoron seems very much a Japanese holiday-makers’ paradise – and there weren’t even that many Japanese around.

On our way back from Yurigahama on a small glass bottom boat, a Japanese lady from Tokyo asked where we were from and said that she was amazed to see any Westerners on the island. She was baffled as to how we had even heard about Yoron, let alone managed to book the holiday via non-Japanese booking websites. She was convinced we were the only Westerners on the island. For some reason it made my holiday.

 

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