Monday, August 28

Bank Holiday weekend

Public holidays in the UK are generally known as Bank Holidays. Today was the last such holiday until Christmas. I find it odd that the UK has two public holiday weekends in August and then nothing for four months. I later read that today's holiday was created by a cricket mad politican, the extra day coinciding with the end of the cricket season.

We've had a very relaxing weekend. Saturday was spent shopping for house plants and wandering IKEA's market hall. The evening was then spent in town with friends enjoying dinner and a show. Pam Anne was as funny as ever. The recent terror plots have given her plenty of new material to work with.

Sunday was spent at Hampstead enjoying a lesuirely afternoon with friends. The Foremason's Arm was delighful. After a delicious meal, we spent the remainder of the afternoon in the garden bar drinking crisp, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. Antipodean wine is every where in London so we're never too far from a taste of home.

While sitting in the garden bar I noted that London often feels older and more established thanks to the overwhelming number of mature trees. Every tree on every street is fully grown. The resulting streetscape gives a sense of majesty and timelessness I rarely recall in Australia. Down Under, mature trees are generally restricted to a few central city parks or remote rural scences.

Today also marks the end of the first week of our diet program. Garry and I are currently doing the CSIRO diet. It's more of a healthy eating plan than a fad weight loss program. The last time we did this I lost more than five kilos over three months. One week into this latest burst of healthy eating and I'm one kilo lighter. Only nine more to go.

Saturday, August 26

You wouldn't read about it

Today's paper made for an interesting read. Aside from the regular current affairs stories there was plenty of trivia to paint an interesting picture of life in the UK.

They're everywhere, expect Scotland
In June 2005, the UK's population passed 60 million for the first time. More than 50 million of these people live in England, 5 million live in Scotland, 3 million in Wales and the remainder in Northern Ireland. This means England makes up about 65% of the UK's land mass, but supports almost 84% of its population.

More than a quarter of a million people moved out of London last year. However the city's net population increased by 116,000 thanks to a steady influx of migrants. London's population is now more than 7.5 million. There are days when I wonder if they're all trying to get into the same tube carriage as me.

Talking of commuting. I read today that people in my neighbourhood travel an average of 9km to work every day. The national average is 15km. A quick calculation shows my daily commute to be about 12km door to door.

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The English love their football
Today's paper carried a tragic story about a teenage solider who chose suicide rather than face an assignment in Iraq. A throw away line, buried deep in the story, left me stunned. The boy's family asked that friends wear Chelsea football shirts to the funeral. Apparently, the entire family changed it's name by deed poll several years ago in honour of the Chelsea football club. Anyone interested in becoming a Swan in honour of Sydney's AFL champions?

A cardboard box looks tempting
The average house price in London increased by £40,000 last year (A$96,000). Today's paper revealed that properties in the fancier parts of Central London now change hands at £2,800-£3000 a sq ft. Our flat is 1247 sq ft (116 sq metres). If it were an inner city property it would be worth a staggering £3.7 million!

This made me curious, so I did a little research on property in our neighbourhood. The average three-bedroom flat in our area is selling for £627,466 (A$1.5 million). Over the last five years, house prices grew 71.1%. However, this is only about 2/3 the rate of growth reported nationally over the same period.

It's small consolation to learn that the average price in the area is £371,685 (A$890,000). This is mainly because most properties in the area are only one or two bedroom households. Not surprisingly, today's paper says that London rents are expected to increase 7% this year and a further 3% next year.

Meet the locals, they're not from here
While checking facts for this post, I discovered that 22% of people in our neighbourhood are migrants. The national average is 12%. Garry and I are in good company. This week's Economist reports that nearly 600,000 people migrated to the UK from the EU's newest Eastern European member states between May 2004 and June 2006. This population movement is the largest single wave of immigration in British history. This rings true for me. I've certainly noticed a wide variety of languages being spoken on the streets of London every day. This really is a cosmopolitan city.

Finally, one last piece of triva . Work permits, the visa system I entered the country on, were introduced in 1962. Permits were the Government's response to growing fears about large-scale immigration. It seems that 1962 was the last time Britain saw immigration on the scale it's experiencing now. We live in interesting times.

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Friday, August 25

The month ahead

Summer is finally starting to wind down. This week we've put a feather duvet back on the bed and endured brief, but daily, rain showers. A few tree leaves have even started changing colour. With Autumn looming, we've planned a last burst of activity before it's time to hibernate.

This weekend we're planning to join the crowds at the annual Notting Hill Carnival. It's London's equivalent of Rio's carnival and is considered Europe's largest street party. We also have several fun outings planned with friends.

I'm particularly looking forward to trying out a local gastro-pub for lunch called The Foremason's Arms. I must explain the term "gastro-pub". It's not a venue that guarantees a stomach churning experience, rather its a pub that offers a modern, gourmet menu. At the very least this means that your regular burger will be dressed with a mix of salad greens rather than Iceberg lettuce and the fish-of-the-day won't come from a tin.

On Saturday we're catching up with friends for dinner and a show. We're off to see an old favourite from Sydney - the hilarious drag queen, Pam Anne. She considers herself an A-list air hostess to the stars. If only flying really were this much fun!

A week later I'll remember what air travel is really like when I fly to Istanbul for five days. I'll be hosting a gathering of my region's management team for the first time, making this a rather stressful business meeting. We're planning at least one evening in the city so I'm hoping to catch a glimpse of this immortal city.

Two weeks after Turkey, Garry and I are off to Geneva to celebrate my 41st birthday. This will be Garry's first visit to Switzerland and my first time in Geneva. We've booked a special weekend package at Hotel Beau-Rivage, a classic hotel situated on the lake front. I was able to negotiate a price directly with the hotel that proved significantly cheaper than anything on the internet.

Before we go to Geneva, I also have to spent at least a day in Amsterdam hosting an industry conference. Then after we get back from Geneva, I'll have to head straight back to Heathrow the following morning to catch a flight to India for yet another business meeting. With luck I'll be back in London for a much needed weekend at home.

Wednesday, August 23

Caught up in the news

There’s one story dominating newspaper headlines in London today. Two weeks after the news first broke; eleven people faced court yesterday charged over Britain's alleged airline bomb plot. Police also revealed that they had found "martyrdom videos" and suspected bomb-making equipment during recent raids.

Having lived Down Under for most of my life, such news stories were always something that happened elsewhere. They never impacted me personally. However, living in London, the same stories have unexpectedly come to life. Time and time agin, I find myself a witness to events as they unfold.

Join the queue
The plot to destroy ten US-bound aircraft flying from London hit the headlines while Garry and I were traveling in Australia and New Zealand. For several days we wondered if our flights into Heathrow would be cancelled or delayed. We also had no idea what sort of carry-on luggage would be permitted until the day we flew. In the end, both of us traveled home without delay and with our laptops in the cabin.

I had expected serious security delays at the airport in both New Zealand and South Africa. However on both occasions check-in and the journey through security took no longer than usual. We’d arrived early (or woke up earlier than usual) for no reason.

Are you sure that's your photo?
In Johannesburg, I was amused by the extra security check taking place before we boarded our Heathrow-bound flight. We were first divided into separate queues for male and females passengers. We then presented our passport to a bored looking guy behind a table who didn’t seem too concerned about our luggage or our passport. Our passport was then checked a second time before entering the airbridge.

On reflection, my passport was checked five times at Johannesburg airport, while my luggage was barely noticed. In fact, the baggage screeners were in such a hurry to process passengers through security that I doubt our bags were seriously monitored. I've never seen so many bags shoved through a x-ray machine in such rapid order.

'ello, 'ello, 'ello
On Sunday I went into Paddington to file a fraud report at the local police station. You’ll recall from an earlier post that someone skimmed my ATM card while I was in Prague. While filing my report, the attending officer explained that he was from out of town, as were many of his colleagues. He indicated that he’d been brought in to assist with terrorist plot investigations – which were being conducted from the very police station I’d walked into.

Earlier this morning I learned from the BBC that the detained suspects were actually being held at the police station I’d walked into. This probably explained the armed policeman guarding the public entrance. It was a rather surreal moment to realise that major terrorist suspects had been in the same building.

Finally, I have a daily reminder of the terrorist threat. The tube line that I catch to work each day was targeted by unsuccessful suicide bombers a month after July 7. The threat is real. Current events no longer happen to other people – they’re all around me.

Friday, August 18

South of the Equator

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It's cold down here! I've just spent the last two weeks in the Southern Hemisphere catching up with family, friends and working. It's winter here and boy did I notice it. I don't remember being so cold. We were much warmer in Austria and London during winter. The difference is simple. None of the homes I visited in Australia and New Zealand had central heating, unlike every home in Europe.

Home sweet home
Garry and I flew into Sydney on August 5 after four days in Japan. Garry's parent met us at the airport and drove us to their home in the Western suburbs of Sydney. His brother and sister came over to the house shortly after we arrived with the kids in tow. Everyone was thrilled to see us again.

Late afternoon we headed into town for a reunion with our central city friends. We also booked ourselves into a local hotel to save a late-night journey home (translate this to really mean that we could drink like fish and not worry about driving). During the course of the evening more than 16 friends showed up at the White Horse hotel in Surry Hills. It was wonderful to see so many familar faces again. A dozen of us then went for a tasty Thai meal in Darlinghurst and then on for drinks at a new nightclub on Oxford Street called Slide. What a great venue.

The rest of the week in Sydney was spent catching up with Garry's friends out West and with work colleagues in North Sydney. I also visited my tax accountant, dentist and skin specialist. I had several skin cancers removed the night before I flew to New Zealand, including one that was cut out of my face. I must admit that I hadn't planned on travelling for the next ten days with stitches in my head!

Sub-zero Aotearoa
Thursday morning (August 10) I caught an early flight to Christchurch in the South Island of New Zealand. The Southern Alps were loaded with snow, and even the Port Hills next to Christchurch had snow on them. The entire scene was spectacular! New Zealand really is a beautiful nation. This trip to Christchurch was only a flying visit - my first in almost seven years. I stayed with my Aunt and spent the evening catching up with cousins I hadn't seen for years. Everyone was in good health and enjoying life.

On Friday morning I flew to Auckland and was met at the airport by my parents. Garry didn't come with me as he'd elected to spend extra time with his family. I spent a relaxing three days in Auckland with my brother's family. My niece Brooke is quite a character now. She had us laughing time and time again. One rather funny highlight was the afternoon she dragged me from my table to join her on the dance floor at the local 'kids disco'. That girl can boggie!

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At the unearthly time of 3:30am on Monday, my father took me to the airport to catch a 6:00am flight to Sydney. The early start was necessary as I had to catch a connecting flight to Johannesburg for work. While sitting in the transit lounge I checked my UK bank account and discovered to my horror that someone had withdrawn almost £3300. It seems that my ATM card was skimmed (copied) in Prague at some point.

What's the big deal?
Qantas did its best to cheer me up. I found myself unexpectedly upgraded to First Class. This certainly made the 14 hour flight to South Africa a little more comfortable. I have to say the difference between First and Business wasn't that significant. I got the distinct impression that Qantas has some work to do with its First Class product. There was a little more space in the cabin, a terrific dinner menu and a padded duvet on my sleeper bed - otherwise business class is just as comfortable. I certainly wouldn't pay extra for First. Perhaps the new A380 will include some significant improvements?

I also reached a small milestone during this flight. Qantas granted me life-time Silver Frequent Flyer membership. Another five years of flying at this rate and I'll qualify for life time Gold membership. I suspect I won't want to fly that much if I reach this membership level..!

Tonight I finally fly home to London after 3.5 weeks on the road. While it's been wonderful to see everyone Down Under again, I'm looking forward to my own bed - and filing a fraud report for the bank. Bon Voyage!

Tuesday, August 15

Homeward bound

It’s been two weeks since my last post – a brief update from Hong Kong airport while in transit. Since then Garry and I have completed a whirlwind tour of Honshu island in Japan, followed by a hectic week catching up with family and friends in Sydney. I then went on to New Zealand, briefly visiting both the South and North Islands, again catching up with family.

With so much activity to summarise I’ve intentionally posted this update last. If you read down from here you’ll see that I’ve added several posts covering our vacation in Japan, roughly in chronologic order. I'll update our adventure in Australia and New Zealand shortly. I’ll also add photos at a later date as these posts were added while in transit to South Africa.

Honshu at Shinkansen speed

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Buying a round-the-world air ticket inevitably compels you to maximise the benefits on offer. In our case, we couldn’t simply rush straight back to Australia without first stopping off somewhere new in Asia. The traditional routes weren’t of much interest as both of us have spent time in Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Shanghai. After some debate we settled on a high-speed tour of Japan, largely retracing a route I’d taken eight years ago.

A breakneck tour of Honshu is only possible thanks to the incredibly efficient rail system, particularly the famous bullet train, known locally as the Shinkansen. High speed trains enable you to literally cover 1000 kilometres a day in total comfort, while still stopping for leisurely sightseeing excursions along the way.

Our first day in Japan started mid-afternoon on Tuesday when our flight from Hong Kong finally touched down in Osaka. Flying into Osaka is an incredible experience. Kansai International airport is built on an artificial island in Osaka Bay, about 50 kilometres south of Osaka itself. It’s one of the first airports in the world to be built on an island in the sea, establishing a precedent that Hong Kong, Macau and others were to follow years later.

Our flight path took us in a huge circle around the edge of Osaka Bay, past Akashi Kaikyō Bridge (at 3910 metres it’s the world’s longest suspension bridge), Kobe and Osaka before skimming across the surface of the bay to a low-set island. At the airport we activated in our Japan Rail Passes, before catching a train to Osaka and then transferring to the Shinkansen for Hiroshima. The 400 kilometre journey took barely two hours to complete.

The Japan Rail Pass is one of very few bargains available to tourists in Japan. You buy a voucher before arriving in the country and convert it to a simple pass on arrival. A 500 kilometre trip on the Shinkansen costs as much as the pass itself, so you can see how it quickly pays for itself. In 3.5 days we travelled more than 1500 kilometres by rail.

Read on for more about our time in Hiroshima.

UPDATE - September 2009
Click here for a post on my day trip to Matsushima, a spectacular Japanese tourist destination in Northern Honshu.

Hiroshima meltdown

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We finally reached Hiroshima on Tuesday evening just as a large orange sun was setting over the city’s many hills. This seemed quite fitting, as the day before we’d witnessed an identical sunrise while leaving Prague. I’d found our hotel – the Rihga Royal - on the Internet, using Expedia. It was right in the centre of town and overlooked a traditional Samurai castle, surrounded by parklands and a large moat. The Lonely Planet guide recommended asking for a room with a castle view, which I duly did.

The view from our corner room was stunning! It was a breath-taking 230 degree view of Hiroshima, with windows going almost floor to ceiling. We looked out over the castle, the city and could even see the famous Atomic Dome. Our arrival also coincided with a night game in the local baseball stadium. We could see all of the action while lounging in our comfortable air-conditioned room. I’m pleased to report that the Hiroshima Carps won their match.

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I’ve mentioned air-conditioning for a reason. Japan was unbelievably hot and humid the entire time we were there. Each time we walked outside, we found ourselves drenched in sweat within minutes and remained damp until we returned. Aircon was a blessing wherever we could find it. Carp fans are hardy people. Throughout the game an endless blur of hand fans around the grounds were constantly waving as the spectators struggled to stay cool.

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The next morning, after a leisurely lie-in, we made our way to the nearby Peace Park. Just before ending the park I took Garry down a quiet side-street to a little known plaque. It’s not marked on most tourist maps so few people visit. On the side of the street, next to a non-descript wall, a simple marble stone marks the epicentre of the world’s first atomic bomb used in warfare. It’s a truly surreal experience. It’s hard to imagine that 61 years ago, standing in this spot meant instant death as a fireball hotter than the sun itself exploded 600 metres overhead.

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Less than 200 metres away sits the Atomic Dome. This crumbling building was the local prefecture’s Industrial Promotion Hall, until 8:15am on August 6, 1945. Unlike many other buildings that day, its walls remained standing, largely because the bomb blast hit it from directly above rather than side-on. The surviving ruins have been preserved as an eternal reminder of the tragedy.

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From here we crossed the T-shaped Aioi Bridge to Peace Park (Heiwa-kōen). The distinctive shape of the bridge was used to target the atomic bomb’s release. Incredibly, the bridge survived the blast, even though the bomb’s pressure waves bounced off the river below, throwing the bridge’s deck high into the air. A short walk takes you into the park, past the Peace Bell, the poignant Children’s Peace Memorial and the Korean A-Bomb Memorial.

The Children’s memorial is surrounded by thousands of colourful paper cranes, folded by children nationwide. Unfortunately, protesting students set fire to the cranes several years ago, resulting in them now being locked behind grubby, glass cases. When I first visited this site eight years ago, strings of cranes lay across stones and nearby trees, making for a far more emotive scene.

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The memorial was inspired by a young girl called Sadako Sasaki, who was exposed to the bomb at the age of two but survived, only to die from leukaemia nine years later. An ancient Japanese custom stated that a person’s wishes will come true if one folds a paper crane. The crane is also a symbol of longevity and happiness. Sadako believed she’d be cured if she folded enough cranes. The Korean memorial remembers the thousands of Koreans who were shipped to Hiroshima during WWII as slave labour. At least ten percent of those killed by the bomb were Korean.

South of these memorials is an eternal flame and the Peace Memorial Museum. The Museum chronicalises the story of the bomb’s creation, the selection of Hiroshima as its first wartime target and documents suffering that followed its detonation. It’s a moving exhibit, especially the melted children’s lunch boxes and the shadows of people etched into stone by the bomb’s radiation waves.

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We left the park mid-afternoon and caught a tram to Miyajima, one of Japan’s most photographed attractions. This sacred island is about 45 minutes south of the city by tram. It’s famous for its giant red, ‘floating’ torii (Shinto shrine gate). This gate sits in the water framing nearby Itsukushima-Jinja shrine. In early times, the island was consisted so sacred that people were not permitted to walk it. This meant that the shrine itself was built on piers over the water and was entered by passing through its floating gate.

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We were in luck. It was high tide when we reached Miyajima. For most of the day the shrine and gate is surrounded by mud flats rather than sea. A short ferry ride (on the rail ferry of course – its free with our pass) takes you to the island. A brief, ten minute walk along the shore takes you to the Shrine itself. You have to dodge the friendly deeras you go. They’ll eat a tourist map if you turn your head for more than a moment, as I discovered to my detriment.

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Dozens of photo opportunities later, we made our way from the shrine, up to Senjō-kaku, built in 1587. This huge, atmospheric hall is constructed from truly enormous tree logs that form its pillars and beams. Next to the hall is a brightly painted orange, five-storey pagoda dating from 1407. It’s one of only five such pagodas in Japan. Its roof, sitting above the tree-tops, makes for a classic Japanese postcard photo.

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From Miyajima we made our way by train to Iwakuni. The major attraction in this town is the five-arched wooden Kintai-kyō bridge, built in classic Japanese style. The original bridge was built in 1673, but washed away during a flood in the 1950s. It was subsequently rebuilt. In feudal times only the local samurai permitted to use the bridge. The local villagers had cross the river by boat. Today anyone with a spare 300 yen can walk across it.

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As the sun began to set, we made our way back to Hiroshima. Our rail pass, once again, making the return journey a breeze. I then took Garry to Okonomi-mura, a building consisting of 30 micro-restaurants that specialise in Okonomiyaki (Hiroshima style). This is one of my favourite Japanese dishes – one that’s hard to find outside of Japan.

Okonomiyaki literally means “cook what you like”. It’s a cross between a savoury pancake and a pizza, made on a hot grill in front of you and served with delicious Otafuku sauce (Japanese style HP sauce). It’s effectively Japanese peasant food, which probably explains why it’s not common outside Japan. I suspect the locals assume foreigners wouldn’t want to eat cheap, peasant food.

Read on for more about our time in Himeji and Kyoto.

Castles, temples and coin lockers

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Our second full day in Japan was spent making our way from Hiroshima to Tokyo on the Shinkansen. We stopped twice to tour tourist landmarks in Himeji and Kyoto, before reaching Tokyo around 9pm. Our shinkansen glided into Himeji just before 9am. We stowed our luggage in large coin lockers and walked fifteen minutes to the grounds of town’s famous Samurai castle.

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Himeji-jō is considered the most stunning example of castle architecture in all of Japan. Known as the ‘White Heron’, its majestic five-story central tower is built from wood, covered in white plaster, each level capped by a series of gracefully curving roofs. The entire complex sits on a lone hill, adding to its visual appeal. We spent a wonderful couple of hours touring the castle, making our way along its defensive walls and climbing a series of steep stairs to the uppermost floor. The view from the top is splendid, providing a panoramic view of the area from every window.

Incredibly, the entire structure was rebuilt from the ground up in the 1950s, having survived unscathed since 1580. Over the years, it’s been home to 48 successive lords. It’s a wonderful structure and one of my favourite Japanese attractions. If only the heat and humidity hadn’t been so draining during our visit. We lingered at the top of the castle as much for the gentle breeze blowing through the windows, as for the view on offer.

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From Himeji, a short train journey took us to Kyoto, home to more than 2000 temples and shrines. It’s the one city in Japan you should never pass without stopping. I’d planned a brief tour of at least three of the city’s most famous sights including Kinkaku-ji, Ryōan-ji and Kiyomizu-dera. It would be fair to say that this wasn’t Garry’s favourite destination in Japan. He admitted after the first stop that temples weren’t really his thing. Half a day was more than enough time for him, while I could spend days wandering the city’s tranquil gardens and picture postcard temples.

Kinkaku-ji is unique. It’s more commonly known as the Golden Temple. It’s a three-story pavilion, covered in gold foil. Each level built using a different architectural style. The original temple was erected in 1397, burnt to the ground in 1950 by a deranged monk and rebuilt in 1955. For me this magnificent building, set at the edge of a carefully landscaped lake, symbolises the spirit of Japan.

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From Kinkaku-ji was walked to Ryōan-ji, - a rather hot, sweaty walk at that. This temple belongs to the Rinzai school of Zen Buddasim. It’s famous for a rock garden consisting of nothing more than 15 rocks, arranged into islands and set in a sea of painstakingly raked white gravel. Visitors are encouraged to pause and ponder the garden’s form, until it speaks to them. My most powerful memory is one of sweat running down my back, dripping off my arms and leaving rather obvious and mildly embarrassing pools at my feet.

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Our final sight in Kyoto was a 15-minute cab ride across town. Kiyomizu-dera is a truly ancient temple (built in 798) that sits on stilts set into a steep hillside. Its name literally means ‘pure waters’. People come from afar to sample its spring water, said to cure all manner of aliments. You reach the temple by first climbing a steep, narrow street lined with restaurants, trinket shops and handicrafts. To access the temple itself, you climb a series of steep stairs, passing through a massive gate guarded by enormous wooden statues of two rather ferocious gods.

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Sadly, the colours on the temple’s pagoda and main gate were rather faded. I recall them as stunning, bright red structures in 1998. We did see a gang furiously repainting several minor temples. They clearly have a lot of work ahead of them.

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As the sun began to set, we made our way to Kyoto station, catching our 2.5 hour train to Tokyo. I’d used some loyalty points to book a five-star hotel in Shinagawa, a southern suburb of Tokyo. Our hotel, the Le Meridian, boasted a large, perfectly landscaped Japanese garden complete with a fish-filled lake, waterfalls and mature trees. Nothing special you say? It is when you consider that the garden is three-floors above street-level, sitting in the heart of a commercial district that easily passes for a souless concrete jungle.

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Dinner on our first evening was spent at a local restaurant we found nearby. Garry ordered Suki-yaki, while I ordered Shabu-shabu. These are two popular Japanese meals traditionally cooked on small gas stoves brought to your table. Suki-yaki is a type of stir-fry where raw ingredients are cooked in a hot pan, while Shabu-shabu is a steaming broth in which you boil typical stir-fry ingredients. Both dishes are fun to cook and eat.

While we had plenty of fun, I suspect the restaurant staff had even more fun. I’m sure we were visited by every employee at some point, keen to either help us cook, or watch in silent bemusement as we deftly welded our chopsticks.

One of the more fascinating aspects of dining in Japan is the 3-D menu that most restaurants display in their window. Each menu item is reproduced in plastic, making it easy to identify tasty meals despite the language barrier.

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Read on for more on our day in Tokyo.

Future Metropolis

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Our last day in Japan was spent wandering the world’s most future-oriented metropolis. We started our day with a leisurely lunch at the hotel’s restaurant, soaking up the surrounding garden views. Our rail passes then took us to Shinjuku, Tokyo’s modern commercial heart. They say that Shinjuku Station is the world’s busiest rail terminus, with more than two million people passing through its many entrances every day. It’s an easy place to get lost without a local, or a foreigner like myself who’s spent many years wandering its passageways in vain.

Our first stop in Shinjuku was the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. It’s one of the city’s tallest skyscrapers, with a free observatory at the top of its twin towers. From here you see Mount Fuji and the enormous expanse of humanity that fills the Edo region. Sadly, the humid haze prevented us from sighting Fuji, but the city views were still astounding.

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I then took Garry to the opposite side of the station, whose appearance is in marked contrast to the orderly government buildings we’d just visited. The Eastern side is filled with narrow streets, each building littered with neon signs promoting its tenants or major brand names. Here you can also find many of the city’s largest department stores selling all manner of goods. Garry spent time in several camera shops looking for bargains, before we made our way to Isetan, a department store that covers several blocks.

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We spent a delightful hour wandering Isetan’s food hall after deciding that the slim designer clothes upstairs had no hope of finding a home in our own wardrobe. The Food Hall is a microcosm of Japanese cuisine. One section profiled produce from various islands and prefectures, other sections displayed all manner of seafood, sushi and other Japanese delicacies. We sampled as many items as time allowed before reluctantly making our way into to Ginza.

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We stopped briefly to tour the Sony showroom and then back to Shinagawa to collect our luggage and catch the Narita Airport Express. By 8:30pm our Qantas jet was airborne and our Shinkansen tour of Japan was over. However, we had one more special sight in store. Nick Lachey, former husband of Jessica Simpson (and my favourite star), was on our flight. He sat across the aisle from us, creating a permanent kink in my neck as the flight progressed. He’s sexy even when fast asleep.

Tuesday, August 1

Hong Kong Stopover

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Prague sculpture
We've reached Hong Kong. After a day of travelling from Prague, to Heathrow, then overnight to Asia, we're back in familar territory. Garry's enjoying a fresh cup of coffee in the Cathay Pacific First Class Lounge while I update the blog. It was weird sensation getting off the plane. I've spent so much time in this airport that it almost feels like home. It's hard to believe we're back in Asia. Our flight to Osaka leaves in 30 minutes so I'll sign off now.