Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Beautiful airport approaches

The descent into an airport is often the most spectacular part of a flight. Australian Business Traveller today published the results of a survey of 3,000 private jet service PrivateFly flyer's favourite approaches, with Queenstown as number one.

Sadly I've flown into none of the airports listed, but here are five of my favourites


Singapore was the first foreign airport I ever flew into. You make your way across the islands of Indonesia until you are suddenly confronted with a massive parade of ships that demonstrate just how important international trade is to the city-state.

London Heathrow

If you are lucky enough to have a clear day and are sitting on the right hand side of the aircraft you may be treated to a spectacular tour of London's famous sights as you wind your way up the Thames and down into Heathrow.


There are almost 3,000 islands in the Inland Sea of Japan and they provide a beautiful backdrop as you gently descend into Matsuyama airport on the island of Shikoku.

Gold Coast

From the south is imposing Mount Danger and the fertile farmlands around the Tweed River. But it was on an early morning descent into Coolangatta that we captured this most gorgeous sunrise.


Last but not least is the airport approach that I am most familiar with. From the early morning mist filled valleys around the Hawkesbury River to the sun shimmering off the waters of the Harbour with its famous landmarks, the descent from the north into Sydney is definitely one of my favourites. Welcome home!

So what's your favourite airport approach?

Monday, 11 May 2015

Oranges of Ehime

Visit Ehime Prefecture on the Japanese island of Shikoku in summer and you will quickly discover a fixation with the citrus fruit. Travelling along the coast you can almost imagine you are in Spain as you pass by hills of citrus orchards against a pale blue sea.

Matsuyama, the prefectural capital and largest city in Shikoku, has a wealth of sights, including the famous 3000 year old Dogo Onsen and an original castle overlooking the city. After the long walk down under a summer sun there's no better way to cool off than with some chilled citrus juice or gelato at the 10 Factory cafe, just down the street from the cable car/chairlift to the castle.

Your main problem will be selecting which variety of mandarin you want to try. Fortunately, the growers association provide this handy online guide to Ehime citrus varieties.

Keep a lookout for other citrus based specialities as well, such as these limited edition citrus KitKats we picked up on our trip there in 2014.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Asagaya and heading home

How can I be happy? I am about to return to a country where the toilets have at most two buttons and no seat warmers. But the tickets are booked and there are no cyclones, typhoons or other disasters standing in our way. It's almost time to go back to my first home.

First B wants to do some "local shopping". So we catch the Chuo Line up a few stations to Asagaya, a residential area with a number of Shotengai, covered and uncovered arcades leading away from the station and narrow alleys lined with bars. It is an interesting area for a wander around. We are mainly looking, do some shopping for toothbrushes and sweets from Seiyu, a Wal-Mart owned supermarket/minor department store. We skipped breakfast and lunch is ramen and gyoza at a small restaurant near the entrance to the Pearl Centre shotengai.

With the help of a staff member, I manage to purchase tickets at a branch of Lawson to the Ghibli Museum for a friend travelling to Japan in May. There are some missing instructions online - at the end you are asked to fill in a name in hiragana, then a phone number and email address.

B finds a pair of shoes at a branch of Chiyoda.

We return to Shinjuku, wander through the shops at Mylord, then go to Yodobashi where I buy a n-scale model of a Toyoko Inn building for the model train layout. Finally, a couple of trips to Uniqlo, the last one in the same building as our hotel. At the Muji on a different floor I see a Chinese tourist using a cotton bud from the makeup bar to clean her ear in public. Classy.

We have so much luggage to carry to the station, six bags of varying sizes and one box containing a doona. This is just plain silly. We really need to stop shopping in Japan. I want a dog robot to carry our stuff instead of trying to drag it all the way up to the Shinjuku Station South Entrance in order to catch the Narita Express.

Maybe next time we'll use the hotel's luggage forwarding service. Unfortunately it needs to be done the day before.

We are rather early to the platform. That's unusual.Once aboard the Narita Express we all fall asleep for a patches. The skies are dramatic, a threatening grey, but as always it is nice to relax for the long journey to the airport.

At the airport we grab a trolley then wind our way up the escalators to the third floor departures level. Once checked in we go straight through security and immigration to the Qantas Business Lounge, walking through the futuristic looking corridor where once a shuttle train ran.

The lounge isn't as nice at in Sydney. The food is more of the snacking variety. B and Alex devoured the strawberry slices. I had little, my stomach feeling typically knotted in anticipation of the flight. It's necessary to obtain an access card to use the showers, which lack a dressing area.

Our aircraft is VH-OEI, a 747-400ER with the 100th Anniversary of Gallipoli decals. The day also marks the anniversary of 80 years of international services for Qantas. That first flight carried two passengers. This flight holds over 400 and by the looks of the crowd there are few, if any, empty seats.

Despite being ready on time we are delayed by the queue of eight other aircraft in front of us, at least 16 minutes according to the captain. As we take off there are city lights below us, then they disappear into cloud. A storm flashes nearby.

The turbulence of the initial climb puts me in a poor mood for the remainder of the flight, feeling anxious whenever we strike a rough patch in the sky. The problem is that we flown the route so many times before that I can remember entering stormy skies where we had to weave to avoid the worst of the clouds. Those situations are more memorable than the many smooth patches.

The captain promises a smooth flight.

There is no Moon for most of the flight and it is very dark outside. I decide to while away as much of the time as possible with movies, though my eyes are frequently drawn to the window, trying to glimmer any information possible from the skies outside. It's interesting how much light is actually provided by the stars. Perhaps there was high cloud initially, as the view seems to get brighter later with the wings being more illuminated

I watch The Imitation Game about Alan Turing. A bit more mathematics would have been nice. Then Gravity, which was okay though sometimes lacking in believability. Some patches were a bit too close to home when traversing rough areas of sky. Finally, I watch the Guy Ritchie version of Sherlock Holmes. I'd seen the sequel years earlier on another return flight from Japan and as fluff goes it is more than watchable.

I am hungry by the time dinner was served, but I couldn't finish the meal of barbecue beef, vegetables and turmeric rice, nice though it was. The strawberry compote definitely goes down a treat. Alex nibbles at his spaghetti and meatballs child's meal and B has nothing.

In the morning I have the seasonal fruit platter again. Such perfect food for flying.

Time passes reasonably quickly. As we approach Queensland through the Coral Sea we come upon yet another flashing storm cloud, but this seems to be a band of them. I am sure that the seatbelt lights will be activated, but they never are. The morning skies seem quite rough, no quiet carpet of cloud today.

As we descend into Sydney the scenery outside is stunning. Pastel yellow and grey, valleys filled with cotton wool fog, hazy high cloud. We loop around for an approach to the airport from the south, the route giving gorgeous views of the city and the bays. I love to watch the "heavies" loop around like this, silhouetted against such skies in the morning. Now I am flying it.

A smooth landing and we are home to 27 degree warmth. The manager of the cabin crew, who are, let's say, mature age, announces that this is the last flight for one of them and the cabin breaks out in applause. It's been a very nice flight, showing 80 years of international experience.

Immigration is surprisingly quick, but the luggage takes forever to come out. Then there is queue for customs and quarantine inspection, and wouldn't you know it but a flight or three from China has come in, with queue cutting passengers.

Actually, their presence may have made things easier for us, as we were waved through baggage inspection despite declaring foodstuffs. I imagine that Japan is a low risk country.

We catch an expensive taxi ride home with a driver with some sort of major tic in his arms and legs and a proclivity for tailgating. Going in the opposite direction are many cars driven by mainland Chinese, including one, an expensive Land Rover of course, blocking the intersection into the M5.

So tired when we reach home. A shower then a collapse into bed. I have to wake up to collect our dog from the kennel before they close. Then a walk with the dog and Alex on a scooter to buy a lunch of banh mi from the local bakery.

I may have complained about the mainlanders above, but they, like the Vietnamese refugee and her Macanese husband who run the aforementioned bakery are some of the people who make up the richness of this country in contrast with the largely monocultural Japan.

Sadly the holidays are coming to an end and we must go back to work and school in a couple of days time. Until the next journey...

Friday, 17 April 2015

Edo-Tokyo Open-air Architectural Museum

My favourite Japanese movie would undoubtedly be Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away from Studio Ghibli. One of his inspirations for the beautiful design of the film was the Edo-Tokyo Open-air Architectural Museum.

The museum features a collection of transplanted traditional Japanese and Western influenced buildings from Meiji era Tokyo and is located in Koganei Park, the second largest in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

To reach there we caught the Seibu Line from beneath our hotel to Hana-Koganei station. We wandered around the area searching for breakfast from amongst the local shops and cafes, eventually settling on a tired looking Matsuya where two women served the mainly rice bowl dishes. At least there was salad.

Then we walked along Koganei Road towards the park under the warm sun. There were a number of large family restaurants and diners along the way and obviously expensive houses, large by Japanese standards.

Koganei Park would have looked magnificent when the almost 2,000 cherry trees were in full blossom. As it was, some were still blooming. It is a lovely place for a run, stroll or cycle. A steam train, CL57, sat waiting for a departure that would never come along truncated tracks.

We paid our entry fee for the museum and spent hours walking around the grounds and up into the buildings. Each was interesting in its own way. None were directly featured in Spirited Away, but you could see the influence that certain design features had on the movie.

Tokiwadai Photo Studio
My favourites were probably the traditional Japanese villas of Harirouemon Mitsui and Korekiyo Takahashi, for their tatami rooms overlooking traditional gardens. Then there was the more modern open comfort of architect Kunio Mayekawa's house.

We relaxed and sipped tea boiled over the open fire irori of the Tenmyo Family farmhouse, smoke wafting over us and drifting upwards to help preserve the wooden structure.

The commercial street in the Eastern Zone featured a number of interesting buildings, from an umbrella maker to a florist. At the end is a bathhouse. My feet could have done with a soaking.

For lunch we ordered various udon dishes from the machine at the restaurant on the second floor of a "kura" warehouse, wandered a little more, then trudged out of the museum to the bus stop along Itsukaichu Road.

The bus to JR Musashi-Koganei station was infrequent and late, but direct and easier than walking. From there the Chuo Line carried us all the way to Tokyo Station, where we got off and caught the subway a single stop to Ginza Station.

I didn't buy anything from the Sony Showcase store, but I sure wanted to. The staff gave me hints on finding a replacement powerpack for a laptop and finally explained that, yes, my existing noise cancelling earphones could be used as a hands-free microphone. Maybe once the Z4 tablet is released...

Sony even has a model railway inside!

We walked across to Bic Camera near Yurakucho Station looking for a third party powerpack. Despite a number of Sony VAIO replacement packs on sale and the assistance of the computer staff, none would fit. So it looks like an internet order from home. This branch of Bic Camera also sells model railways and toys and Alex and I got in trouble from B for taking so long.

The Ginza subway line took us all the way back to Shibuya. Alex plays Sega Allstars Racing on the PS3 and one of the tracks is "Shibuya Downtown", so he wanted to see it for himself. The reality is nothing like the game, but the giant screens, neon lights and crowds around the famous Hachiko entrance are phenomenal sights in themselves.

Dinner was sushi, then it was B's turn to make us suffer with visits to clothing shops. Japanese cafes serve the most magnificent looking desserts, but you often can't find something when you are looking for it and we eventually had strawberry pie and a cherry thickshake in a McDonalds, I'm sorry to say.


A couple of stops back along the Yamanote Line and we had returned to Shinjuku, joining a very long queue of foreigners in Matsumoto Kiyoshi purchasing various shampoo, makeup and, in the case of others, packs of green tea flavoured KitKats. It never used to be like this.

One last night in Shinjuku. Though my feet were weary I didn't really want to go back. Just to soak myself in the neon excitement of Japan. I sat for a while by the window and watched as some lights were extinguished after 10pm, others waiting until after midnight. The new Hotel Gracery displayed messages and images on its otherwise blue lit side every half an hour, pachinko parlours flashed and the high resolution Yunika Vision screens showed clips from the Japanese billboard charts until after I finally went to sleep.

As always the same thoughts came into my head. A desire not to leave Japan and return to Australia, to stay long enough that every day wasn't so precious that it had to be rushed. For quiet days spent locally absorbing the atmosphere, yet also more busy days for the many sights left unseen. And as ever, I must come back.