Friday, 16 March 2018

Autumn Aurora in Japan - Day 4

 Tokyo                                                                                          Japan

Friday 7th October 2016

The first thing I felt when I woke up was a brief moment of light-headedness maybe due to the jet lag kicking in. I headed downstairs to see if I could remedy the situation with breakfast, which was already prepared for us both. Craig had a head start on me so I had to play catch up with the nice yoghurt and small sweet buns waiting for me. The breakfast definitely worked on my moment of faintness and I felt great for today’s venture into the heart of Tokyo. We spent a short moment packing essentials and then with no hesitation, we left for Nishi Kunitachi station. No sooner did we arrive at the station did we climb aboard to the next station of Tachikawa; straight onto the favoured Chuo Line straight to Tokyo.

This would take a long while to get too so for the time being we would join everyone else on the train that were either sitting or standing. The one thing they were all doing though was concentrating on their phones. Not one person would look at each other, only what was on their screens. It looked quite strange in a way but I was fixated on this breathtaking urban jungle flying by the window. Overtime the train would fill with people and then it hit us that we were stuck in rush hour heading to Tokyo. There was hardly any room to move around for a while and as Craig and I were westerners, time and again, we were being stared at as though we were a couple of alien life forms. Time passed and then the call came out stating we had arrived in Tokyo. Excitement built up with the thought of being in this great city fantasising for months about being here.

As soon as we left the train, it was hectic beyond imagination with everyone going everywhere and anywhere; crazy would have been an understatement. Once more, we would take our time making sure we were heading in the right direction and so we found one of the many exits out of the station; maranouchi central exit. We were welcomed by the immediate sight of skyscrapers all around and these were huge compared to the ones in Shinjuku; for once I felt like an ant. To be honest as soon as we left the area we had no real clue what we were going to do with our time here. Therefore, we decided to wander down along towards one of the many main roads hoping to stumble on something interesting. We did hope to see top sights here such as the Skytree tower, Tokyo tower and possibly some hidden temples. For now, we were admiring the sights and sound around us especially the sound of trains clunking along the lines above us with the odd screeching.

Further down the long road we took, we noticed sections being cordoned off with no understanding of the reason behind it. We joked on thinking it was for us as a welcome to Japan. We faced reality though and moved on from the area focusing on the search for the sky tree. We found ourselves heading towards the area that had the highest skyscrapers as we had no real clue where it was. Whether we could find it or not, it didn’t matter as we were enjoying the sights around us. A new sound came to our ears which were several helicopters circling the area; I had never seen this many helicopters at one time so it was truly special to witness given the fact we were in Tokyo. We headed closer to the large skyscrapers and came across a bridge overlooking the congested traffic ahead of us. Once we got to the bridge we could relax for a moment and then we caught sight of what we called ‘transformer trucks; futuristic type trucks with chrome finishing. I couldn’t stop looking at them type of vehicles thinking they would transform into a robot; we were in Tokyo so anything was possible.

We continued on with no luck in finding the sky tree until Craig asked someone in his best Japanese. The woman escorted us both to the nearest subway station and stated that we would need to head to a place called Osiage, which was quite a few stops away; however this would take us directly to the famous Sky tree. The trouble was that we couldn’t use our rail passes on the subways so we had to pay for our tickets; they were extremely cheap though costing us 220 yen each so, we paid and immediately boarded the train. It was quite weird to be staying in the dark tunnels compared to whizzing by the city buildings; we weren’t on the train long as we made it to Osiage.

We made our way up the few escalators to the sight of a large group of people gazing up at the sky. We had to go join them and so we stood outside and gazed upon this humungous structure reaching the heavens; the Sky tree. What a magnificent tower it was and I was completely speechless at the sight of it; Craig couldn’t believe he was standing in front of this structure too and we couldn’t wait to get to the top. We took the short walk to it and my neck was beginning to hurt with the fact I was constantly staring up at it. We eventually entered the base of the building and joined the ever growing queue to get up it. 2,060 yen charge was ahead of us which was a bit of expense but I knew it would be worth it for what we were about to see at the top.

Luckily once we paid, Tokyo had a brilliant device called an elevator to the 350th floor; none of this climbing countless stairs to the top. Speaking of which, we were placed into the largest elevator I had ever been in holding about 20 people inside. The elevator was dark with a beautiful light show inside on the ascent up which also caused quite a bit of pressure due to the height we were at and speed we were going. As soon as we reached the top, the doors opened to reveal a huge amount of people overlooking the most breathtaking sight I had seen for a very long time; a 360 degree view of the entire city of Tokyo and beyond. We could see for miles even with the bright suns glare shining on the skyscrapers in the distance. Craig and I were amazed and gobsmacked with the shear drop far below us too as we got as close to the huge windows as we could. We covered the whole area looking at every detail and then we noticed an ice cream parlour when we reached the opposite side. Therefore, with no hesitation, we took an ice cream break with the best view possible.

We realised beforehand that we could reach a higher point in the tower but this would result in us paying an extra 1,030 yen to get to the 445th floor. We were reluctant to pay but we ended up paying and using a separate elevator to get us there. Of course once we reached the higher point, we were welcomed by a similar sight of Tokyo city all around us. Nothing changed much with the horizon from below but the only difference was the even bigger drop. I couldn’t believe it when I had seen workers right on the edge and on top of the lower level; that must have been one hell of a sight for them being where they were. The higher area we were in formed a kind of spiral to a higher point so we slowly made our way up and around just like the dozens of people following suit. We eventually reached the top with nothing more to see so we made our way back down the elevators to the 350th floor.

We were about to make our way back to the base but then we noticed there were floors accessible below which was home to a glass floor so we had to experience that. Therefore, down the stairs we went and joined the crowds of people who were mentally preparing themselves to walk on the glass floor. What was funny though was the fact that there was quite a lot of very young children walking or crawling along the 2 metre glass without a care in the world, whilst there was a few adults looking very scared putting one foot on it. There was one woman who caught my eye who looked so scared she was clinging onto the towers structure without moving an inch. Craig and I decided to take the young children’s approach and brave the walk across it; it was quite exhilarating to be honest as we stared down to the death-defying drop. It was time to head back down to the ground at this point and so we took the large elevator to the base quite rapidly and already making our way back to the subway station going over what an incredible feeling it was to actually be inside the tower overlooking the beautiful vast city of Tokyo.

We were getting the hang of using the ticket machines resulting in us receiving our correct tickets and quite surprising to us, we actually helped someone out with purchasing there train ticket. On the train,it was another short run before we decided to get off at an area called Shimbashi. It took a very long time to get out of the station as it was overwhelming with people moving around and about. We also decided to get lost in the station for a while becoming quite dizzy with our surroundings but with all the luck in the world, we found our way onto Shimbashi Square. It was truly a beautiful little square with quite a few unique features but no more so than a black steam locomotive as a centre piece of the square. What an incredible sight it was as well as the elaborate Japanese signage, large advertisement screens around us and a feminine type water feature to finish it off; every fibre in my body had to stop me from climbing into the train and so we moved on and stumbled on McDonalds.

We didn’t care we walked into McDonalds as we were starving at this point and so we had a quick bite to eat for the next hour. To be honest it was the most sophisticated McDonalds I ever sat in with businessmen on their laptops and phones. We eventually left and decided to take a wander down a very long straight street. Time went by still on this pathway and we felt as though we were on an endless walk until finally, something amazing appeared through the tall skyscrapers; Tokyo tower. It was a monstrous structure especially the closer we walked to it.

Beforehand though we had to walk through a very quiet small park area still gazing at this marvellous tower. The first thing we caught sight of once next to the tower was a unique happy looking mascot sculptures, surrounded by colourful flowers. What was even better was the sight of an ice cream stall, which we definitely took advantage of whilst resting.

At this point, we were beginning to lose the light and we thought the day was over; however, not far of a walk away we stumbled on the fascinating Zo Jo Ji temple. We were eager to see this temple, which poked out from the trees surrounding it so we took the walk over. The first thing we had seen upon arrival was an incense burner in front of a smaller temple. What looked magical was there was an elderly woman performing a small ritual waving the smoke towards her and breathing it in. We then entered the small temple and witnessed a most beautiful sight of the Buddhist shrine with unique Buddhist alter, drums, golden lighting and candles to finish it off perfectly. We stayed only for a short moment and then we made our way to the grandest temple we had seen so far on this trip. We walked into a vast area and we couldn’t have timed our arrival better as we heard the initial sound of Buddhist monks banging drums in the far corner marking the beginning of their ceremony.

There were only a few people inside but at first, we were the only foreigners inside as everyone else was there to pray. Craig and I were completely mesmerised with the sounds of drums and the sight of monk’s right in front of us. We decided to take a seat for another rest and enjoy the ceremony; then the monks left the area for a good few minutes. Suddenly we heard louder drumming from the back of the temple, which signalled the next stage of the ceremony. 8 monks came out synchronised with the front one banging a little chime. 6 of them placed themselves at each side of the remaining 2 at the centre. All of a sudden, gongs from a metallic pot type instrument began to echo the temple along with the soothing sound of the monks chanting a unique sound I have always wanted to witness. We were lost in thought by the sounds in front of us with the strong smell of incense sticks. A while went by until the ceremony was over and everyone began to leave quietly. The monks closed the huge wooden doors behind us all and then it was night time.

What an incredible day we had and it was over so we took the long walk back to Shimbashi as we gazed at Tokyo tower one more time. What a beautiful view I thought at the sight of skyscrapers at night with the scattering of lights in the buildings. By the time we returned to the beautiful square, it became clear we were going to hit hard with the evenings rush hour; everyone in their work suits were bombarding the area in order to get home. We were reluctant to even join them but we wanted to return to Tomoko’s house; so we braved it and went in with as much dignity as we could.

Onto the train we went heading back to Tokyo and we were soon becoming squashed and knocked around when we entered the Chuo line train. Craig and I actually shared a look to each other of disbelief of how manic it was. To be honest there was something quite beautiful being a part of this experience but as time went on we finally made it back to Tachikawa in one piece. One little trip to Nishi Kunitachi station ended our train riding for the day and thank god we thought taking the quiet walk back to Tomoko’s house. We took a quick trip into the local shop ‘Summit’ mesmerised with the unique items once more especially the sight of huge apples and grapes.

We eventually returned to the house and Tomoko was not in. However, she prepared us a Japanese selection of food placed in a wooden black box. As I was about to eat, I accidently knocked over a small bowl of my soup which I cleaned up; sorry Tomoko. Maybe it was meant to happen anyway as for the first time on the trip I turned away from this soup due to the unpleasant taste of the mushrooms. What an incredible day we had I thought as we eventually headed off to sleep remembering the beautiful ceremony sounds of the Zo Jo Ji temple; truly fascinating.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Autumn Aurora in Japan - Day 3

Tokyo                                                                                          Japan

Thursday 6th October 2016

Nothing was rattling in the morning meaning the typhoons tail wind had disappeared. This resulted in a bright sunny day when we eventually woke up from a descent night’s sleep. We headed downstairs to a most welcoming sight of breakfast courtesy of Tomoko. There was a nice spread of food such as small bowls of diced fruit as well as a plateful of French toast with syrup; macha green tea too; all absolutely delicious and definitely filled our stomachs. Our main priority today was to retrieve our Japan rail passes, which meant a trip to a place called Shinjuku. Because we had just arrived late the previous night, we had no real bearings of the area we were in but not to worry though as Tomoko was kind enough to escort us around the area and show us how to get to the nearest train station. Therefore, we left her house to explore the area and there was never a time I didn’t smile at the thought I was in Japan.

We took a slow walk revelling in the sight of very small cube like cars passing by as well as Japanese citizens going about there day to day life. We passed a small supermarket called ‘Summit’, which we would take advantage of throughout our time here. We also walked alongside a very small temple area, which I wouldn’t have minded taking a closer look but for now, we were closing in on our train station. We had arrived at Nishi-Kunitachi train station where Tomoko took her leave with us now figuring out how to use the payment machine and understanding the train’s route to Shinjuku. It took quite a bit of time to figure out but we had managed it after numerous attempts. This was also the first time we caught sight of the vending machines, which were famous around Japan. There were some bizarre items such as green tea, coffee in a can and even isotonic drinks called ‘pocari sweat’. I went for the pocari sweat and to be honest it tasted like sweat; horrible.

Our next concern was to stand at the right platform; luckily, this station only had 2 so with a brief look at the directions on the signs we stood at platform 2 hoping it was the right one. As we were at a quiet area, there was hardly anyone at the station but I had a feeling it wouldn’t be like that on the train. Speaking of which, the train finally pulled up with us climbing aboard straight into an empty carriage. We both had smiles on our faces realising we were beginning our adventurous trip. The train made its way to the next station of Tachikawa and then when we arrived, we were confused whether to leave the train or not as this was where the train terminated. We did get off it but then straight back on to see where it went. We didn’t care at the fact this was happening as we weren’t in any hurry to get to Shinjuku.

We eventually got moving again back towards our previous station so we had a browse at the onboard route map and realised this train would not take us directly to Shinjuku resulting in us having to get off the train further down the line and transfer to the correct one. For the time being though I would admire the fact we were whizzing by compact tall buildings. At times, the land would span out below us revealing the huge mountains far to the west; it looked quite magical knowing adventure was in that direction too. We eventually left the train onto the next one finally heading in the right direction and back into the urban jungle of Tokyo’s outer city. What was great about this train was that it was a rapid service meaning we would miss quite a few train stations. This resulted in us arriving at Shinjuku a lot quicker than we thought and we were raring to get off and explore this wonderful place.

As soon as we got off, the whole area was very busy compared to the quiet train station we left from. Everyone was rushing around as though they were late for work or a meeting whereas Craig and I took a slow walk through the station trying to find the exit; it was as though everyone was in fast forward. Finally, we made it out of the station straight onto the main street and this was my first taste of experiencing skyscrapers and busy city life. What an incredible feeling to feel dwarfed by these monstrous structures in this surprisingly hot weather. We made our way across to the opposite train station to locate the office for our passes and with a bit of searching for it we managed to locate it welcomed by the sight of a queue forming. This was the area we encountered quite a lot of English travellers for the first time since being in London so in a way it was quite bizarre to be amongst them. Anyway, we eventually retrieved our passes for the 3 weeks ahead and I felt a sudden relief when we finally received them knowing the feeling of freedom we had using them. For now though we would enjoy the fact we were in Japan taking in all the sights Shinjuku had to offer.

We headed back onto the main street loving life as we made our way amongst the hustle and bustle towards the largest skyscraper area. The temperature was at an outstanding 32 degrees and I could feel all of it on myself. We tried to blend in with the crowd as best as we could but to be honest it was hard given the fact we were a couple of idiot western travellers; we couldn’t have stood out more even if we tried. We took our time walking around admiring each unique detail of convenience stores, restaurants and Japans way of life. There were times we had to move aside from cyclists passing by especially the unique looking ‘Mama Chari’ bikes as women were carrying quite a lot of things on them including children. We were wandering around for a while until it looked as though there was nothing interesting further down to see. Making our way back the opposite way we came upon a nice-looking area to browse. This small section was the most elaborate with exaggerated advertisements as well as Japanese kanji writing spread all around us. We entered into a tech shop amazed by what they had to offer. We eventually left the area back out into the humid and hot sun wondering where to head next.

We consulted a large map of Shinjuku and I noticed a huge patch of green marking out Shinjuku National Garden Park. It sounded interesting so we headed easterly finding the entrance with ease. It was quite nice to look upon a bit of greenery in this city but for now, we headed for the closest restaurant as it was dinner time. The first place we came across was a ramen restaurant so then we thought, let us begin the trip with tradition and then we entered into a quiet area. We sat at the closest table and went through the menu trying to figure out what it had said; luckily for us, the menu was a picture menu therefore, we decided to have the same thing of ramen noodles with pork and boiled eggs. We received a free glass of cold water, which was brilliant. We sat and actual admired the tableware and condiments of spices and soy sauce until two large bowls arrived at our table. We both slurped our way through the delicious food more so Craig than me until we ran out of noodles. We paid our cheap bill and made our way back out to explore the garden park.

With a cheap 200-yen charge, we entered to the vast green area wondering where to explore first. We immediately began walking along a huge avenue of large trees already lost for words with how peaceful the area had become. The park opened out to large fields and then above the treetops, I could see large skyscrapers and towers poking out giving me the feeling as though I was in central park in New York City. For now, we were in Shinjuku and already heading to our next area of the garden. We were making our way to a Japanese garden area and then the first sight we came across were pruned bonsai trees, bushes and then the sight of a majestic small lake with a temple as the central piece. What a fantastic sight to stumble on so we made our way towards the temple admiring the large carp gliding under the water so peacefully. We made it to the temple structure and so, we stood overlooking the lake below us as well as the greenery stretching far in front with complete silence around; it was fantastic for our first full day in Japan but now we had to move on.

We made our way towards a French garden area, which was home to colourful roses and beautifully designed bushes at the centre. We were only here for a brief moment until we decided to head towards the exit; along the way, we encountered quite a few large spider webs, which looked quite horrifying to be honest but not as horrifying as the spiders themselves. They looked like the scariest creatures I ever did see but to be honest, they must have been the most harmless; the vibrant colours from some of them were incredible. We were nearing the exit when we decided to get our first taste of Japans ice cream. Craig was eager for me to try it and so we did and it had to be one of the top contenders on my worldly trail of the best ice cream. We left the wonderful park late afternoon with a slow walk back to Shinjuku train station.

We took our time going over the train routes understanding them a lot clearer now and so we made our way through the busy crowd to the correct platform. We were boarding the Chuo line rapid service back to Tachikawa. The train was quite full so we had to stand up holding onto the handles trying to stay on our feet. A long while went by watching the city become distant until eventually we made it back to Tachikawa. Next train to Nishi-Kunitachi was only one stop away so we quickly made it back to where we started. The short walk brought us to the supermarket Summit so we entered looking on at the unique items they had to offer. Craig was ecstatic at the sight of his most favoured hotel bread, which was an inch-thick soft loaf. We browsed around looking at all the unique fish, drinks and savoury snacks until we left for Tomoko’s house.

Once we returned and settled down, we made our way to receive our evening dinner thanks to Tomoko. We sat down to a noodle and bolognese type dish and a crème caramel; no chopsticks required which was a relief. For the remainder of the evening I was talking to Tomoko about our day and my travel stories, which she enjoyed quite a bit. By this time, it was getting quite late and so we headed up to bed going over how brilliant our first full day in Japan hoping the rest of the trip would be similar or even more fascinating.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Autumn Aurora in Japan - Day 1 - Day 2

Tokyo                                                                                          Japan

Tuesday 4th October 2016

Finally, months of saving has brought me to my most adventurous trip I had long awaited for; the fantastic world of Japan. I had a mixture of anticipation and yet disbelief at the thought of taking this brilliant adventure. What was even better was that I would be sharing this experience with my cousin Craig who absolutely adores Japan and its culture. As he had been to Japan 4 years ago, he would be a great traveller and asset to this trip. Just after midday, we made our way to Newcastle airport thanks to Craig’s partner Heather. She stayed with us for a coffee after we checked in and dropped our bags off talking about our trip passing the waiting time well. Unfortunately, for Craig and Heather they had to part ways, as it was time to take our leave through customs. A while went by as we flew through customs realising we didn’t have a long time to wait to board our plane. It was still playing on my mind that we were heading for Japan and this was the very start of a long journey. We were sitting in gate 3 looking on at our British airways flight bound for London Heathrow which would be the shortest flight out of the three.

We felt like the odd ones out amongst the majority of passengers as they were wearing business suits whereas we looked like a couple of idiot travellers. It seemed like all systems go once we were boarding the plane immediately grabbing our seats raring to get going; speaking of which we were soon moving straight for the runway. We were taking off towards the sea but unfortunately, I wouldn’t get to see much as I was sitting in the aisle seat. It would have been nice to see my hometown become distance but I would only be on this flight for under an hour. We were soon racing up the runway ready to start this epic trip and we were soon off the ground saying goodbye to our home for 3 weeks. We were gaining height quite quickly flying above the clouds already receiving the most British looking snacks I had ever seen of crisps and biscuits. No sooner were we up in the air than beginning descent down into London; if only our next flight would be this quick I thought as we hit with a hard thud to the ground arriving at the huge Heathrow airport. I was awe struck with the number of planes large and small around each gate and terminal. We soon stopped at our gate making our way out for baggage reclaim. The whole place seemed quite manic but, we knew what we were doing; not doing bad so far being a couple of idiot travellers.

Once retrieving our bags our next step was to find terminal 2 but to get to it we had to use the Heathrow express. Reluctantly we had found the right place but it took quite a long walk to get to making use of the flat escalators along the very long corridors. By the time we had arrived at the underground station the train was about to leave so we rushed on for the 5-minute journey to the terminal. I knew we would be riding trains in Japan so why not start off in London I thought and then we came to our stop. As soon as we entered the terminal, we were immediately confused on where to drop our bags off. We eventually figured it out as well as sorting our baggage transfer out for the third flight. Once we received our boarding passes, we immediately made our way to the departure lounge. We thought we had enough time to have a look around but the truth was we didn’t as we had to head straight for our gate which to no surprise was at the far end yet again; why they are always at the other end is beyond me but we eventually made it.

Yet again we would be the odd ones out as the majority were Chinese passengers returning home. This and looking at the information board was when it hit me as to where we were heading too; Beijing, China. This would be the longest of our flying times with a total of 10 hours. This would be a first for everything for me; my first long haul flight, first time in Asia and first time on a huge plane; my god it was huge as well when I caught sight of it. As soon as we stepped aboard, we had to walk through business class, which looked amazing with seats at an angle, plenty of legroom with blankets and slippers. 

I claimed my seat in economy, which was good enough for Craig and I. This was when I caught sight of the monstrous wing to my right-hand side; I couldn’t believe how far it reached out. The inside of the plane was huge with 9 rows of seats and as I looked above the seats I could see how long the plane was too; first class and business class seemed like miles away. Yet again, we were raring to go on this huge plane to Beijing and once the doors were shut, there was no turning back; we were on our way to the runway.

There was quite a queue of planes waiting to take off so it would be a while before we finally lined up and thundered down the runway. The power coming from the engines were immense throwing us right into our seats and for some bizarre reason, we left the ground powering up to higher altitude. Even in the air we could feel the power of the engines pushing us up higher as we bid farewell to good old Britain. What a relief it was to see small screens behind each seat set with films, games and even a virtual map of the stats of the flight, which I loved and took advantage of as soon as we were able to. I felt so relaxed straight away watching films as it was smooth flying with the odd bit of turbulence; Craig seemed to be enjoying this relaxation too. By this point, we had already passed European countries already flying over towards Russia. Life was great especially when we received some good food and dessert provided by the flight attendants which were delicious; the food I mean. Hours went by as I watched quite a few films at this point still flying over the Russian Federation and then my screen froze for a very long time.

In the meantime, I pressed my face against the window to see if there was anything good to look at. Immediately, I became mesmerised by the bright glittering stars feeling as though I was flying through space at the sight of Orion’s belt right in front of me. It felt as though I was eye level with it and not looking up to it; what a breathtaking sight it was and it seemed as though everyone was missing out as they were fast asleep. It wouldn’t be long until I would be joining them for the next hour or two.

A very long while went still with constant smooth flying and then once I woke up, I noticed daylight creeping majestically over the horizon in front of us creating a purple/orange glow towards the Far East. Despite this beautiful view, the air hostess was persistent that I kept my window cover down for other passengers sleeping; I did manage to peek through now and again. Yet more hours went by until finally we began our smooth descent down towards Beijing. By this point, everyone was awake with all the covers up looking down onto the Chinese mountains far below us. It was quite foggy approaching the airport too not at all sure whether it was actual fog or pollution. A familiar thud to the ground brought us to Beijing and once again, I was in disbelief that this was happening; that I was now in China though not for a long time, as we would need to get to our final plane.

Eventually the plane came to a stop where there were a couple of busses waiting for us all and what a relief it was to finally get out of my seat given the fact I never stood up once for the whole 10 hours resulting in my legs feeling like jelly. I was standing on Chinese soil; or tarmac so to speak and it was at this point when I caught sight of the humungous plane we were on; what an incredible machine it was to bring us all this way from London. With Craig and I squashed in the transport bus, we made haste for terminal 3, coming to terms that we were 8 hours ahead of home. We found it quite easy to find our way through the terminal upon arrival heading straight through customs despite Craig and I feeling a bit tired. I managed to get through customs with 3 for 3 clearances in all airports we had been at whereas Craig had to be searched due to having coins in his pocket. Once again, as we passed through customs we didn’t have enough time to look around so we quickly walked to our gate.

They were beginning to board when we arrived so we soon cleared through security and onto the smaller plane to our final destination. Craig and I wouldn’t be sitting together on this flight so I sat pretty much at the back of the plane in the aisle seat again for the 3-and-a-half-hour flight to Tokyo. We left the gate heading for the runway but soon after, an announcement came out saying that we would have to return to the gate due to the fact there was a strong typhoon over southern Japan, which was along our flight path of course. Great we thought but then shortly after another announcement came on stating we were about to take off. I was quite happy about that due to the fact I didn’t want to hang around Beijing airport any longer and I’m sure Craig was feeling the same way who was far ahead of me. We gained a lot of speed and back up in the air we went for the third and final time leaving China for Japan. This flight was a lot bumpier than the previous flight but I didn’t care so long as it got us to our destination in one piece.

Over time, the turbulence gradually subsided and so we could all relax for a moment enjoying our food provided by the air flight attendants. Up ahead throughout the journey, I could hear a child screaming and to me it actually sounded like a mixture of a monkey and a seagull; god knows how Craig put up with it as he was practically sitting right in front of him. The flight seemed to take longer than expected to approach Tokyo and then I realised we had to be diverted a long way from the typhoon of course. However, we were beginning our descent into Haneda airport, which was when my excitement built up despite my tiredness. I could see patches of light at the window from what I could see from the aisle seat and we were close to the ground. This was the hardest thud to the ground out of the three flights but we slowed down finally arriving in Tokyo. I had made it, I couldn’t believe I was half way around the world and I couldn’t wait to explore this fascinating place.

For now, we were all leaving the plane where I met up with Craig inside the airport. He didn’t really look that happy due to the fact that the screaming kid I heard sat right behind him and was kicking his seat pretty much the whole journey. We eventually made it to baggage reclaim and I had to go to the toilet. This was when I got my first sight of Japanese culture/technology; the toilet. It looked futuristic with a remote-control system for flushing, water sprays and other peculiar settings to which I was afraid to touch. By the time I returned to Craig, he had our rucksacks with him forgetting how heavy they were when we placed them over our shoulders. Out of the airport, we received our entry stamp then we had to think about getting to our first place of stay.

We would have to use the local bus to get to a place called Tachikawa, which was a good 41km away to the West. We had to purchase a bus ticket before boarding so with Craig taken the lead, we managed to get our correct tickets and stand at the correct bus stand.  This was when I got my first taste of Japanese air, still in disbelief I was here. We had to wait for about 15 minutes but what was great was there was an assistant who would place your bags in front of the bus stop without us having to carry them; all we had to do was stand in the line and wait for our correct bus. It eventually arrived and we climbed aboard with a few others but once more, we were the odd ones out. We got under way making short pick-ups too until we eventually ate up the miles. I got my first happy moment actually just riding around through the busy traffic and new sights around me of huge buildings, which were dominating the land. Whilst riding through the tunnels, sleep got the better of me as I drifted off for the next 30 minutes.

By the time I woke up, we were closing in on Tachikawa. Immediately I was amazed at the brilliant sight of lit up streets and elaborate Japanese signs and anime on most of the buildings. Eventually we arrived at our stop just outside of the palace hotel realising how windy, humid and wet it was in this urban jungle. The area we were at was so quiet, we would have heard a pin drop; all we could hear was the rustling of the nearby trees as well as distant cars weaving through the city area. At this point, we were trying to contact our host called Tomoko; with no luck, we decided to wander around the streets looking for a quick snack as well as admiring the area along the way. We eventually returned to the palace hotel and we both sat on the ground like a couple of homeless Geordies. Bizarrely, that was the moment I felt quite peaceful due to the quietness and the warm wind with nobody in sight.

After numerous attempts contacting Tomoko, she finally answered the call. She was picking us up very soon so we headed over to the front of the palace hotel awaiting pick up joking on to pass the time. What a relief it was when she pulled up right in front of us as we greeted ourselves as well as placing our heavy rucksacks in the boot of her car. We left for the very short drive to her home where we would spend the next 4 nights already wondering what life was going to be like during them nights. Craig would have a good talk with her sometimes in Japanese which she and even I was impressed.

We finally came to a stop at her home which was hidden away quite well as we were escorted straight to her front door. We entered into a western type house where we immediately removed our shoes and replacing them with slippers. Up the stairs we went and straight to our room and then I realised we were going to be sleeping on bunk beds with me claiming the top bunk. She also gave us a quick tour of her home as well as showing us how to use the facilities. She eventually left us to it stating that she would provide us dinner later on in the evening. I then realised the top bunk I had claimed so eagerly happened to be pink and Craig was blue; plus, it looked quite difficult to climb the ladders which were next to the wall. Not to worry though, I managed to get up at this old age of 26. We unpacked a few things feeling quite relaxed and then it was time to head down to see what Tomoko had on offer for us.

We headed down into a small dining area with a very large wooden table where our food was already waiting for us. It looked very filling despite it being rice and meat along with tofu and a dessert of something called mochi. I was reluctant to try it but I did and quite enjoyed the whole thing to be honest. It was quite funny too trying to hold the chopsticks correctly as I hadn’t mastered that technique yet. We were talking to Tomoko a lot about our flights as well as previous ventures until our food was finished.

We thanked Tomoko for the amazing food she provided for us at such a late hour and then we headed off to bed for the first time in a long time. The tail wind from the typhoon was quite strong through the night as a lot of objects were rattling outside. We didn’t care though as we were very tired from the epic journey to Japan and we both drifted off to sleep raring for our first full day to begin.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Blissful Slopes of Bansko - Travel Review and Advice

Bansko Ski


Leap of Faith Travel Review                                                   Bansko

Bansko, Bulgaria, Brilliant!

What an incredible time I had amongst the cold slopes of Bansko so full of adrenaline packed adventure for all levels of this marvellous sport of skiing and snowboarding. Even with the adrenaline packed week I had I couldn’t have felt more relaxed also if I had tried. The people and culture of Bulgaria were fascinating and I absolutely adored the atmosphere of the old smoky town of Bansko. With its narrow cobbled streets, stonework buildings and worn down rooftops, it definitely gives you the feeling of stepping back in time with very little interference of modernised buildings. Plenty of restaurants and nightclubs scatter throughout the town but not enough to overtake the good old atmosphere.

Town of Bansko

This trip was more about the skiing and as a first time skier I was pretty nervous about what I was about to do. I needed somewhere which specialised in beginner skiers and Bansko was the answer. Balkan Holidays was the answer too to my question about which company I would take the trip with. Along with the impressive reviews I had read they were extremely cheap too. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind about booking with this company and I was about to experience more than I expected during my ski trip. They also provided brilliant activities, transfers, and excursions which I took full advantage of. The activities I did were:

·       Pub Crawl - Explore the nightclubs of Bansko full of good music, drinks and dancers with welcome shots at each club.
·       Bulgarian Folklore Fiesta - Experience Bulgarian culture in one night with dancers and band as well as the history whilst enjoying good local food and Rakia.
·       Snowboard taster - Tired of skiing, take to the board and discover a new way of riding the slopes with great instruction throughout.
·       Snowmobile ride - Whether this is your first time or your 100th time, this is definitely a ride you don’t want to miss as you ride your way up and down the ski road.
·       City of Sofia - Just before you return to the airport take a guided trip to the city of Sofia to learn about the culture and history of the city with an option to explore Sofia’s shopping centre.

Snowmobile ride

The ski brief at the beginning of the trip was very well organised by Balkan Holidays and the staff were extremely fun and friendly throughout. During a ski brief you will eventually receive your weeks ski pass card giving you access to all ski lifts and gondola. You will also receive a small form to fill out to retrieve the correct skis for your weight and height. This must be filled in correctly otherwise having the wrong type of skis could result in injury.

My accommodation was a place called Hotel Pirin; a 4 star hotel on a half board basis. With a beautiful room, comfortable beds, en-suite, breakfast and evening dinner, indoor swimming pool and sauna as well as helpful staff, it was all I needed due to the fact I was out skiing most of the day. Despite this it was a fantastic hotel not too far from the central area and gondola station. What was great was that a transport service was provided to get from the hotel to the gondola station at 8:30am so it was one less thing to worry about. The food at the hotel was outstanding and certainly filled my stomach each encounter.

Hotel Pirin

Before I took the trip I had pre-booked skiing instruction throughout the whole week which is definitely advisable for a beginner skier. I was so glad I did this as I met some incredible people and my instructor was absolutely brilliant. The Instructor was called Katy Harding and she was constantly praising each of us for our achievements and extremely helpful on our faults. Throughout the week she built our confidence up one by one going through the very basics of skiing with safety being priority. She also pushed our abilities further by taking us down some slightly harder routes and we all loved her by the end of the week.

Katy and the Beginners Group

The cost of my brilliant journey to Bulgaria including:

·       Flights with Jet2 from Newcastle – Sofia – Newcastle including 23kg luggage
·       Transfer from airport – hotel
·       7 nights in a 4 star hotel half board basis
·       Single room supplement
·       Ski pass, skis and boots
·       1 weeks beginners instruction

Total = £550

What an absolute bargain I thought especially with everything you get and with all this there was no need to take a great amount of spending money. The activities and excursion I went on were reasonably priced too which is why I took full advantage of it. 

Bansko Slope Map

Beginner: Blue Line
Moderate: Red Line
Intermediate: Black Line

To finish off this wonderful place is of course the breath-taking views of the Pirin Mountains which is home to outstanding natural beauty. I truly adored this place and so should you. Be prepared for the odd fall on the slopes like I experienced but please take care as there are plenty of bad accidents on the slopes; safety is priority.

Pirin Mountains

The equipment I brought along for the trip was:

·       Warm clothing – Thick jumpers, jacket pants and socks
·       Ski clothing – Waterproof ski clothing
·       Hat and gloves - Most of your body heat comes out of your head so cover it up

·       Sun cream – Surprising as it is it is definitely possible to get sunburnt in this cold environment
·       Ski helmet – Extremely important
·       Ski goggles – Stop the snow hitting your eyes as you fly down the slopes

The best advices I can give are staying safe and having fun. What great thing to do also is to place your ski pass in an inside chest pocket of your thick jacket to save you from taking it out all the time, the scanners will still pick up your pass through your pocket.

Moderate Route - Red Line

Useful Links:  - book your ski trip away with Balkan Holidays - up to date information about weather, conditions and events

Bulgarian Landscape

So if you are eager to begin this life of skiing then you are in safe hands with Balkan Holidays. I’d like to thank Balkan holidays for an extremely fun packed week in the beautiful world of Bulgaria and I finish with this:

Live life to the fullest
It’s the best way
Live every moment intensely
Because life is too short
And the moment comes when we are going to die
And we’d have wished to do so many things we didn’t
That is why we have to enjoy every moment
One must enjoy life
Try not to acquire so many things
But instead have experiences
Accomplish everything you want to do
No matter the effort it deserves
Life is too short and one must relish it

Travel Writer: Shaun Davison