29 December 2014

Skinkansen - epic journeys by train

I will start this post right away by saying the Skinkansen is absolutely awesome, and quite possibly the best transport system in the world. Fast, efficient, reliable and comfortable to boot. During this current adventure we've taken the Shinkansen four times. Tokyo to Hiroshima via Osaka, back from Hiroshima to Kobe and then homebound to Tokyo. It's not surprising that each time we took it, the trains were punctual; to the minute, the second even. As it has to be said are the vast majority of trains I've taken in my 16+ years association with this country. You could probably count on one hand the number of times I've been delayed. Unfortunately that's not something I can say about my own country's transport network. The sheer joy of being taken across this vast mountainous land at 180 mph, with cities and fields flying by, knowing that you are going to be sitting in comfort just adds to the experience, the picture below hopefully illustrates this? And you don't have to be a train spotter to appreciate the trains themselves, they are just marvels of engineering. So my advice would be that if you have the time and the chance to experience Japan, you should incorporate at least one Shinkansen journey, if not more. And the best way to do that? Well how about using the rail pass illustrated below?

The Japan Rail Pass
To take full advantage of this wonderful transport network and the most convenient way to get around Japan is to purchase a rail pass. Our was for 7 days but you can get longer. It's valid on the Skinkansen and any other JR (Japan Rail) service, including the Narita Express. The amount saved when weighed against a single journey was almost enough to recoup our costs and with a number of localised journeys it was certainly a great purchase. A word of warning, you will need to get them validated and this can be done at Narita airport. Find the JR rail office at the railway station, below the terminal (ours was in terminal 1). So if you are visiting Japan and want to explore beyond the big city of Tokyo then this little card is a must. And it really will be worth the outlay. Happy travelling and please let me know if you feel the same about the pride of Japan. Have a great new year and thanks for reading. Happy travels in 2015 everyone. 

Coming soon: City review of Hiroshima


22 December 2014

"I Saw Three Trucks Go Driving By" or The Christmas Tree Debacle (Part3)

Previously: Our hero has seen some strange going ons in a house a few doors away. Christmas trees are being loaded into a truck and driven away at high speed. Upon investigating he gets collard into joining the carol singers and drinking mulled wine with a deaf old man. After going back to the house he finds it full of fake Christmas trees and has a run in with a parrot that is constantly repeating his name. We join our hero and the enraged parrot trying to escape as more and more Christmas trees catch fire. 

With the parrot in a blind panic and the Christmas trees continuing to go up in smoke and what with  the gas from the stove adding to the mix. It seemed I was about to become an ex-detective. I cared little for the parrot now and although regretting giving it the helium from the balloons I had at least some idea what was going on with the loading of the truck from yesterday. Looking for an exit route was proving difficult. The back door was too dangerous to approach and the front door was blocked by the now fully ablaze Christmas trees, I had no desire to be fried along with the parrot. Looking around the kitchen window was my best bet and so I clambered onto the sink and forced the window open, diving out just as the manic parrot came for one last attack before he was I presumed, burnt to a cinder. I thought about going out the front way and then thought better as someone might see me. So I ran up the back garden, the effects of the fumes, helium and mulled wine were all too much to take and as I ran I started to loose balance and consciousness. I tripped on something hard and collapsed into a heap in a shed and knew nothing more of the nights events. 

The house was now fully engulfed with flames. Fake Christmas trees and I presumed a parrot were no more. As was the house it seemed, as it then exploded, giving the now sleepy village of Leyhill a rather spectacular if unusual display of flying Christmas trees and decorations and flames reaching into the cold night sky. Within minutes a second truck had come down our road (the fire engine) as had half of the village, who it had to be said were rather enjoying what now was quite a pretty bonfire and had decided to turn the situation into something of an event. The carol singers who seemed to have brought along the mulled wine for everyone to keep warm also saw an opportunity and broke out in song. Others clearly felt the burning house was the perfect oven to prepare the Christmas turkey and didn't waste the opportunity to place their foil wrapped dinners as close to the fire as they could get. Others just enjoyed the spectacle.

"Jolly decent of whoever to put on a display like this so close to Christmas." Remarked old Mr Perth.
"It's someone's house you fool." Replied PC Bob Pig, who had arrived on the scene to control the growing crowds. 
"Pardon" came Mr Perth's reply. It took PC Bob Pig the next 20 minutes to try and explain, but with him not knowing that Mr Perth's hearing aid wasn't working his conversation was falling on deaf ears! 

Just then there was another explosion and it was later reported from a number of drunk on mulled wine carol singers that they thought they heard and saw a laughing but slightly demonic parrot get blown hundreds of feet into the air.  

"Quite extraordinary" came most people's reply as they dodged the flying fake trees. Not long after Mr Van Winddycke-Schmidt had turned up in his truck (that would be the third one then.) And was reportedly completely bemused as to the carnage he was witnessing and that was just the ever increasing drunk carol singers, who seemed to be putting new meaning to the song Mistletoe and Wine! Order was finally restored and the crowds watched as the house and flying trees were put under control. 

The next morning was the day before the day before Christmas, all was calm and actually quite bright as well. Blue skies greeted the now ruined house. The fire had been put out, the burnt Christmas trees gathered and the partial wing of a once talkative parrot was found. I stumbled out of the shed. My head as sore as it had ever been and I had little recollection of what had happened the night before. Confused and dazed I walked past the remains of the house and back home. Upon arrival mother was sitting in the kitchen wiping the brow of a very disconsolate Mr Van Winddycke-Schmidt.

"Where have you been?" She asked.
"Last thing I know I was carol singing." I replied. "Why?"
Mr Van Winddycke-Schmidt piped up "Some idiot has blown my house up and the Christmas trees we were storing for the annual Chesham Christmas Tree Festival. Ruined, ruined" he mumbled as mother vigorously shoved a towel in his mouth to wipe out the soot. He clearly wasn't finished. "And my parrot, gone and wingless. It was only there because it was a surprise gift for my niece. She adores parrots. If I ever get hold of who did this they will be very sorry."
Things started to dawn on me and I felt a sudden panic come across my face. "Oh dear" and with that I headed to my bed hopeful that I had given nothing away.  

Christmas Eve 
Having clearly got away with the events of previous days I sat by the open fire and contemplated the Christmas to come. I had rather enjoyed the carol singing and thought I might give it a try again next year. And with a little chuckle I raised my glass of wine and bit into a rock hard mince pie. "Merry Christmas everyone." I mumbled between crumbs and watched the snow fall gently to the ground.

The Adventures of a Countryside Detective will return in 2015 with On The Trail Of The Yellow Fingernail

Authors note:  May I take this opportunity to thank everyone for reading these tales, I'm truly blown away by how many have looked, read and commented. I hope you will continue to enjoy the future stories to come. So may I wish everyone a very Merry Christmas and a Happy and Peaceful New Year. 


21 December 2014

Tokyo a go go (Tales from the city)

So it was a welcome return to the big city, first stop, the district of Ikebukuro. All department stores and bustling crowds. This time it was more of a pass through than a serious stopover, our intentions lay elsewhere. Still it was nice to get acclimatised to the never ending stream of passers by and the jostling amongst the crowds. Our destination was Ueno and the Tokyo National Museum, somewhere I have never visited, so a short review is to follow. 

The Tokyo National Museum Review
Set on the edge of Ueno park, amongst other notable museums and the zoo, you are greeted by a large concrete building with traditional flowing edges. For ¥650 (about £4) you have entry to a number of exhibitions; normally! Most however were closed when we came. Still the main building which houses the majority of treasures was open and we spent the next couple of hours happily looking through the exhibits. These included lacquer ware, swords, calligraphy, paintings, armour and masks (some shown below). It should be noted that many of the artefacts cannot be photographed, only admired. The layout was well structured and easy to follow with English templates of each exhibit and section for those unable to read Japanese or Korean. All set in a peaceful atmosphere, without it being overcrowded. So overall a pleasant experience that will give you a little of the background to Japan's past. It's certainly worth a visit and a nice change from the hustle and bustle of other districts of Tokyo.

1) The stunning swords. It states they were created by artists and it's hard to not agree with the craftsmanship.
2) The artwork, it's precision and colour is always to be marvelled at.

Afterwards we headed into the park and the final picture although rather uninspiring at first glance. However look closely and it can actually give you a little insight into Japan's modern day culture. In one corner you have a now familiar sight in any major city across the globe; Starbucks! Love them or hate them, they are popular, everywhere and very convenient. And in the other corner people being able to express themselves without a care of what the people watching them may think; 50's style rockers setting up base in the middle of the park and swing and jiving to their hearts content. To many it will seem bizarre and slightly surreal. At the end of the day it's just people who perhaps have nowhere else to do it, expressing their passion in a rather public place. And why not? 

So Tokyo, once again you delight and inspire and provide us with another glimpse into your mixed up heart. But it's always one that never fails to impress, however often its looked upon. 

Coming soon: Take the fast train; riding the Skinkansen 

* This may be the last post before Christmas so may I wish everyone who has read these travel sketches a very merry Christmas. Thank you for reading and I hope that you will enjoy the posts that are to follow in the future. Please comment as they are always welcome. 


20 December 2014

Non-stop to Tokyo (via Copenhagen) - The Journey 2

Getting to Japan from the UK presents you with a number of alternatives. Go direct and pay the earth or transfer on route and pay the price of having to wait a few hours extra and feeling slightly worse due to the take-offs and landings. Like most flying decisions, price at the time of booking dictates! Sigh this time being no different. We chose SAS (Scandinavian) via Copenhagen. In previous visits we've used BA, Virgin (sadly stopping their direct service to Narita), JAL and ANA. As well as Austrian, KLM and Lufthansa! All very different, all however serving the same purpose; getting you there in one piece and keeping you entertained for the 9 hours + you are on their plane. So how were SAS, well certainly not the worse and certainly not the best. So here are the pluses and minuses. 

The Good
* Friendly service (very polite and made us feel welcome. Also very child friendly. Was it because they were mature flight attendants? Possibly. 

The Ok
* Entertainment - still on a loop system, on demand arrives next year (getting fussy). 
* The food - basic (dinner was ok, you get one drink free with it (you pay thereafter) and was just about edible. Breakfast was very basic, a bit too low cost in appearance for my liking.)

The Ugly
* The seats - really need upgrading, at times felt like I was sitting on a bit of wood! (New aircraft arriving in the next two to three years.)
* Temperature in the cabin always felt too hot.  
Mark: 6.5/10

At Copenhagen there was a delay (2hrs), maintenance we were told. We received coupons for some snacks and with it being a relatively quiet airport (picture below) and with enough space for the kids to play safely, it wasn't a bind. I will just say here that Vienna remains my top choice for transfers, probably because it is ultra quiet and has these brilliant lounge seats you can chill out on. So all in allit wasn't too bad. We'll see on the return leg. I'm sure that with the upgrades SAS will improve on some of the areas highlighted and as an alternative on the transfer route it works well. No changing of terminals with this one, in fact the connecting flight was at the next gate but with a four hour wait in between flights. So we're here....time to explore and see what Japan will offer us on this trip. 

Please feel free to ask any questions about Japan or give your opinion of SAS. Would love to know your experiences. 

Next time from Sketches in Travel: Tokyo a go go


19 December 2014

Japan Wintertour 2014 - An introduction

Welcome to my latest adventure to the land of the rising sun. Japan is a place I am very familiar with having lived there and been back more times than I can count.  This time though is the first time I have a blog, so hopefully I can share some of these experiences with you. With the way I look at travel it sometimes may not be a typical post but I will endeavour to give you an insight into this fascinating country through my eyes. I will do some reviews and give impressions of places I'll be visiting, some famous, others not so. And I will do food opinions and other bits and pieces. So I hope you will enjoy? As you can see from the image below I've been turned into a manga character. Certainly makes me look a little younger and with less grey hair! So let's get this ball rolling, first up will be the next part in my journey posts (see old post about trip to work). So SAS how do you compare with some of the other airlines we've used in the past?

Thanks to Drew Comika for the picture 

15 December 2014

"I Saw Three Trucks Go Driving By" or The Christmas Tree Debacle (Part 2)

The adventure continues with our hero currently slip, sliding his away towards an abandoned houses front door. A door that had earlier been the scene of strange going ons. With three men loading a van full of fake Christmas trees.  

As I was heading for the front door I somehow managed to do a triple salchow and land perfectly with a little twirl of the hands to add a certain flair to the move. I was rather proud and this and was suddenly aware of clapping.

"Bravo", "splendid move", "really very graceful for such a gangly fellow" called some voices. Another said "Rubbish". Clearly I hadn't managed to get rid of the carol singers but their words of praise were rather pleasing to the ear, apart from the rubbish comment. "Come on we need a lead vocalist for 'Away in a Manger'. Your vocal talents seem to be, how should we say, a little immature. So you rather fit the bill for the classic children's song." one of the carol singers suggested.
"I can't sing! " I explained.
"Exactly, as I said, just what we need, someone with a high pitched voice that doesn't sound very good."
"But I...." Before I could finish I was dragged away by the carol singers and thrown into singing verse two and the finale of 'Away in a Manger'. It soon became apparent they had made a rather bad decision and hurried me through the second verse and drowned me out completely in the final verse. Clearly I would be unable to get myself away until the end of the evening, so the house investigation would have to wait and mince pies beckoned.  

After a few more attempts at singing and them drowning me out even more, we arrived at the village hall where mince pies, mulled wine and some lovely nibbles were being served. I ate royally and drank rather a lot of the mulled wine. I ended up having to talk to old Mr Perth, who spoke gibberish for a hour, mainly about his colonic irrigation treatment he was currently having. Also his new hearing aid clearly wasn't working because he couldn't hear a word I was saying in return. Eventually I prised myself away, made my excuses to the carol singers and a little gingerly I headed back towards the house. The mulled wine was clearly going to my head but I was determined to accomplish my mission, whatever state I was in.

When I eventually got back to the house I creeped to the front window and peered inside. In the room was stacked dozens of Christmas trees, and on the floor were balloons, and lights. It all seemed a little strange. I decided to investigate further so went around the back of the house and noticed the back door was slightly open. The mulled wine had really taken effect and I was feeling a little giddy now. Unperturbed I entered what was the kitchen and found that there were more Christmas trees stacked up. All very odd. As I crept through the house it was the same, stacks of fake trees, decorations and balloons. What was that old man up too? As I walked into the living room I was greeted by a squawking voice. I jumped back out of sight, quick enough for whoever it was not to see me.

"Who's that?"
Rather hastily I replied "John Wilson."
"John Wilson, John Wilson, John Wilson." They kept repeating. 
"Yes that's me. Who's that?" 
"John Wilson"
"No I'm John Wilson." This conversation continued for a few minutes until I plucked up the courage to enter the room, mainly because I had had enough and with my head spinning even more from the mulled wine I needed to sit down. When I entered the room there in the corner was a parrot, surrounded by more stacked Christmas trees. Strange kind of guard for a house I thought. Until it hit me. It knows my name! It'll tell Mr Van Winddycke-Schmidt the next time he visited and he'd know who had been snooping. I had to shut it up. I looked around the room. Nothing but the Christmas trees and decorations. Then in the corner I noticed a bunch of what must have been helium filled balloons. I hoped that with enough gas inside it the parrot would eventually be knocked out long enough so that I could remove it and hide it somewhere. So grabbing the balloons I raced across the room got hold of the parrot who was still repeating my name, used its beak to make a hole in the balloons and tried to get the helium down its throat. After a bit of resistance it felt like my plan was working as the parrots voice rose in pitch sharply, however in the ensuing struggle some of the gases must have escaped and my voice also rose in pitch. I started laughing at my now comical voice, as did the parrot. After a brief exchange of pleasantries the parrot seemingly had had quite enough. The gas took effect and it went floppy. It had worked, although my head was in a right state. 

I stumbled back into the kitchen. Putting the floppy parrot on the table. I needed to sit down and think of my next move. Noticing a kettle on an old gas stove I thought a cuppa would do me the world of good. I found some matches and a tea bag, filled the kettle and had just lit the gas when the parrot, who had clearly been faking its comatose state started to attack me again, still squeaking in a high pitched voice. I managed to get a hold of one of its wings and in the ensuing struggle the parrot passed over the naked gas flame and suddenly caught alight. It panicked and was flapping manically, flying into a number of the Christmas trees lined against the wall. They too caught fire. The parrot, now in a state of shock and looking for an escape flew into the hallway making sure that more Christmas trees caught fire. What with the gas still going it all added up to a recipe for disaster. With the fire spreading throughout the house and the parrot now in a blind panic I had to get myself out but the smoke and flames hampered my path to the door. The mulled wine and helium hadn't helped my cause and I had no idea what to do, other than snigger occasionally at my continued high pitched, panicky voice. 

Could I get out? Would I become as burnt as the helium filled and slightly overcooked parrot? Had I sung my last Christmas carol? (Well probably yes but that's not the point.) 

Find out in the final part of The Christmas Special - "I Saw Three Trunks Go Driving By" next week.

Authors note: No real parrots were harmed in the making of this story. Also can you guess the ending? Please leave your comments as I'd love to know what you think.  


8 December 2014

"I Saw Three Trucks Go Driving By" or The Christmas Tree Debacle (Part 1)

It was a cold, crisp day before the day before the day before Christmas. I was sitting in the kitchen munching on a rock hard mince pie that mother had made. Since The Missing Turnips Case I had been muck spreading but also keeping an eye out for any wrongdoings in the village. Which there hadn't been. Mrs Wilcox's farm had been a success, Parish Councillors Kiln and Pickles were stamping their authority on village matters and seemingly everyones money with the help of Mrs Wilcox it seemed. I only knew that Mrs Wilcox's farm had been a success because she would tell me every day, giving a little wink as she said her goodbyes. There was something very suspicious about her actions but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. For now at least. She was trying to turn the farm into a Zoo but was refused permission due to an outbreak of foot and mouth. I laughed at that, small revenge for her continued mocking of my muck spreading duties. Other than that it was a little too silent, night and day in and around the village. Until that was I firstly heard and then saw a large truck drive at high speed down our road. Funny that I thought, don't see trucks coming our way much, if at all. I dropped the mince pie, which created a small dent in the table and decided to go out investigate. 

Peering around the gate post, so not to be seen I noticed the truck was parked at the disused house a few doors away. There were three men milling around the truck, loading Christmas tree into the truck. There was also an old man with a white beard who looked suspiciously like Mr Van Winddycke-Schmidt. I thought he was in the slammer? (See the Case of the Missing Turnips for more details about him.) Clearly he wasn't in the nick and it seemed he was up to something. Probably no good. So I slide back into the shadows a little, not wanting to be seen.

"Boo". I jumped, throwing my arms in the air and smacking whoever it was right in the face and nose. "That hurt" they continued. I turned to see my pesky neighbour Clare Flynn, who had just delivered our Christmas card. "What are you doing?" She continued rubbing her swollen nose.
"Spying" I replied, and shoved her in front of me to show her.
"So what?" She stated.
"Bit suspicious don't you think?" 
"Not really its a Sainsbury's* van. Must be delivering some food or presents?". 
"What with 3 men and an old criminal. And anyway they're loading up some christmas trees". 
"Want me to go and ask them why?" She said as blood started to pour out of her nose.
"No, you need to get that cleaned up and anyway we need to approach this with caution. I'm going to find out what they are up to, but in a stealth like fashion. Like a Ninja". Pushing her some more in the direction of her house. 
"Idiot" she shouted as she ran home. That wasn't going to help her nose I thought and she was leaving a trail of blood and tears behind her. Suddenly the van sped past and vanished down the road towards the town of Chesham. Hopefully I hadn't been seen and I would wait until nightfall to investigate further. Well I didn't want to raise suspicion, not just yet anyway. It just so happened  The local carol singers were visiting our part of the village tonight. The perfect cover I thought. 

That night, dressed as carol singers do; bobble hat, warm jumper and gloves. I joined the back of the group as they worked their way down towards the house in question. I sang impressively for the first note and deteriorated somewhat thereafter. When they had walked past the dark house that was my destination I made my move. Slipping away at the back of the group, moving a bit too quickly for my liking and on the icy pavement slipped and pirouetted all over the place, like an Olympic ice skater towards the front door! Would I stop in time? Would the door feel the full impact of my ice skating routine? Would I get a good score for my rather excellent skating skills? Would the choir hear me and come and investigate to see who had made the noise? Would I be charged for being a fake carol singer? Or would they carry on until they were given a warm mug of cocoa and a nice mince pie at the village hall? Whatever was about to happen it wasn't going to be pretty. 

Authors Notes:
* A UK based supermarket chain

Find out what happens next week or if you think you know what might happen then please leave a comment. 

Coming next week: Part 2 of I Saw Three Trucks Go Driving By


5 December 2014

Bollocks to Alton Towers - a travel related Christmas stocking filler

Sorry for such an abrupt title, blame the authors for that one. Looking for that little stocking filler for a loved one or friend? Then how about some books that will give you ideas of places to visit around the UK for the year ahead? Bollocks to Alton Towers and its follow-up Far from the Sodding Crowd are travel books that will take you to some of the UK's more unusual attractions or 'Uncommonly British Days Out' as the book suggests. In fact I've already reviewed one of the attractions featured; Bekonscot Model Village a few posts ago.

What makes these books a joy to read is not only the humour portrayed amongst its pages but the fact that they don't preach at you, demanding you to go. They give you an historical perspective, explaining why they were created, the people behind these attractions and what makes them so special and unique, making you fascinated in them and curious to visit.  As an example among the many weird and wonderful places mentioned are;

British Lawnmower Museum
Gnome Magic (a theme park of sorts for gnomes)
Christ's House (rather appropriate for the time of year. It's in Bedford, England if you're wondering)
Clarks Shoe Museum
Bubblecar Museum 

There are many more across the two books, highlighting the diverse nature of the UK's many attractions. Although not in colour and quite wordy in places it is nevertheless an invaluable travel book to take on your journeys and a funny one to boot. The link below takes you to a documentary based on these books. So let me know what you think and if you have any other travel related stocking fillers let me know. Would be glad to hear from you. 

A documentary based upon the books

Coming soon: Wintertour 2014 (The Five Cities tour of Japan) 

1 December 2014

Musical London

If you get the chance to visit London this Christmas then this might be the post for you? We live in an age where music is now so easily assessable that we can even buy it on the move and play it instantly without the need to visit a record shop (unfortunately, but that's a blog post for another day). So how about adding some extra spice to your movements around the capital with a little musical game? The following songs relate to parts of London or to areas around London. So go and visit the areas and stick these tunes on as you do (or others that you may find). I bet you start singing the lyrics, strumming an air guitar or even doing the Lambeth Walk!?

Last Train to London by ELO - a song for your journey home? 

London Calling by The Clash - a song for those moments on the tube when all the commotion around you is sending your head dizzy! 

Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty - could do some air sax whilst you visit the home of Sherlock Holmes.

West End Girls by Pet Shop Boys - play this as you walk down Oxford Street. 

Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks - find the nearest bridge to Waterloo and watch the sun setting. 

And one for the folk aficionados amongst you:

Streets of London by Ralph McTell 

Bonus song - Heartland by THE THE - surely the greatest song about London? But could so easily be about many of the UK's cities. Should be played whilst walking down the South Bank as you look towards the city of London. 

And there are many more, so please comment and add your own in. Also how about other cities around the globe? New York has many as I'm sure does Paris. Although another unusual travel post I hope it at least makes you think about the relationship between our major cities and the music that influences them. Happy listening.

Coming soon.....The five cities Wintertour 2014 (a series of traditional style travel posts on my latest adventure to Japan) 



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