Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Paradise mountains

Another weekend down and another successful tramping trip. This time we headed south for 2hrs to a range of mountains that divide the prefectures of Oita and Miyazaki. As we drove the narrow and windy road higher and higher into the hills the more I felt like I was in paradise! There were no small towns, houses, rice fields or signs of human existence. It truely was the most remote location you could get on our island. Here are some pics....

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Mum and Dad's visit....

Well they have long since been and gone but it's never too late to make a blog entry about it!

It was great having mum and dad come and visit us and being able to share a little slice of our time here in Japan with them.

Turns out I hardly took any photos while they were here but here are just a few....

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A day in the hills without rain!

It had to happen some time, a fine days tramping!! On Saturday I organized a JET tramping trip to Kyushu’s highest mountain Kujusan. This was the first mountain I climbed back in about September last year.

It was a beautiful day with blue skies and slowing rising temperature. We have been very unlucky lately as the spring weather has been nothing short of crap. Rain, rain, rain and more rain.

Being such a beautiful day it was quite busy and humans dotted the landscape like little ants. After climbing Mt Kuju we traversed around a few other peaks and a beautiful mountain lake before making our way back down. The mountain was still wearing its ‘winter’ clothes as the crappy spring has meant low temps and a late blooming of flowers; no snow but stark naked trees and only the slightest hint of things starting to green up.

Thankfully the active volcanic vents were in fine form throwing up a cloud of steam, not quite as high as Iceland’s volcano though!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Sorry if you are a fan of planes and automobiles but this blog is only about trains, the title was much nicer with them included.

It is common knowledge Japan has one of the worlds leading train systems. There is almost nowhere that tracks haven't been laid. Three classes of train race around the country side everyday carrying millions of commuters and a far smaller number of travelers. You haven't experienced real congestion until you've been on a rush hour train in Tokyo. Firstly there is the Shinkansen or bullet train which reaches almost the entire length of the country (apart from a section on our island!!!), it speeds along at close to 300km/h and turns a multi day drive into the fastest trip of your life. They have their own special tracks so no stray dogs or drunk idiots end up on the windscreen.

The Sonic
Next are the sonic trains which travel on all the normal lines and only stop at select stations which are warranted busy enough. They seem to move at about 150km/h.

Finally we have the local trains which stop at every station regardless of size. The smallest stop I have seen has no conductor, building or ticket machines, it is but a rusty, lonely and spider infested shelter.

A Local train

Life on the trains takes on a whole new meaning and for the first 4ish months we were here I was a slave to their shackles. (cue dramatic music). Over this period I devised a set of rules which I believe every train user should follow.

-Don't be more than 2sec late to the platform or you will miss it. If it says 3:23pm it will depart at 3:23pm.

-Don't try and con the system by paying for a shorter journey and thinking you'll get away with it because it is 11:30pm and it is the last train AND there is never a ticket man at that time. When you do this it will be the only time in history the ticket man is still there and they WILL stop the train until you pay more.

-Try not to run to the train in the middle of summer, jump through the doors and then put your arm up to hold on. Others will hate you.

-Once on the train don't pay any attention to the seats marked for "Elderly, Pregnant or Disabled", no one else does and they are the best seats on the train.

-You have three options to entertain yourself, 1-sleeping; close your eyes, let your head fall to the side and bump into the person next to you repeatedly, 2-use your cellphone, 3-more sleeping with some snoring.

-Don't make your way to the door early and politely ask people to move. Wait until the last minute then run as fast as you can with your arms out aiming to knock people over. It's more fun and the old grannies set pretty high scores. Once out of the train you can be slow and polite like normal.

-If the carriage looks full push harder. Because we live in the rural wilds the next train is a 3omin wait, so push. Someone will pop out the other door and make room for you eventually.

A not so busy local train carriage

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Spring time

Hanami in Beppu Park

It seems that spring is finally gracing us with it's presence....about time! It kind of feels like we have been in a holding pattern weather wise for the last month. With winter pretending to finish around and end of Feb, March looked as though it might bring the warmer weather...instead we had wind and rain. Luckily for us though that appears to be all in the past and we have been enjoying quite an important part of the Japanese year.

Spring means a number of things in Japan. Firstly it is the new financial year, businesses report profits and loss, and this year things aren't look to good for the Japanese economy. Japan Airlines, Asia's biggest airline, is losing 1 billion yen a day (NZ$15 million), has filled for bankruptcy (surprise) and is axing 16,000 staff immediately! Toyota continues to look bad as there cars speed off while the handbrake is on and the general vibe is the economy is rubbish.

Secondly, it is the start of the new school year. Something I have found very strange. Unlike NZ the Japanese school system runs from April - March with only a small break in between the school year and a big break over the summer (July/August) holidays. This means teachers only have a max of 10 days to prepare for the year ahead. What makes things even stranger is that most teachers change school during this time. Teachers are not employed by the schools directly, instead they answer to the board of education in each city/town. This means teachers/secretaries/principals are often switched around each year, especially if you do not have your 'teaching license'. For example, my school has about 45 teachers and 26 of them are new thins year! What makes things even stranger is they only have about 4 days warning before they are required to move! Crazy.

So over the last week it feels like my job has changed a lot. I have a new desk, with new teachers, new students and a whole bunch of new classes.

Lastly it's cherry blossom season. If you had to use one thing as a symbol for Japan it would be a tight race between Mt Fuji and cherry blossoms (sakura). The Japanese go crazy over them. As they only bloom for about 2-3 weeks it is a short lived period that everyone makes the most of. The traditional event is 'hanami', basically a picnic under the trees with family and friends. Not wanting to miss out on the fun we have had a few of our own hanamis and a bonfire on the beach!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Rugby 7's

The stadium at night

There really is no other way of describing the Hong Kong Sevens without including the word ‘party’. Having already spent 2 months in HK I knew exactly what I was in for in terms of Hong Kong itself but with Asia's biggest sporting event in town it added a whole other dimension to things.

There is probably no other place in Asia which is as westernised or English friendly as HK, remembering it was British up until a few years ago. This means a few things; firstly it’s easy choosing what to eat, secondly the food and especially the supermarkets are a real mixture of western and Chinese, thirdly everything is in dual languages and if not then it’s the Chinese which is missing,finally, every British person who left when HK was handed back to the Chinese comes back for a visit while the sevens are on. I guess it’s a good excuse!

The stadium has to be one of the most amazing stadiums in the world; I challenge anyone to find one that beats it. On one side you have jungle, thick, green and uninviting. I know from experience it takes hours to make any progress ‘walking’ through it. On the other you have the world’s best skyline, 100’s of buildings reaching upwards and as night falls you have the worlds best night skyline with award winning light show. Even though you are there to watch rugby it’s hard not to spend half the time looking around.

The south stand is party central. With a max capacity of 6,000ppl, for safety reasons, it’s the place to be if you are more interested in beer than rugby. Everyone is dressed up and costumes range from where’s Wally, Steve Irwin, Arab princess, Ginger bread men, police men and flight attendants right through to things not even the person wearing it knows what it is.

South stand antics

The rugby itself was incredible and I can see why 7's it has been included in the Olympics. It is easily better than the normal '15' a side version as each game is fast, fun and action packed. Every team has a chance of winning and the crowd is always happy, even when their team doesn't do too well. Hong Kong was a crowd favorite with seemingly every one of the 40,000 people cheering for them. England was next in line as the ‘home team’ with sides like NZ, Australia and South Africa only being supported by true fans like us. Needles to say we weren't well liked. Thankfully though France was the least favorite team, booed every time they touched the ball!

The battle begins

I was almost jumping on my chair after the first few minutes of the final, with a 14-0 lead I didn't think Samoa would come back to beat us...maybe it was the crowd support that got them there in the end.

Highlights: Watching a streaker run the length of the field, climb up onto the goal post and jump up and down on the crossbar before jumping off, evading the security guards and playing with the ball at halfway, pretending to give up and then racing off again before being tackled trying to get off the field.

Having two old poms behind us analyze each move and talkig as though they could do better. "Oh if only he'd passed it he had a man on his outside and he could have got a try...by jeez this really is amazing isn't it....I mean look at them what are they doing....Oh this really is great isn't it.....I got upgraded because I wasn't happy with my hotel....

Eating a mince pie.

Asking the old lady infront of us where she bought her sausage roll and after I told her I hadn't had one in 8 months she gave me half of it.

Overall it was a fantastic time and I highly recommend making a trip to HK.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Hong Kong by day...

Hong Kong is one of those cities that make you go wow! From the enormous skyscrapers to the millions of double-decker buses, the mix between the old and the new, wild jungle and spectacular views it really is a feast for the senses!

Not knowing really what to expect I was totally blown away by the sheer enormity of some of the buildings! I’m pretty sure I’ve come home with a permanent crick in my neck from constantly looking up!


The Peak Tram – an old school cable car that whizzes you up about as high as you can go in Hong Kong to reveal the most spectacular views across the city! It was the perfect place to get a different perspective of the island and to see just how much of it is still covered in wild jungle! It’s not for the faint hearted though as getting to top is harrowing enough but getting down is even worse given you have to come down seated backwards! The gradient is so steep that if you were sitting forward you would fly right off your seat... it’s also goes surprisingly fast so it felt a little too much like a rollercoaster for my liking!

The Rugby 7’s – Nathan is going to do a separate blog on this but it was totally worth coming to Hong Kong for! It was awesome being in a crowd of 40,000 all cheering for different teams but all there to have a good time! Fun times all round!

Stanley Bay – This is definitely where you would want to live in Hong Kong if you had the money! It’s hard to believe you’re even still in Hong Kong when you’re standing around the other side of the island to the city on beautiful white sand beaches, where the pace is a million times slower and there is open space for miles! The market over there was also pretty awesome – as were the cafes on every corner and the amazing supermarket we spent ages wandering in!
Giant Bronze Buddha – Giant doesn’t even begin to describe how enormous this thing was! It was bigger than gigantic! On a regular day there is an amazing 6km gondola that takes you out to it, complete with glass bottoms and unbeatable views (so we’re told) - however we were unlucky enough to encounter the windiest day in the history of Hong Kong (ok maybe not but it was pretty damn windy!) so the gondola wasn’t running. Instead we had to catch a bus with a million other tourists in town for the rugby over the most twisty-turny roads I have ever been on! But... despite the ridiculously windy day and the thousands of steps to get up close to it, the Buddha was incredible! I have no idea how high is stands but it sure was huge! There was also a really interesting monastery there which we enjoyed spending time looking around and comparing to the temples and shrines we have seen here in Japan. We loved all the bright colours and intricate artwork that it was shrouded in floor to ceiling.

We did so many other amazing things too and like usual took hundreds of photos but seriously loved every minute of it!

Hong Kong by night...

After dark is when Hong Kong really comes alive... but I can assure you the city is anything but dark! I would love to know just how many skyscrapers there are in Hong Kong but based on the number of lights that shine our across the city at night it must be a staggering number!

A major highlight for us was the spectacular Symphony of Lights show that plays every night. Basically it’s a 10 minute light extravaganza synchronized with music in which many of the city skyscrapers are lit up in a variety of colours using spotlights and laser beams etc. It’s no surprise that the night cityscape is considered one of the best in the world, if not the best in the world – the lights themselves are amazing but coupled with the way they reflect and twinkle in the water makes them that much more spectacular.

Hong Kong also has a number of really wicked night markets that are a hive of activity until the early hours of the morning. If you can stand the jostling that inevitably goes on when you have hundreds of people all trying to walk down the narrow alleyways lined with stalls then not only do you deserve a medal but also a bargain or two along the way! It was really interesting seeing the different selling styles of the stall holders – The majority were ultra pushy and would practically accost you on your way past all the while yelling in your face “you want copy bag, copy watch, I give very good price”. Then there were the ones who sat there half asleep, barely lifting an eyelid as you tried to ask how much something was. We soon learnt that unless you were seriously interested in buying something it was far better not to touch or even look out the corner of your eye at anything because as soon as you did you were more often than not swooped on!

As well as all the little nick-knacks in the markets there was also a variety of tasty-goodness food stalls. It’s true that as you walked past some of them it smelt more like you had walked through someone’s fart rather than a food stall but on the whole they all looked and smelt pretty appealing! We were quite taken with the steaming bamboo baskets of Dim Sum as well as all the ducks hanging by their necks waiting to be cut up and served.

The Lonely Planet Guide was dead right that if you’re in bed before 11pm you’re missing out the real Hong Kong!