All set and a plea for information

8 sushi pink Just two days to go

         yen here, vouchers printed, now

         can we get some help?

We’re are now in the very excited build up to actually going on this trip at last. It became even more exciting this week when Japanese currency arrived. I’d shopped around at banks, the post office and travel agents to find not very good rates. In a week when the Japanese government poured trillions of yen into the economy to kickstart inflation and recovery, the yen fell against the pound and the dollar. However exchange rates are slow to respond – a bit like prices at the filling station – quick to go up when oil prices rise, slow to come down when they fall. Rather warily I ordered them online – well there was a bank holiday weekend in the way but they turned up fine as planned. I had looked at several sites and found the best rate and excellent service from TravelFX.com who kept me informed of progress throughout the process. Here they are: ¥1000 somewhere between £6 and £7; ¥5000 about £34 and ¥10000 about £65 – well today anyway!

Yen 1

There were two other important pieces of preparation. Being a little unhappy to rely entirely on showing electronic booking forms to hotels and car hire desks we decided to print out all our booking confirmations and vouchers. Our good friend Toddy posted earlier that we would need a “sturdy binder” for all of them. He was right as you can see and thank goodness we’re not on Easyjet or Ryanair with cabin luggage weight restrictions.

Travel booking folder

The other sprang from some great advice from the superb practice nurse at our local NHS surgery. Dee is suffering from a bout of sinusitis at present and was a bit concerned about its effect on the ear and head pain she usually suffers during take off and landing. “Get ear planes,” we were told. So we did. They are little clear rubbery earplugs with a grometty spiral at the outer end which helps to balance pressure and prevent pain. Sounds great, we’ll find out in a day or so if they work.

And now I wonder if anyone out there can help me? When I was in Japan in 1981, I bought a series of four etchings which we’re extremely fond of and would like to find out a bit more about. I photographed them and took them in to the ever-helpful Alisa at the Japan National Travel Office in London to see if the titles or the artist’s name would provide any clues and maybe point us at the locations they depicted. The titles proved descriptive but non-specific in terms of finding out in which part of Japan they might be. Up in the Hills, Green Fields, Poplars and Red Bird are accurate but unhelpful. She was also unable to provide a secure reading of the artist’s signature so I’m posting the etchings and a close up of the signature below and if anyone recognises places or the artist we’d really love it if you could post a comment to let us know.

The etchings:

Green mountains  Green fields

Green poplars  Red poplars all

and the signature. Green fields signature

Thanks for your comments, feedback and suggestions. Now for the real fun!

Cards and passes and car classes

7 sushi pink     Deciding to go

            is all very well, but what

            about some action?

So the sums so far show us that we can probably make our dream trip come true. Hotels are booked but all still cancellable up to a couple of days before we’re due. Some things will need to be bought and paid for now so it’s time to reach for the card wallet and do the job in earnest.

Talking of cards reminds me that business cards were very big when I was there before. This is principally a holiday but we do have a production company that can operate anywhere so after a quick discussion we agree that a joint meishi would be a worthwhile investment. In one of the quickest searches ever up pops the excellently named Japanese business cards dot com. I approach them and a couple of others and their costs seem reasonable so I set about designing our card English one side, Japanese on the other. They translate them as well and send a proof. I asked a Japanese speaking contact to tell me what I, Dee and the company did from just the Japanese side and the translation was spot on. So here we go handing out meishi – with both hands of course as etiquette dictates – to all and sundry. As it’s a joint card maybe we should hold one corner each as we hand them over. The guide doesn’t cover that. Here’s what it looks like:

meishi

That’s one task ticked off on the ever-growing Japan Trip Checklist that we both add to all the time. My next tasks are to try to sort out car rental and to buy our Japan Rail Passes. The former still proves rather tricksy – huge charges for one-way rentals, confusion over actual vehicle sizes because they are all called something different but we will get there.

The rail pass on the contrary couldn’t be easier. Buying online or in person are both possible. I opted for online, completed my form, paid the fees and received confirmation of both order and despatch. That’s when the trouble started. The letter needed a signature on a particularly wet Saturday when we were out. Red card from the postman to collect it from the delivery office. After two visits at which I was told “it hasn’t come back from the walk yet” I began to worry that our passes might not reach us but they were sent recorded delivery so insurance would cover them wouldn’t it?

Third time proved lucky although the muddy, torn envelope didn’t inspire confidence – “our post bags all leak” said the postie at the delivery office. Quickly home and open it up to find two gloriously sunny folders each with an exchange voucher each that will get us our actual rail passes in Japan. It feels like we’re on holiday already as the snow blankets the UK again.JRPass wallet   JRPass voucher

So to car rental again. Given the different naming conventions of most vehicle manufacturers depending on the territory – who can forget the Mitsubishi Starion –  we have no real idea what we are being offered in the quotations and whether our luggage will fit. I’d love to be backpacking and not have the bother but it might be a bit more of a struggle than either of us can cope with. So there will be suitcases and they need to be concealed within the boot when we’re on the road. We set off armed with a tape measure and case dimensions to visit local Nissan and Mazda dealerships. We have a Toyota Prius and know that we can fit them in there should we be offered one. But Nissan Tiida and Mazda 3 or 5 seem to be the most popular classes of vehicle on offer.

Having spent a lot of time filming in dealerships it was with a certain degree of embarrassment that I enter first Ancaster and then T W White and Sons with the sole purpose of checking out boot sizes (trunks for our US readers). The staff couldn’t have been more polite when faced with this odd request. It seems we don’t have the equivalent of the Tiida in the UK but that the Note is the most likely equivalent. At Mazda however the policy of naming by numbers pays off and we confirm that the Mazda 3 – considerably more economical in fuel and beneficial to our budget than the 5 or the Tiida – will fit the bill. We have a long chat to a self confessed boy-racer who reckons even he gets good fuel economy so the scales tip in favour of Mazda. One final email to Mazda Car Rental, which incidentally will change its name to Times Car Rental before we arrive, to get a re-quote for the Hokkaido leg and car hire can be ticked off the list.

Now to get some currency, check in and off we go!

How shall we find Murakami and his places?

6 sushi pink         We’ve read all the books,

                the music, the food, the who –

                can we find the where?

With the added excitement of a new Haruki Murakami novel being published while we’re in Japan we’ve set about rereading them all for clues as to their settings. Some are clearly specified, others are vague, composites or invented. However we plan to track down as many as we can. For his last book 1Q84 the publishers Shinchosa have mapped  the locations in considerable detail. Each pin opens up to show where certain actions in the novel take place but as they are all in Japanese  I have to make do with a Google translation which often leaves a rather vague and confused account of what I suspect – and sometimes recall – lies behind them.

Shinchosa 1Q84 mapThe locations range from Expressway Number 3 where the world of 1Q84 begins for Aomame to the Hotel Okura where a significant act occurs. Incidentally I stayed at the Hotel Okura in 1979 and 1981 when I first visited Japan. Sadly for this trip it’s way out of our budget range but we’ll visit for a cup of tea. I hope they still have the brilliant ikebana arrangements that used to grace the lobby each morning. I’ve just discovered that there’s a festival of gardening at the Okura while we’re in Tokyo so we’ll definitely be going there.

There were also some helpful location pointers in a New York Times article by Sam Anderson shortly after the publication in English of 1Q84. The very helpful staff at the London office of the Japan National Tourism Organization also sent me links to a series of walks in Tokyo and elsewhere in Japan based on Murakami’s books and a detailed list of locations where Norwegian Wood was filmed which may prove an interesting comparison for our own thoughts about the locations in that book which was the first we read and still have in its red and green two volume form. The film was good but I wasn’t always sure that the locations selected matched how I’d imagined them. But hey not many films do do they?

N Wood box     N Wood open

It’s been a great opportunity to revisit all the novels and short stories – this time with the added advantage of having them all on Kindle as well so we can make notes, highlight passages and then investigate actual and likely locations and add them to our itinerary. And boy do these books repay rereading! So much nuance, detail and context that slip by in the first read make it a fresh, fabulous journey into Mondo Murakami.

Railways, expressways and byways

5 sushi pink Can Hyperdia

 and Navitime help me to

              calculate the costs?

So I have an itinerary, the hotels are booked and we know what they will cost. I know the basic cost of a Japan Rail Pass and I discovered that you can actually buy them online from JRPass.com. The passes are great as they show huge savings over the rates for all our journeys as a few enquiries on the web soon reveal. They come in 7 day, 14 day and 21 day versions. Japan Rail Passes are only available to non-Japanese citizens and you have to buy a voucher before you travel and exchange it for a pass once you arrive in Japan or when you need to start using it. In our case we’ll start to use it in Kyoto for the remaining 21 days of our trip since the first few days are in Tokyo or in a rented car. So, that cost can be added to the spreadsheet.

Next, car rental. When I first looked at this back in February I couldn’t get anywhere since most of the car hire companies hadn’t published their spring and summer rates – ominous. Nissan Rent a Car did have rates on their site and so I entered dates and places to get an estimate of costs for the Hokkaido leg of the trip. In my inbox next morning was a confirmation and a request for payment so I had to reply that I wanted to cancel the booking as I had not yet decided on whether and when we were coming to Japan. Hope it doesn’t leave a black mark against my name on file should we need to use Nissan for real. However it did give me a good idea of a daily rate including English SatNav, unlimited mileage and insurance which I could then use to calculate the rest of our trips for car.

But once we are in the car how to calculate time and cost of journeys? I fiddled around with Google Maps and various other sites and eventually came across Navitime‘s Journey Pro where you can enter your start and end points – in this case our first day of car hire to go from Shinjuku in Tokyo to Mount Fuji. Based on picking up a car at the station the site was able to locate our hotel in Fujiyoshida. It provides a complete stage by stage route – and marvellous device  – it tells you distance, time it’ll take and toll costs. Interestingly it also tells you how much it would cost to do it by taxi! Maybe long distance taxis are common in Japan – we’ll find out perhaps. I had an idea of average fuel consumption for the class of car we’ll be renting and fuel cost so I could now work out all our road travel costs. What is brilliant as you’ll see in these two screen shots is that it shows the route on toll roads or on national roads. In our case it’s a significant difference 1 hour 40 minutes and ¥3600 (£25) or 4 hours and 9 minutes. I think we’ll take the expressways especially as they are marginally greener too – oh yes the CO2 emissions are on there too. The byways might be more fun but we will get to drive on several non-expressway segments of our route later on.

 Navitime expressway route 

Navitime 1

Navitime national general road routeNavitime 2

So with lots of fuel consumption, mileage and currency conversion formulae in Excel I was able to ascertain a pretty good idea of costs for the least predictable part of the trip. Just hope the decimal points are all in the right place because the spreadsheet shows we can do it for nearer what we wanted to spend than what we were told we could expect to spend. Only time will tell but we go into the next phase with some degree of confidence. Up until now everything I’ve booked has been able to be cancelled without charge. However the time has come to say:

“We are going in search of Murakami’s Japan.”

 Maps reproduced courtesy of Navitime

Booking, booking, booking

4 sushi pink   As the week unfolds

   what shall we now discover

                to threaten our trip?

With the little frisson of Takayama Festival safely behind us I settle down to the slog of going stage by stage, train by train, car hire by car hire through the whole itinerary. My daughter-in-law commented on an earlier post with a fine Japanese word for us – Ganbatte. Apparently a literal translation would be Exhaust yourself but it’s used as an encouragement to hang on in there, chin up, stick with it or come on my son. With this exhortation taken to heart and being of a thorough, and cost-conscious nature I start out consulting about four or five sites for each location. A pattern soon emerges – the Japan based sites with the extra hassle of converting yen or dollars to pounds soon start to fall by the wayside with fewer and fewer hits from me among the forest of tabs open across the top of my screen. Then there’s the tedium of consulting my master plan to see what dates to enter and the number of nights for each hotel and entering them in different formats on each site.

I discover that to select a hotel I think will be appropriate, bookmark it for ratification later in the day by Dee who doesn’t share my benefit of working from home and book it with a secure ability to cancel with no fee all takes about an hour to an hour and a half depending on the destination. Choosing the one hotel with a room near Takayama should have been speedy but I still had to look at all the SOLD OUT ones before I got there. Even checking the “show only available rooms” option is not infallible as it doesn’t filter for my choice of a double room so I look at a lot of hotels with only singles. It’s time consuming, frustrating and one day I’ll invent a proper booking site that meets all my criteria.

Oh do stop whinging! It may take a while but you are going to Japan! Get over it and get on with it! My alter ego always was most encouraging. Eventually it seems the best option for me is to use Trivago.com to do a comparative trawl and then as it transpires select the best option on either Booking.com or Agoda.com which always seems to have the lowest rates between them – sometimes one, sometimes the other with no real pattern, rhyme or reason.

Three days later, I finally manage to get a spare hour or so to show Dee my selections. She starts to glaze over after about the fifth but we plough on and agree that without her looking at all the available options herself I’ve done a good job. Well time will tell won’t it?

I’m fairly comfortable with e-tickets, showing my phone to go to the cinema, green about recycling and cutting down on paper but I can’t resist printing out each booking confirmation – being careful just to include the core information and not the other three pages of guff that incautious printing from websites always seem to include. At the top of each I write the hotel number and the dates we’re staying there. The last one reads “Hotel 15, 3 to 9 May Tokyo”. So we have accommodation for every night of the 29 nights we’ll spend chasing all over Japan except for one night on a train still to be booked.

There’s a map of our day-by-day schedule on the blog but the main stages are:

1 Tokyo 2 nights 2 Mount Fuji area 1 night 3 Kiso Valley 1 night
4 not too far from Takayama 2 nights 5 Kanazawa 1 night 6 Kyoto 3 nights
7 Okayama 2 nights 8 Takamatsu 2 nights 9 Kobe 2 nights
10 Osaka 1 night Train Osaka – Hakodate 1 night 11 Hakodate 1 night
12 Tomakomai 1 night 13 Sapporo 1 night 14 Asahikawa 2 nights
15 Tokyo 6 nights

And then Hong Kong for four nights where we hope free accommodation might be on offer.

So far so good – it looks like it will work but now to gauge the distances, train fares, mostly with a Japan Rail Pass – but the extras for sleepers – car hire, fuel costs and expressway tolls to give us an accurate estimate of what it will cost and whether I or the tour operator experts were right.

             

Friends and festivals

3 sushi pink.  Will our friends’ advice 

   suffice to make our raw plans

               any more than half-baked?

Well then, it’s decided. The first flight and the first hotel are booked. It’s also clear that we can’t afford an agency to do all our bookings so it’s a plea for help. We are very lucky that my daughter-in-law studied Japanese, is based in Hong Kong and has lots of friends who are knowledgeable about Japan. She very kindly emailed them our outline schedule and to my amazement – these are high powered businesswomen – we had wonderfully detailed and informative responses including, and I quote, “my dorky walking map of Kyoto” which is quite the most useful thing I have ever been sent. Real insider knowledge set out clearly on a series of maps we can follow when we get there. So it was onto the tablet straight away with those. It also helped us to resolve a travel issue that was proving very perplexing.

Kyoto Kate 1             Kyoto Kate 2

Hiroshima is an important place to visit for anyone with an interest in history – my wife, or anyone with an excessive sense of guilt – me. But it’s a very long way to travel and if we do include Hiroshima we have to drop some other Murakami or garden locations. Do we not go from Kyoto to Nara for the day? Do we miss out on the wonderful sounding Naoshima Art Island which we’d seen in a leaflet from JNTO and was highly recommended by one of our experts above. On balance and with a memory of a glazed look from an admittedly very young lady in the tourist office when asked whether she would make the long journey – it’s a no for Hiroshima. I know there will be a little regret at not standing in the peace garden to reflect – especially with Garden of the Evening Mists’ Japanese war in Malaya setting fresh in our memories – but apart from the peace park the Japan Guide lists the next three attractions as a garden (not one of Japan’s top three), a concrete reconstruction of the nuked castle and downtown. On balance it looks like the right decision.

My daughter-in-law had always said that festivals in Japan were manic, wonderful occasions and as luck would have it I discovered in the trusty japan-guide.com that Takayama has its Spring Festival on 14-15 April when we had planned to be in Tokyo but hey it’s not far so a quick schedule shuffle and the Takayama festival is on the itinerary. After all japan-guide.com says:

   “Takayama is considered one of Japan’s best festivals”.

The citizens of Takayama are greedy in that they have another festival in October but given the proximity to the Northern Japan Alps maybe spring is the better option.

With my excited enthusiasm of course I’d only done a boy look at the guide. Later I discovered the hard way what it told me quite plainly had I bothered to read it:

 “The festival gets especially crowded if one or both festival days fall on a weekend or national holiday. As a result, hotels in    central Takayama get booked out many months in advance of the festival.”

Never in my life have I clicked on booking site hotel flags with increasing lack of concern to their proximity to the centre of town to find every single one with the legend “SOLD OUT”. Ooops! Ooops! Ooops! Spread the net to 20 miles from Takayama and a room is available. I’m usually sceptical of the exhortation “only one left book now” but in this instance my click is very firm. Who knows what the Pension Green Lake will be like? It’s not far from the festival, it has a bed, it’ll accept my booking. Tripadvisor had two high starred good reviews – but in Japanese and Google translate didn’t help much.  However it’s only an hour from Shirakawa Mura the UNESCO World Heritage Site with its steep sloped, thatched-roofed houses which we want to visit anyway and we can get to Takayama.

It’ll do.

We’re there for two nights – it had better do.

Reality bites

2 sushi pink

    Can we achieve our

    ideal itinerary

                 or will there be cuts?

So, despite realising we had selected the busiest and most expensive time to visit Japan, I went online and found a number of likely recipients to advise on and quote for our trip. I emailed the draft itinerary to three specialist Japan tour companies and to the Japan National Tourism Organization’s office in London. I asked them to take a look to see whether they thought our plan was do-able at all and if so what sort of budget we’d be looking at. All were extremely helpful – three were extremely doubtful. The JNTO advice came free and offered me the chance of going in to discuss it. The tour operators all suggested the budget we’d tentatively set ourselves was about half of what was required. They also warned us that we had opted to travel at the most expensive and busy time and that making bookings at all would be difficult and where possible, expensive. I had mentioned that I was aware of this in my covering letter but that because of work commitments, this was sadly the only period this year when we are free to travel.

We had some Avios (Airmiles as was) which would cover the flights to Tokyo with British Airways. So we picked our dates, clicked confirm and Bingo! Stage one the flight out was booked. Except not – the checkout basket kept asking me for credit card details and a significant sum of money. So we abandoned that bit until I could call Avios next day to check it. We continued refining the trip so that we could include as many of the Murakami places, the gardens, ukiyo-e galleries and general tourist sites as possible. I had managed to make it to Kamakura and Nikko on my previous visits – Nikko most notably with overnight ryokan style accommodation in a school staff dormitory,  callisthenics with the pupils to a nationally broadcast radio routine at six in the morning as the sun rose followed by a miso soup and pickles breakfast. And yes I still want to go back.

After observing, commenting on and demonstrating practical activities, we did finish relatively early in the school in Nikko and managed to take lunch at a restaurant on Lake Chuzenji which consisted of some of the most delicious freshly caught trout I’ve ever eaten – hope they’ve still got some and haven’t overfished the lake. So that’s another must for the list – to go back and see how much it’s changed  – as if I can really remember.

Table with maps

Websites are wonderful things but looking at hotels on them can be very confusing. Booking.com and Agoda.com have settings where you can set prices in GBP and not have to have the calculator to hand. But the very good Japan based sites Rakuten and Jalan only show prices in ¥ per person per night and JapanIcan.com kept freezing on me so I gave up on that. However that first Sunday afternoon we had decided on the E Hotel in Shinjuku for our first two nights in Japan so that at least we had something booked. And at £60 per night for both of us it led us to believe the whole thing might be a reality not just a possibility. We folded the map, put away the guidebooks and shut down the laptop in an optimistic frame of mind.

Next morning did bring something of a shock however when my call to Avios confirmed that while our accumulated miles would indeed buy the tickets to Tokyo they wouldn’t cover the taxes. On reflection and after my initial indignation, this is an understandable Avios policy since fuel surcharges, airport fees and government taxes change all too frequently. So what we’d seen as a free flight is now going to cost us £343.75 each just for taxes. Ah well, as always for most of us there’s no way of avoiding taxes.