My Life in Motion

Archive for the month “September, 2020”

An Education In Tokyo

If ever there was a trip years in the making it was this one. As part of my job, I have to continuously educate myself in an effort to keep up with an ever-evolving field, and how better to do it than at international conferences that combine my pursuit of further education with my love of international travel. Back in the Gold Coast, Australia in 2017, I learned about a future conference in Tokyo, Japan. I had fun dressing up in a sarong and posing with a ninja in front of a banner declaring the dates in 2019. I put the dates in my phone for future reference, eventually having the joy of booking my flights and securing the time off work. And yet I somehow booked the flight to Tokyo for the wrong day despite 2 years notice. I had entered the wrong dates in my phone’s calendar and used this to book my flights instead of checking the official conference website. Unable to get another day off work to leave on the correct date, I headed to Tokyo at the end of September 2019 having missed the first day of the 4 day conference. My flights had been frustratingly expensive because the conference planners had decided to set the dates to coincide with the 4-yearly Rugby World Cup which that year was in Japan, and I found myself in a middle seat (my most hated airline seat), sandwiched between a Welsh rugby supporter and an Australian rugby supporter. Both big lads, I felt rather sandwiched, and as the drinks started flowing with them and a bit of banter passed across me, I envisaged being stuck between a drunken brawl. Thankfully everyone behaved themselves and we landed in Tokyo, and I was hit by the complete madness that is Japan.

Everyone always tells you that Japan is a culture shock, and it most definitely is. I’d barely got off the plane before I saw my first robot, and although I had researched the public transport system in advance, I was still overwhelmed on reaching the transit hub that serves Narita Airport. For my particular plans, the much lauded JR Pass was not going to be worth the expense, so I obtained a top-up travel card that was the perfect companion for my trip. Armed with a pocket wifi that I had collected at arrivals, these two things were my best friends and were so handy for negotiating the train and bus system both locally and nationally. As a first-timer in Japan, they were a Godsend. Boarding the Narita Express into Tokyo, I booted up the Wifi, plugged in my destination and got real-time connection recommendations to get me to my hotel. The closer to the city centre it got, the more packed the train became, and I witnessed the first of what would become very normal train journeys crammed full of people. It was pitch black when I stepped out of Yotsuya station, somewhere in the middle of the city. It took a few wrong turns for the GPS in my phone to work out which way I was walking, but finally I arrived at my hotel and bunkered down for the night.

For your average tourist to Tokyo, Yotsuya has little to promote it, and indeed I felt surrounded by locals there, but it was within walking distance to the Hotel New Otani Garden Tower where my conference was being held. For the next 3 days, my days were filled with hours of lectures in opulent conference rooms, but during the breaks the hotel had one delight out the back: the most glorious of gardens, complete with waterfall and koi. Whether during the day or after the sun had set and the garden lights came on, it was a joy to wander round. Unlike other conferences I had been to, when breaks meant an all-you-can eat buffet and no need for dinner at the end of the day, this one was very regimented with its portion sizes, and I often left in the evening still hungry. But the bento boxes that were provided at lunchtime were both cute and delightful, and like the snacks at tea break, were an intriguing introduction into the world of Japanese cuisine, where textures were bizarre, tastes were unrecognisable and the visual appearance gave no clue as to what was being eaten.


That night, I wandered around the streets of Yotsuya getting hungrier and hungrier. I had tried to learn Japanese for several months ahead of this trip but found it to be one of the hardest languages I’d ever tried to learn. In the end, I felt ill-equipped to both read and speak the language, and felt mightily self conscious at the thought of going into a restaurant to order food. I’m both introverted and shy which doesn’t help, so sometimes it takes a bit for me to build up the courage to instigate an interaction with someone, and I was conscious of the fact that I would be overly reliant on English to communicate, something which I hate doing in countries where English is not their first language. It was also a Friday night, the end of the working week, and so the locals were also out in numbers. After traipsing round a wide arc around my hotel looking for somewhere suitable, I gave up and headed inside a 7Eleven to grab food from there. What I discovered was that the local Marts, be it 7Eleven or FamilyMart were actually fantastic places to eat from, with tasty ranges of sushi, sandwiches, meats, snacks and drinks. Here I was introduced to the array of flavours that foods I was used to in one choice only whilst at home came in such as the myriad of Coca-Cola flavours and KitKats. Among the snacks were dried foods I didn’t recognise and things that were a total novelty to try. And thanks to a Japanese travel forum on Facebook, I commenced a love affair with the 7Eleven’s humble egg sandwich, a divine concoction that was a staple food source throughout my trip.

Despite the next night being a Saturday, I was determined to be brave and pick a restaurant to eat in. I paced up and down the main street of Yotsuya, perusing menus and arguing in my head which one to go to. Eventually I plucked up the courage, and headed up the narrow staircase to a small room full of booths, half-filled with Japanese men. My presence was acknowledged by the waitress and I was presented the menu which was only in Japanese. Thankfully it was a picture book like is often the case there, and I was able to point at a beer and a bowl of wonton soup, and rapidly I was presented with both. Not a word of English was uttered the whole time I was there which was both exciting and unnerving. The waitresses attitude was a little intimidating but the food and beer were so delicious that it was easy to overlook it. I silently watched as the others around me ate, taking the opportunity to subtly people watch, a past time which I love to do, especially in foreign countries.

After the final day of the conference, I took my last wander around the hotel grounds before grabbing another 7Eleven dinner to eat whilst watching the Rugby World Cup on the TV. I’m not a particular fan of rugby, but I live in a rugby nation, and seeing as I was in the host country, it seemed only right to pay attention to the matches. I had an early rise the next day for my first proper day of my Japanese holiday. I had to do a hotel switch due to my current hotel being booked out for the rest of my Tokyo stay, but despite no longer being tied to this part of the city, my research had shown that Yotsuya station was really handy as a travel hub for my needs, and so rather than moving elsewhere, I opted to stay in the neighbourhood. In fact my next hotel was within sight of this one, simply across the road and along a block or so. Having eased myself into the perceived chaos of Tokyo life over the last 3 days, it was finally time to get out and explore and I couldn’t be more excited.


The Garden City in Bloom

September is one of my favourite months of the year in either Hemisphere. In my native Scotland, it often involved some lovely spells of weather as the leaves started to loosen, whereas in New Zealand, it signals increasing daylight, new life and the promise of adventures ahead. My home city of Christchurch is known as the Garden City and the arrival of spring means it really gets to shine. As the seasons turned from winter to spring in 2019, I had been keeping a half eye on the cherry blossoms around the city and park, awaiting the spell when they were in their full glory, and finally in the second half of the month, a sunny day corresponded with the peak bloom and a day off work. There were plenty of other people making the most of it too, and the path that hugged Harper Avenue was full of throngs of people admiring and posing with the pretty pink flowers. It was impossible to resist doing the same.


The Avon river snakes down the side of Hagley Park, and tearing myself away from the blossoms, I followed the river towards the Botanical Gardens, passing a pair of Paradise Shelducks with their fluffy offspring. Of all the ducklings that I have seen, I think theirs are the cutest. What I love about this stretch of the river is the giant weeping willows that gently sway in the breeze, and sometimes I like to run the strands through my fingers as I pass them by. I had lunch at one of my favourite cafes, Bunsen, which is nestled in the historic Arts Centre Precinct, and with the weather so nice, I sat outside where even there I was accompanied by wildlife as a sparrow joined me on the neighbouring chair. Once satiated, it was time to enjoy the Botanical Gardens in all its spring glory.


Immediately on entering the gardens, I was assaulted with the striking colours of the tulip beds that hugged the lawn borders near the peacock fountain. Returning to the Avon river bank once more, it was bustling with life with punting and kayakers moving lazily across the water. It’s one of those things I’ve never done because I’m a local and I always think of it as a tourist activity, but maybe one day I’ll take a paddle myself. About halfway up the gardens, an arched bridge crosses over to a meadow nestled between the river and the Christchurch Hospital. Here, a carpet of yellow and white daffodils spread across the area below the trees and I once more found myself ogling the flora that was blooming everywhere. I was not alone here either, with nearly as many people photographing the daffodils as there had been at the cherry blossoms. With the sunshine sparkling on the gently babbling river, it was hard not to lap it all up.


Back in the botanical gardens, there were flowers in bloom at every turn. This is my favourite time to visit, and there was so much colour everywhere. More cherry blossoms could be found lining some of the more private nooks and there were bees buzzing everywhere. For years following the earthquakes that rocked the city in 2010 and 2011, the conservatories in the centre of the gardens had been closed. Even when they reopened, it took me some time to visit them, and finally on this day, I stepped inside and was greeted by a hot house of tropical plants. It was lush with zaps of colour, and out the back there was a cactus room full of succulents. I took my time inside, continuing my meander through the gardens on exiting, and following the river past yet more cherry blossoms and returning to Hagley Park. Strolling in the sunshine through the park back to my car, I was happy and energised for the exciting weeks to come.


A Winter Weekend in Wellington

It’s always a good idea to take a break away from your home city once in a while. Gritting my teeth in earnest for the end of winter last year, I boarded an early morning flight from Christchurch to the country’s capital, Wellington. The last time I’d been there it had been a rather stormy New Years, and sadly the forecast wasn’t looking the best for this weekend either, but still, it was a break away and that was all that mattered. Taking off from Christchurch, the plane was quick to ascend above a thick cloud bank which covered the entire South Island, obscuring any hope of a view out the window. Just as we reached the Cook Strait, a few gaps in the cloud gave a brief peak down to the island slipping out of view. As we descended into Wellington, I was really confused by the sights that appeared below as we lowered back under the clouds. An island appeared and the coastline was unfamiliar and nowhere could I see the usual approach into Wellington. It turned out we’d flown up the south-western coast of the North Island a little before taking a wide arc back to approach over the harbour. It was as grey here as it had been at home but at least the water looked still so that gave hope that the city wasn’t living up to its Windy Wellington moniker that day.

The early arrival meant that we couldn’t check into our hotel yet, so we dumped our bags and went for a wander, first through the nearby streets, and then down to the waterfront. A few murals caught my eye but sadly we were soon joined by a drizzle as I went to explore an old boat that has been completely transformed into a floating mural. We continued towards Te Papa, at first circling around it past the statue of the naked man leaning over the water’s edge, but then briefly heading inside to escape the rain for a bit. The rain mainly remained at drizzle level thankfully, so even though it wasn’t completely dry, we were able to keep walking around the city streets, grabbing some food before taking the train out to Khandallah to visit a relative for a few hours.


I was woken in the early hours of the Sunday morning by a loud bang, followed by yelling and a general disturbance outside. We were several floors up, but the sounds from below still drifted upwards and they sounded urgent and distressed. I sleepily rolled out of bed, and pulled back the curtain to be greeted by smoke billowing up from below. I was jolted awake, aware there was a restaurant directly below, and in a panic yelled at my partner to get up. His voice of reason at the lack of smoke alarm sounding and the fire wall that would separate the eatery from the hotel did little to calm me, but there was no suggestion of anyone else in the building moving, and in little time at all, the fire brigade arrived and I was able to watch the light show of sparks that regularly flew upwards as they dampened down the flames. When we eventually got up properly and headed downstairs, we were greeted with the shell of a burnt out car in the hotel’s driveway.

A Sunday market was in full swing at the Te Papa car park, and it was packed full of locals buying their fresh fruit and veg. We were at that point weeks away from an indoor market opening in Christchurch, and I was secretly hoping we’d be getting something as good as this one. Wandering round food markets in any city in any country is always a cultural insight and something that I love to do. It’s a snapshot of local life, local cuisine, and local businesses. Thankfully it was dry as there was no cover whatsoever here, but it was quite windy and the sea in the harbour was showing a good bit of chop. After a while we headed off to spend the afternoon with some relatives near Mount Victoria. By the time we returned to our hotel in the late afternoon the burnt out car was still sitting there looking sorry for itself.


Another grey day welcomed us the next morning, and having checked out of our hotel and grabbed some breakfast, we caught the shuttle to Zealandia, the ecosanctuary that nestles behind the city. I’d been once before on the New Years trip, so was happy to go with the suggestion to go back. Despite the lack of sunshine, there were still incredible reflections on the lake at the bottom end of the park, and the nearby hillsides had mist trailing along them. We saw some spotted shag by the waterway, and beyond there some rotund takahe, one of New Zealand’s flightless species of birds. We took the walking track that leads through the forest and up to a dam in the middle of the sanctuary, before skirting round to return on the large loop track. The poor weather meant the bird life was relatively quiet compared to my last visit. Despite how successful the kaka reintroduction here has been, we didn’t see any. Nor did we see any tuatara as it wasn’t warm enough for them to be out basking and I was disappointed to see that the caves where the weta live, had been closed. But we did see the usual forest birds, including the ever inquisitive New Zealand robin who always loves to follow people through the trees.


When the rain drove us back to the visitor’s centre, we grabbed lunch before heading back to the city. Again we went into Te Papa to look at one of the exhibits before deciding to walk to the airport along the waterfront as we had plenty of time to spare. I love the walk round Oriental Bay, and on my first visit to Wellington back in 2012 I had continued into Evans Bay round the headland. The long stretch up towards the airport mainly hugged the road so was noisy but once we reached Greta Point, the parks and marina made it much more enjoyable. We had made good time to the airport so wandered among the World of Wearable Art exhibits that were dotted around the terminal. It’s a popular event in the Wellington calendar but never anything that excites me and I looked at the metallic wasp costumes with a raised eyebrow. Before long though, it was time to head south again and home.

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