Wednesday, 23 December 2015

I am on holiday!

Date: Wednesday 23rd December 2015

Weather: Beautiful in Sendai. In Kobe however, it was overcast and threatened to rain all day long … until around 4pm when it finally went through with it's threat.

MP3 track of the day: Payback - Juicy J, Kevin Gates, Future & Sage the Gemini


For some unknown reason, I had a real fear that this was the holiday where I would wake up late and miss my flight. Due to this, I had set around nine alarms – set at five minute intervals – on three different electrical devices and placed them in different parts of my apartment which – most importantly – were out of reach of my bed. Of course, being this paranoid meant that I didn't sleep at all well and, as it happened, I woke up five minutes before the first alarm was due to erupt.

The five minutes I'd gained were lost disabling all of the alarms I'd set - before I annoyed every neighbour I have within a three mile radius. Having had a lovely hot bath the night before, I got dressed and proceeded to eat whatever food I had left in my apartment for breakfast (which turned out to be a bowl of microwavable porridge and just enough milk to make it happen). With that I ate, washed up, and then began the task of actually leaving my apartment. Though this sounds quite easy – and normally it would be – I had to make many 'rememberball's' (my new word to describe the following) where I actually concentrated and made a point of 'remembering' the fact that the doors were locked, all of my electrical appliances were unplugged, the main switch for the electric power to my apartment had been switched off and, finally, the water had been closed. With everything done – and remembered – I ventured out into the early morning.

Fortunately, my local train station isn't a long walk. I say fortunately because it was extremely cold. Tagajo – the city in which I live in – is extremely windy making it feel so much colder than it actually is. Unfortunately being me, I had left far too early and so I had a twenty minute wait for my train to turn up. I sat down and began to fill out my diary.

At 6:01am my train arrived and took me to Sendai – my closest 'main city' – where I changed onto another train which whisked me to Sendai's airport. Once on the first train I read my book as familiar scenes went past the window. I changed trains in Sendai without an issue and departed as the sun was rising.

This isn't the first time I've been to Sendai's airport. Last year, my trip back to the UK started from this very airport and I was glad to see that, this time, it was actually open when I arrived. Unfortunately – due to arriving ninety minutes before a domestic departure – my check-in desk wasn't open. After reading a sign, it turned out that the check-in desk would open in seven minutes time; I therefore hovered around the area along with other passengers boarding the same plane as I, trying not to get in the way of anyone else.

Today I would be flying with 'Peach Airways'. Peach is Japan's equivalent of 'Eastjet' and, due to this, there was one woman manning the 'check-in' desk and three PC's with the message 'self service check-in'. With part of the message in English, I was able to workout that the 'PC' wanted me to put the bar code on my printed flight itinerary under it's scanner. Once done the computer bleeped a little, asked if I had any prohibited items and then printed out my ticket for me. It then kindly asked if I could disappear so that it could process the next person. There was one problem though; unlike most other passengers I had holdall luggage to process. The only woman manning the flight desk – who I half expected to be a robot – signalled for me to see her. She weighed my bag – 12 kilos – and then asked me to join the longest queue known to man, where only one 'bag scanner' was operational for eight flights which were due to leave within the next two hours.

I'd been asked repeatedly if I had any 'prohibited holdall items', to which I said no every time. Of course, when my bag was scanned it had to be opened up. In truth, I didn't really pay attention to what was considered a 'prohibited holdall item' until now. I found myself face-to-face with a security woman who asked if I had a lighter in my bag. 'I don't smoke', I thought. It took me a couple of minutes to realise that my first aid kit did indeed have a lighter in it (why I hear you ask; not sure. There was a reason when I put my first aid kit together three years ago but, as of right now, I can't think of what it was). I dug out my first aid kit and presented the lighter to her. She said that 'though this was prohibited as holdall luggage, I was perfectly entitled to take it on as 'hand luggage'.

I asked her to repeat what she had just said.

I'm not sure if I am the only one but, I found this all rather odd. I can't take a lighter on as 'holdall luggage' however, I am perfectly fine to carry it on as 'hand luggage' where, if I got bored, I could try and set fire to the carpet below my feet. I left security feeling not as confident about my forthcoming flight as I should have been.

'Hand luggage and person' security always takes forever. I have to get out my laptop, camera etc and then, once scanned, put it all away again. My trip through this security check didn't take as long as usual, probably helped by the fact that, I think, I joined the queue for 'flight staff' and no one confronted me. All-in-all, from arriving at the airport to sitting down in the departure lounge – having been to the toilet and bought a drink plus a snack – it had taken me forty minutes … leaving me forty minutes to finish the chapter of my book I was reading on the train from Tagajo. My flight had only cost £35.00 therefore, though the 'check-in' lacked any human interaction, I had no complaints.

Twenty minutes before departure I was asked to board my flight. Once on board I winced when I saw just how much space was between the seats however, once I'd actually sat down, I found it perfectly reasonable for a ninety minute flight (I don't think that I could have done a three hour flight with that amount of legroom). The cabin crew did their bit and before you know it we were up in the sky.

At first, I had a pretty good view from my window seat. The rather large woman in the seat next to me kept wanting to peer out of MY window, which I allowed as long as she didn't venture into MY 'space'. Pretty much the whole of Sendai could be seen in one small aeroplane window and, when that fell away, I witnessed Japan's mountainous central 'backbone' running all the way south until the captain announced that Mt Fuji could be seen from the left-hand side of the cabin (I was sat on the right). Still, the mountains I could see were spectacular and, considering that it is December, there wasn't as much snow as I would have expected. Once past Mt Fuji we hit a band of cloud that stretched all the way to my destination. I therefore occasionally peered out of my window to stare out into a world of pure white however, I mostly read my guidebook reminding myself of what Kobe – and the surrounding area – has to offer.

The pilot landed the plane beautifully at Kansai international airport. We were on time so all was looking good. No matter where you are in the world, for some reason as soon as a plane touches the ground people start to put their coats on and unbuckle their seatbelts (even though the 'seatbelt sign' is still on … I hate that). I – knowing that there would be quite a long time before we could actually start to disembarking the aircraft – continued to read my guide book.

'And there off!' As one, 70% of the planes inhabitants got up and, as quickly as the rush had started, they all came to crashing halt. I continued to read my book with half a smile on my face.

Six minutes later people were actually disembarking off the plane. I still waited until there were only a handful of people left. I casually got my bag out of the over-head locker and put my book away. I then casually walked down the stairs provided and out onto the runway. It was certainly warmer than 'up north' however, the sky was covered with heavy cloud and, with little breeze, it would remain that way all day.

Once I'd been to the toilet I was officially the last one at the 'holdall baggage waiting' area. I had taken so much time that my bag had been placed neatly at the bottom of a now, non-moving carousel, with a anxious looking 'Peach' employee wondering where the owner was. Looking like a little puppy eager to go for a run outside, I picked up my bag and proceeded to the information stand to inquire about a bus to Kobe. As luck would have it, the next bus departed in fifteen minutes which allowed me to buy another snack, to buy my bus ticket and to take a good hard look at the terminal I had just progressed through. Just like the airline, 'terminal 2' also reeked of cheapness; it could almost be classed as a 'temporary building' and, it seems to be just for 'Peach airlines'. Though I could see the beautiful 'terminal 1' in the distance - with its 'wavy roof' - it mattered not; this terminal had done its job and, actually, it and 'Peach' fitted one-another perfectly.

The coach to Kobe arrived on time. I boarded it and was pleased to find a monumental amount of leg-room between the seats. I was also happy to discovered that, even after stopping at 'terminal 1' for more passengers, there were only twenty or so people on-board. I therefore had two seats to myself and so I spread out and pressed my head against the window. I was now a 'happy chappy'; I was on holiday, my flight had been fine and I was now looking at new things. I love going to new places!

At first, these new sights were very grey. I found myself within the heart of the 'land of the rising sun' and yet, the heart of the sun appeared to be grey. Japan has a huge problem when it comes to design, architecture and city planning. It would appear that very little thought is given to aesthetics. I reckon about 90% of all Japanese planning revolves around how 'functional' a 'thing' is. This is great if you want to get somewhere or use something … but having a skyline dominated by square grey boxes, rectangle grey cement support columns for long grey metal roads is not very pleasing on the eye and, I believe, that the aesthetics of a place can be just as important as how practical it is.

I continued to stare out into this grey world until the coach left the main highway and headed into the city centre of Kobe. Once in the centre things were looking up; though a world of concrete, metal and ugly pedestrian bridges presented itself, there were a few 'rebel' buildings here and there adding a bit of uniqueness to the place. I got off the coach and headed to where I thought my hotel was. I was of course slightly wrong however, it didn't take much to correct my mistake and I walked into my hotel's reception at around 1pm.

'Hotel 1,2,3' is it's name. Though the building is as lacking in character as it's name is, it is perfectly functional and will do for the duration of my stay here; which is four nights. Once checked in I was given my key card, but told that I could not enter until 3pm. That was fine by me; I took only by cameras and my guidebook and headed back towards the city centre. I was starving and so my first port of call was to find somewhere for lunch. There is only one fast-food 'joint' close to my hotel therefore, I have decided to make lunch my 'main meal' of the day and, if I am hungry at night, I shall pop to this fast-food restaurant for dinner.

As I proceeded towards the centre of town, I took photos of any view which presented itself to me. I also found a 'Kobe information' desk where I discussed my plans for my stay and was rewarded with some very useful information. Apparently tomorrow should be sunny so I plan to visit the world famous 'Himeji-jo' (castle) then.

In my search for a restaurant I proceeded through the area around Kobe's train station (surprised by how small it is), Sannomiya Shopping arcade, and 'Nakin-Machi' area; Kobe's Chinatown. The shopping arcade was just like a normal line of shops in between a covered walkway that you would find in any city. Kobe's Chinatown on the other hand, was a lovely area filled with tiny roads selling all sorts of Chinese food. Though I couldn't really smell much, my eyes and ears homed in on all of the different sights and sounds.

The problem with big cities is that everywhere – and I do mean everywhere – is full with people therefore, it took me a while to find a restaurant where I could sit down and relax. Ironically I choose a chain restaurant, found all over Japan, with a restaurant less than a mile from my apartment in Tagajo. It mattered not. I ordered the 'mixed grill' (not quite what you are imagining; it consisted on a hamburger, a sausage, a piece of chicken and a couple of hash-browns) and a side of chips. As I am on holiday, I proceeded to order a hot chocolate cake which I'd had my eye on ever since looking at the menu for the first time. Though my 'mains' had been 'filling but lacking in zing', the dessert was delicious. The chocolate cake had been cooked so that it had solidified on the outside, but the inside was still runny. I enjoyed every mouth full and promised myself that I would go back again for another.

Whilst I ate my dinner, I looked though my guidebook deciding on how best to spend my time. To tell you the truth, I'd arrived in Kobe a lot sooner than I though I would and, though it had threatened to rain, it was currently still dry. Having had my fill of people already, I decided to take a short walk towards Kobe's coast and to have a walk around 'Meriken Park' (Meriken is a play on the world 'American'. Why it is named 'American', I don't know). With that settled, I paid my bill and left the restaurant. Once outside it had indeed started to rain but, currently, it was only 'spitting'.

With it spitting the pavements became free of people and so it became quicker to move through the city. I made it to the park and began to shoot Kobe's port. Though further inland the city had seemed a little mundane, along Kobe's industrial port an effort had been made to make it interesting though, sadly, a suspended highway did run across the scene like a mistaken brush stroke. It mattered not; I continued to take photos as quickly as I could before the weather closed in.

Enclosing this park were some interesting buildings. First up was the Orient Hotel which looked as though it had been designed to look like a boat. The Kobe Maritime Museum had indeed been designed to symbolise waves and sails. Around these two structures were pieces of modern art, most of which I thought looked nice but I couldn't begin to explain what they were suppose to represent. Finally, at the west end of the park stands one of Kobe's iconic buildings; the Port Tower. Looking a bit like a giant red sand-timer, it stood their acting as a background feature for many of my shots.

Once I'd finished photographing the park to death, I proceeded swiftly to 'Harbour Land'; an area of giant retail buildings and Kobe's Ferris wheel. Time was running short, the rain had 'upgraded' from 'spitting' to 'light rain'; I therefore skipped the shops – hate shopping anyway – and proceeded to walk around the area. It was quite funny really; once away from the shops, it didn't take long for the traffic to be none existent and for the buildings to loose their shine and look a little past their best.

With 'Harbour Land' covered, I decided to walk back towards my hotel. In doing so I decided to walk though one of the big shopping complexes which, once inside I realised that it was a little different to most other shopping centres I have had the please of visiting. Usually a shopping centre is full of glass, with lots of 'window front' displays projecting in towards the shopping centre's central pedestrianised area however, this one did not. It was a huge rectangular building with lots of glass on either of the 'short ends'. Once inside you were greeted with a spacious pedestrianised walkway running from one 'short end' of the rectangle to the other however, the shops on either side had little in the way of 'window fronts'. Most stores had a door, but the rest of it was hidden behind a huge wall of wood running all the way along the shopping centre and high into the sky. It was like you had to actually venture into the shops themselves to see what it was that they were trying to sell to you.

Once back in the park, I stopped by a small memorial dedicated to the 1995 Kobe earthquake and it's effect on the harbour. There was a video where I could select either Chinese, Japanese, Korean or English. Not feeling that adventurous, I opted for English and proceeded to learn a little bit about a colossal natural event which I would hopefully understand - in greater detail - in two days time when I visit a museum dedicated to how the earthquake effected the whole of the city and not just the port. Once the video was over I proceeded back to my hotel stopping for supplies.

Once in my room I was pleased to find that my bags had been brought up. As I am here for four nights I unpacked; I put my clothes in organised piles and placed my coat in the cupboard to allow it to dry. I got out my chocolate advent calendar – plus two presents I'd brought with me for Christmas day – and made my own 'Christmas area' (I thought I'd brought a Santa hat but I cannot find it). I then proceeded to look through my photos for today and write this blog.

For the rest of this evening, I plan to watch either 'Love actually' or 'The Muppets Christmas Carol', both of which have become a Christmas tradition within my family for over the festive period (though ironically, when I went back to the UK last year, I can't remember watching either). As mentioned earlier, I was going to go out and buy a small meal from the fast-food restaurant close to my hotel however, I'm still not that hungry. It matters not; I shall begin my film and, if I become hungry, I shall venture out and buy something for dinner (the restaurant is open until 11pm).

So my first day is over in a flash. I'm not too bothered that it has rained today. If it rains one day then, usually, the next day is beautiful and, tomorrow, I plan to head to Himeji-jo; Japan's most famous castle. This, I have been looking forward to!

Toodle Pip!