pergamond: ([Random] Look kawaii)

Oddly enough, the most popular blog post I have ever written is this one; a list of 10 points on micro-braiding your hair. I'm therefore going to draw the bold conclusion (not remotely assisted by the news at present) that there are people out there in search of FACTS. Allow me to present the post I would like to have read before starting this process: 10 tips for moving abroad with your pet. For understandable reasons, this will be highly biased towards a move to Japan!



Pack in a carrier and off we go...! )

My final advice (which I refuse to put as point (11) for aesthetic reasons) is don't panic. If you start with plenty of time, this isn't a hard process and it's not that tough on your pet. Tallis had no trouble with the long plane journey to Tokyo and was her usual self within minutes of us arriving at home in Sapporo. My fears that this was all a ghastly and cruel act were unfounded... but I was assured this shouldn't stop me producing copious amounts of Tallis' favourite cat food.
pergamond: (Default)

The woman behind the desk at the 'Air Canada' check-in counter took my passport, glanced at the photo page and then down at my carry-on bag from which a pair of gleaming yellow-green eyes could be seen.

"Do you have any documentation for your cat?" she inquired.

I lifted a thick black folder and dropped it with a bang on the counter, where it dwarfed the small red booklet in her hands.

"... right." The woman hesitated before saying cautiously, "Is there a form that shows they're expecting you?"

I gathered from the singular choice of the word 'form' she wasn't after one of my three complete document copies. Pity. As it stood, I wasn't going to be able to fit a drink bottle into my bag.

Snapping open the elastic, I withdrew the sheet I had been sent from Tokyo Narita Quarantine Services, stating that my application to import a cat had been received. The Chinese lady working at the counter next to ours leaned over to take a peak.

"I can read some of the characters," she said with interest as she examined the Japanese-half of the bilingual script.

This apparently was enough proof that the document hadn't been forged, or maybe simply sufficient for the airline to declare it not-their-problem.

I understood their concern; like the UK, Japan is a rabies-free country. This means that their regulations concerning the import of animals are extremely strict. Once, this would have meant a non-negotiable six months quarantine (the time required for a rabies infection to show symptoms) but with the use of microchips to guarantee animal identification, this could all be waved with enough preparation... providing you had to right paperwork.

Tallis and I had been on one flight before, when I moved from Florida to Canada. While only a measly three hours compared to the 13 we were about to attempt, it had left me with some assurance that Tallis was likely to deal with it all relatively well. Unlike everyone else I talked to, I was not concerned about her causing a yowling scene on the plane. This was primarily for three reasons:

(1) I have a certain disregard for humanity.
(2) Planes are pretty noisy and Tallis doesn't have a very loud voice.
(3) ONE CRYING BABY and I was home and dry. No one talks about throwing an infant out the plane, though quite why is something of a mystery. See point (1).

Once in Tokyo, we had an overnight stop before going onto Sapporo for which I had booked Tallis into the airport pet kennels. Originally, I had done this because quarantine services threatened to take up to 12 hours even with the finest of leather-bond paperwork. On reflection, however, I realised a stop to stretch gave us both a much needed rest.

By far the most unforgivable event occurred a mere 10 minutes later as we approached security. Seeing what I was carrying, the airport staff waved me into a different line.

"Please take your doggy over there."

.... doggy?! DOGGY? I walked over to the designated line and pulled out a very ruffled and indignant cat.

"Is she vicious?" One of the security staff asked as they saw her struggle.

Well she didn't used to be until you CALLED HER A BITCH.

I plopped the cat over my shoulder and went through the scanner with a curt shake of my head. Humph. We went and sat in the airport lounge where Tallis chose to sit enthroned on my knee and be petted by the surrounding masses.

And after that ... everything went entirely smoothly. The flight was packed but my neighbours were nice, cat-loving types who didn't mind me sitting with the carrier on my lap after take-off. While she didn't use them, I had lined the carrier with a puppy pad against accidents, and changing this a few times during the flight freshened up the container. It also made me appreciate exactly how small a aeroplane toilet is. There truly is not enough room to swing a cat. Trust me.

When we arrived in Tokyo, I headed off to use the bathroom before approaching the quarantine desk, thinking I would be a while. While not a wasted gesture, this proved completely unnecessary since we were cleared for entry in a staggeringly short five minutes. I owe my vet's clinic a suitcase full of lucky waving cats. Or maybe not, since that might send them insane.

Indeed, the worst part of the whole journey (apart from the bit where Tallis was called a dog) came the following day on our short hop up to Sapporo. For this trip, Tallis was not allowed to travel in the cabin but had to go in the hold. When she was returned to me, she was wet all through and smelled terrible, which suggested she had been far more frightened on that short leg than at any point on our round the world jaunt. That notwithstanding, she recovered fast and vocally protested the remainder of our journey to my apartment.

"Meow meow meow!!"

"Look, we're nearly there!"

"MEOW MEOW MEOW"
You've been saying that for DAYS.

Well... yes, but this time it was true. Adorably, there was no doubt Tallis knew she was home. Perhaps she recognised the furniture, maybe the smell of me was enough or she might have reached the stage where she was prepared to adopted any non-crate room as her home. Whatever the reason, she ran around the apartment then fell on her water as if she hadn't drank in days.

This was perfectly true but it was NOT BECAUSE SHE HADN'T HAD THE OPPORTUNITY. She'd just shunned any cup I'd placed in her carrier. My sympathy was limited.

I collapsed on the sofa. In all honesty, before this trip I'd been anxious about the wisdom of my decision to bring Tallis to Japan. Was it truly fair to take a pet on such a long journey? Should I have tried to find Tallis a new home in Canada? Now though, I can honestly say I'd do it again. The secret is an early start, since the paperwork takes the best part of a year to complete (minimum 8 months) but with the right assistance, it was actually a painless process.

"Meow!"

"... You've gone in the bathtub haven't you?"
pergamond: ([Random] kitten // rar)


"meow."

"really?"

"Meow!"

"Really?!"

"MEOW!"

"REALLY?!"

So went our conversation as we headed back to the apartment after our final vet's visit before the flight at the weekend.

Tallis was in her spanking new red pet carrier. Since her old one was disintegrating and smelling strongly of cat pee, I had decided to upgrade her before we attempted the 13 hour flight to Tokyo. Extensive googling had revealed two highly recommended possibilities: a bag made by the manufacturer 'Sherpa' and one by 'Sleepypod'. The second of these two was about twice the price of the first but a few inches longer, with fold-up ends that enabled it to slide properly under the plane seat during take-off and landing. Both had good reviews, so it really came down to exactly how guilty I was feeling about taking my cat on this trip.

I'd put in an order for the 'Sleepypod' the week before.

However, it transpired that the whole of Canada was having some giant guilt complex concerning their feline friends and every shop and their supplier was on backorder. Deciding this was secretly a message from my bank manager, I asked a friend to drive me to the out-of-town Petsmart and purchased the Sherpa carrier.

This was the second journey we had tried with the carrier. On the plus side, the bag was sturdy, well ventilated and and a cheerful colour. On the downside, my considerable care and attention to this matter was being utterly unappreciated.

The sparkly clean interior of the carrier was already coated in cat pee. So was I since, as I mentioned above, the carrier was beautifully ventilated.

On our first visit to the vet's that week, I had purchased a pheromone spray designed to calm cats down by reminding them of their mother. Judging by its success this trip, I wondered whether we might be reaching the heart of Tallis' problem with other cats.

I let her out once we reached the apartment and set about scrubbing the carrier down. I was about to apply the same treatment to myself when my phone rang to let me know that my friend and that day's department speaker had arrived. I sniffed at my shirt. Well, I've never been one for suffering alone. I headed out down the stairs.
pergamond: ([Toy Story] Buzz // wibble)

The tags for cows are changing. No more will our Canadian bovine friends accessorize with a triangular green ear ornament detailing their identification number, but instead will model a yellow round disc. However, cows already adorned with last year's fashion piece must not have it removed --since that is illegal-- but rather must have the latest earring added to their attire.

These cows are clearly going to be punk cows.

How did I know this detail about livestock imports? Because I was in the office of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency ...

... waiting for them to approve the export papers for my cat.

May I just say that going to this particular organization for my little furry non-consumable pet kitty was highly disturbing? I distracted myself by reading a leaflet on compensation for Government destroyed animals. Wonderful.

Mercifully, the not-for-consumption cat was not present; all that was required was me and the paperwork for her import into Japan. This was particularly good since I wasn't sure I could carry both. The folder containing the relevant documents was bulging at the seams. I glanced down at the top-most sheet of paper. In English and Japanese, the heading read:

"Application for import: dogs, cat, foxes, raccoons and skunks."

Now, it might be just me, but it seems a little surprising that the import of foxes, raccoons and skunks is sufficiently common to warrant inclusion on a standard form. I made a mental note to keep this sheet handy when I was on the plane. If my neighbor objected to being seated beside a cat, I could point out that should he complain and move, he might be located by a skunk.

At length, I was called through to the main office to meet with the Government vet. He stamped my paperwork and told me that he had wanted to be an astronomer when he was small. I told him I had wanted to be a vet for years of my childhood. We both eyed each other, trying to access who had made the right choice.

Then the stamping was done, the papers returned to me with three additional copies. I tied an elastic band around my folder and stuffed it in my backpack. One shiny bright kitty, ready for consumption. I mean, export. 
pergamond: ([Shrek] Puss-in-boots // how can you res)

It transpires my brain only has a single language button. When 'off', I speak English and when 'on' I speak ... Foreign. For the majority of my life, 'Foreign' has corresponded to what French I managed to recall from school. Now --I discovered-- it produces Japanese. Given that I'm currently visiting Montreal, the largest city in the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec, this is a trace unfortunate.

It is also rather surprising to the shop keepers who have been addressed in broken Japanese by a blond haired, blue eyed girl with a British accent.

Since the official languages of Canada are both English and French, it is the law that all government services must be conducted in both languages. In Ontario, this equates to everything being in English with the occasional nod to this rule in the form of a French stream in schools (largely taken up by English-speaking kids wishing to become bilingual), bilingual tourist information sheets and the odd sign post. In Montreal, it is totally different.

Shop fronts and road signs are in French, while the chatter on the streets is a mix of both languages, with French dominating over the English. Two of the city's major universities are split; the Université de Montreal operates predominantly in French while McGill University lectures in English. Wherever we travelled in the city, waiters and shop assistants greeted us first in French, before switching seamlessly into accented English.

Interestingly, Canadian French is substantially different from European French, although the latter is easily understood. The differences have been said to be greater than that between UK and USA English, but less than German and Swiss German. Somewhat ironically, Canadian French is closer to the early French language of the 15th - 17th century than European French, which has evolved away from the original pronunciations.

The reason for the francophone pocket of Canada is historical: In 1760, the French colony in Quebec was taken over by the British. This was about as popular as any visitor to Europe might expect and, in the resulting resistance, a compromise was reached with the 'Act of Quebec'. This recognised French Canadian distinctiveness and allowed them to keep their religion (Catholic), local laws and language.

This movement had an on/off success with the pressure for autonomy still present today in the form of the Quebec sovereignty movement. Supporters of Quebec's independence claim that the province's best interests cannot be recognised in the predominantly anglophone Canada. Associated with this is the concern that the French language will become overwhelmed, taking a major part of Quebec's identity and heritage with it. This has led to claims of discrimination against Anglo-Quebecers with the terms 'pure laine' (pure wool) used to denote Quebec residents of French descent.

After the initial excitement of "Wow! That sounds just like Harry Potter!" had worn off, I was a little concerned about our reception in Montreal. Would we have to manage with our limited French for fear of mortally offending the entire province every time we ordered a cup of tea? Would English be understood, but only with a particularly bad grace? Or would we be declared 'mudbloods' and banned from Hogwarts forever?!

It turned out we need not have worried. Montreal is a very friendly city and everyone I have met has been happy to converse in either French or English. Of course... this might have been born out of relief that I was no longer attempting to ask the location of the toilet in Japanese.
pergamond: ([Futurama] Bender // Applause)

It doesn't matter how much often you fly, to see a passenger near you repeatedly cross himself during the safety video is never reassuring. That said, I felt I already owed God one for making this flight at all.

For my trip back to Canada, I was connecting through Tokyo with a one hour change-over time. That was slightly on the tight side, but it was Japan so I had faith I would make it.

As we reached the northern half of the main island, our plane met a strong head wind. Towns below us had suffered a dramatic snowfall only a day before, with 3m of the white stuff dumped overnight. The resulting air currents made our plane bounce like a coffee bean in a grinder. It also made us 20 minutes late.

Our chosen landing spot appeared to be only vaguely connected to the airport. I mean, it was probably in the same prefecture. Just. We piled onto a bus for a ten minute ride across to the terminal. From there, I had to pass back through security and through the official country border to the international departures area. Then I had to get to the other side of the terminal, passing 30 gates to get to my own.

Any other country and I would have been asking about vacancies in the airport hotels and buying a toothbrush from the nearest shop. But... it was Japan... this might yet be possible.

I did all of the above in 15 minutes. The flight attendant didn't even look phased as she scanned my boarding pass and waved me through for an on-time departure.

The passenger crossing himself was also reading the safety leaflet, as per the instructions on the video. If anything, that was even more bizarre than the apparent desire for divine intervention. Upon take off, he ordered two (admittedly small, but still a containing a couple of glasses) bottles of wine. After that, negotiating the arm rest on his seat proved to be a more pressing problem than the need to pray.

Once in Toronto, I dubiously walked over to the baggage reclaim... to see my suitcase happily travelling round (at least, I would have enjoyed riding that belt). I'm not sure if there is any other airport in the world I could have connected through where that would have been possible.

This only left one final hurdle.

Canadian border guard: Wait, you were here two weeks ago?!
pergamond: ([Blackadder] You cannot be serious.)

After one week in Canada I returned to Japan. For two weeks. Then on Thursday, I go back to Canada.

Confused? Let me explain:

This brief interlude from my collaborative work trip in North America was to allow me to interview for a job identical to the one I already had, be offered the position, formally start and then order a computer before this was prevented by floods in Thailand.

There. Isn't that clearer? No? Well, I will elaborate but I warn you now, it's not going to help.

Our story (although I defy Disney to create something more fantastical) opens with our young heroine (totally me. It is my blog, after all) assuming the role of "specially appointed assistant professor". The "special" part here means that my salary came from the Japanese Government, not Hokkaido University, who have a scheme to support women in senior roles for three years. After that time, it was understood that I would be moved onto the university's normal tenure track (leading to a permanent position) for faculty members.

This transition was not contracted, but I was told it was a question of honour for the university to uphold the verbal agreement. Since the breaking of Japanese honour traditionally results in disembowelment, I felt there was some incentive for the people who mattered to follow this through.

A few months ago, however, in response to increased pressure from the government to increase the fraction of female employees, Hokkaido University opened a call for two tenure track positions for female scientists. It was suggested that I apply for one of these positions, since it would end any uncertainty regarding my job status in three years time and everyone could retain their digestive tracks.

[As a side note, I don't really approve of any form of sex discrimination in jobs. My concern in this case is it could devalue female researchers' achievements if it is felt they only gained their current position through having a decreased pool of applicants. Despite this, I discovered when put to the test, my morals were surprisingly easy to sweep under the nearest carpet. No one put me in a court of law.]

Even though I had been hired for my current position just months before, I still had to complete the full application procedure, including the in-person interview.

I pointed out that I would be in Canada at that time.

Everyone agreed that it was incredibly daft just to come back so that I could be re-interviewed for a near identical position.

..... but that was just the way it was.

Since a foreigner was preferred for the job and since the Japanese have an innate suspicion of foreigners they have never met, my chances at getting this position were high. This led to a problem concerning money.

New faculty members are typically awarded a large one-off sum known as a 'start-up grant'. This is for single large expenses that are needed to equip a new researcher with the tools they need to do their work, for example outfitting a new laboratory. As a theorist, my wish-list was simple: I wanted computer power. Lots of it. Think 'the ultimate question' solving stuff. The problem was that all this money needed to be spent by the end of the fiscal year which was ... March.

Everyone agreed that it was incredibly daft to spend such a large sum in a month and it would only lead to wasting funds.

..... but that was just the way it was.

Now it transpires that machines more awesome than Steve Jobs builds are manufactured in Thailand. The way it was explained to me is that the ENTIRE COUNTRY disappears under water due to floods each year around this time. Since constructing electronic equipment in such a condition presents some difficulties, an ordered machine will take more than a month to arrive. Since the earliest I could begin the new position was February 1st and the money most be spent by March 31st this left less breathing space than for a snorkelling computer engineer.

The upshot was that I had to still be in Japan on February 1st, so I could officially begin this position as soon as humanely possible and order a computer from waterworld. I booked my flights back to Canada on the 2nd.

I think maybe I should have asked for two passports while in the UK.
pergamond: ([Blackadder] You cannot be serious.)
"This passport was issued a few days ago. Why was that?"

Um. Because I needed a new one? Seriously, what sort of question was that? And how did I answer it without sounding like I was talking to a two year old and not a burly Canadian border guard?

I shrugged and tried to arrange my features into something that less implicative of 'WTF you moron?!'

"It needed to be renewed over Christmas."

There look, I spanned that out to a seven word sentence none of which were hamsters or elderberries.

"Are you gainfully employed in the UK?"

"No, I work in Japan."

I instantly regretted my words. The passport the border control guard held was a pristine virgin document, unsullied by any hands except those of the country from which is was forged and ....

... look, the point is it didn't contain a Japanese visa.

This wasn't a problem was far as Japan were concerned. In my backpack was my dog-eared cancelled passport which contained the still in-date visa for my job overseas. Unlike for American visas which have to be paid like a high-profile ransom to be transferred between passports, Japanese visas could chill in the old document until their own expiry date rolled around. The problem was, how much talking would I have to do to convince this border guard of that? Especially given his experience outside of Canadian bureaucracy would probably be with the neighbouring country of .... yeah. You see the problem.

I braced myself for a long hard wait. I was pretty sure that, had this been America, I probably wouldn't be making my flight out in a week's time. I'd be held in the country indefinitely JUST TO BE SURE I didn't stay there forever.

The border guard blinked at me. "Japan?"

I managed a tight smile. "Yeah."

A Brit coming from the UK into Canada with a empty passport, claiming she worked in Japan.

The guy burst out laughing and tossed my passport back at me. "Through you go!"

Maybe no one would ever make up a story that crazy. Maybe he decided he never wanted to know. I love you, Canada.
pergamond: ([Blackadder] You cannot be serious.)
In preparation for my trip next week, I needed to buy travel insurance. Since I would be away from Japan for almost three months in total, health coverage was my primary concern along with an extra boost in case one of my 101 connecting flights left me checking airport vending machines for a turkey Christmas dinner.

Hokkaido University sold such insurance packages and so on Thursday afternoon, I skidded across to the appropriate building. With me, I towed one of my friends to act as a translator, all the while assuring her that buying travel insurance was first class practice for writing her thesis, the draft of which was due the following week.

At the appropriate desk, we examined the brochure of options. My type of trip had a choice of three different packages for coverage. Each of these included an set amount for health costs, lost luggage, missed flight and --on a cheerful note-- compensation for death by illness and death by wounding.

The first three of these categories had different maximum amounts, depending on the option you selected. This was all good and understandable; depending on the number of flight connections you would make, the value of your luggage and your propensity for tightrope walking without a safety harness, you might want more or less coverage in these areas. What was rather more perplexing was that while 'death by illness' had the same fixed amount in all cases, you could select different sums for 'death by wounding'.

Now, let us think about the thought process that must go into such a decision. Presumably, it starts as follows:

"Hmm. Yes, it is rather likely I will be stabbed to death in a dark alleyway on this visit."

OK, there are probably circumstances in which such a conclusion is inevitable. However, SURELY most people would CANCEL THEIR TRIP as opposed to thinking:

"I better take out the extended coverage for death by knifing in dark alleyways."

But no! Apparently, there are a whole class of people who, faced with probable death by violent homicide, consider the prudent course of action to take out more insurance.

GUYS! YOU DON'T GET TO SPEND IT!

I kept to the basic level of insurance for this nicety and pocketed the extra cash. Then I spent it. That's how to live, people.
pergamond: ([Blackadder] You cannot be serious.)
Banks in Japan have not yet taken to the notion of convenient opening hours. This includes CitiBank which, despite being a branch of an American business, has hours only between 9am and 3pm, Monday to Friday.

It was therefore Friday lunchtime when I slipped my way along the snow-packed street to see if I could acquire some Indian rupees for my trip in two weeks.

The answer was no.

But the woman at the branch did give me a map, directing me to the location of a currency exchange two blocks further south. Sliding along the ice and thinking this was almost thick enough for skates, I arrived at the "Travelex" kiosk, which was hidden inside a different bank, tucked out of sight of the entrance between the ATM and toilets, as if it were rather an embarrassing act to want to change Japanese Yen for any other currency.

Given the current state of the Euro, I could see where they were coming from.

"I'd like to exchange Yen for Indian rupees," I told the lady at the counter.

She checked her computer system, but then shook her head. "I'm sorry, we do not offer Indian rupees."

"... Can you not order them?" I could understand not having all currencies in stock, but surely they could be acquired.

Again she shook her head. "We do not offer them," she repeated. "I have Indonesian rupiah."

I appreciated the effort at a compromise, but unfortunately this was going to be an area where I stubbornly stuck to my original request quite beyond all reason.

"I really need Indian rupees," I persisted. "Since I'm going to India."

"Ah," the woman nodded as if agreeing this would be a problem. "You cannot get them in Japan."

No where in Japan?! I didn't quite know what to say to such blanket authority so I thanked her and left. It was only when I was half way back to campus (this taking a considerable period of time due to the weather) that I remembered reading on the website for 'The Rough Guide' that rupees were not supposed to be taken out India. The guide had focussed on visitors will spare change and had said that, while this rule was not strictly enforced, there were currency exchanges at the airport for this reason. It had not occurred to me before now that such a rule would prevent me taking out cash in advance.

This wasn't a particular problem; since I was travelling to Delhi, any major bank in the city would likely accept either cash or credit card.

Clearly, this was just simply a case where it doesn't pay to be too organised. Literally.
pergamond: ([Futurama] Bender // Applause)
Reversible train seats

I had thought the Shinkansen seats were cool. They had the power sockets, the cybonic up-right chair backs and the leg room needed to satisfy a wookie with no knees. By the time I reached downtown Sapporo, I realised they were nothing more than second-rate, yesteryear designs in the same category as tape recorders and ball point pens.

It was true that the train that dragged itself up to the platform at New Chitose Airport did not look like it had the capacity to rock my world. It appeared as the standard rattly locomotive that did the subway rounds. Motion in general did not seem to be a strong priority, either in getting to our final destination of showing up at the airport in the first place.

I stepped on board behind an elderly man who was using his wheeled suitcase as a cane. We entered one of the back carriages to see the seats all facing the rear of the train. I was unfazed by this. My childhood Hornby model railway set had taught me that locomotives can clip equally onto the back and front of trains, so it was inevitable that sometimes the seats would be reversed. It was perhaps a little unfortunate, since I found that travelling with my back to the engine occasionally made me travel sick. However, since all the seats in this carriage faced the same way, I could probably vomit over the person in front of me and be off the train before they could truly kick up a fuss.

The old man was having none of it.

He released one hand from his suitcase and grabbed the handle on the side of one of the seats. With a squeaking of hinges, the back of the chair slid over the seat cushion to clunk down on the opposite side. The man then sat and looked expectantly out of the window towards the direction we were headed.

Well, that was surprising.

I took a quick look around the carriage and then gingerly stood up and pulled on my own seat handle. With an identical thump, the seat direction also reversed, accidentally crushing my carry-on as it did. I sat down hastily.

Shortly after this discovery, a group of school kids climbed on board. They proceeded to redesign the rest of the carriage, making some seats face each other and others stand in rows. It was possibly a complex reflection of their social network or more probably the result of each boy feeling the urge to move a least one chair before sitting down.

Rather like the desire to use the bathroom as soon as an exam starts, it only now occurred to me that I really wanted to take a photo of a chair half-way through its repositioning. There was the perfect single seat right in front of me but it contained a small girl.

A line of thought suggested that this wasn't really a barrier to me suddenly moving it.

I suppressed the notion.

Fortunately for all, the girl exited the train at the next station and, as we started to move again, I leaned forward and pushed on the seat handle, snapping a photo as the chair back moved. Behind me, the gaggle of boys went briefly quiet. I did not turn around. Travel on a UK train, kids, and you'll be composing Haiku to these by the time you return.
pergamond: ([Futurama] Bender // Applause)
I walked boldly through the partitioned walkway to the security gate at Tokyo's Hanada airport. Nestled within my grey carry-on was one 150 ml bottle of moisturiser and a full sized tube of toothpaste (extra minty). Tucked into an outside pocket of my red rucksack was --bold as brass-- a bottle of fizzy orange soda I'd bought at a convenience store in downtown Tokyo.

Basically, I was armed up to the teeth.

Without hesitation, I dropped my pack onto the conveyor belt for the x-ray machine and then lifted out my laptop from the rucksack. That at least I had the good manners to declare, laying it gently in its own tray to be scanned separately.

"Anything in your coat pockets?" the security guard asked me, glancing briefly at my boarding pass for Sapporo.

Hell yes! My phone, wallet, keys and --just for good measure-- a sachet of liquid bubble bath I'd swiped from the hotel bathroom. I don't believe in doing things by half. Without bothering to list these items, I slid my arms out of the sleeves and slung the gortex onto another tray. Then, without even removing my shoes (possibly for the first time ever in a Japanese public building), I marched through the people scanner.

My carry-on, laptop and coat were already waiting for me at the other end. My rucksack was brought through by a security guard. He tapped the bottle of pop. "Check?" he asked.

I indicated he should go right ahead but as soon as he lifted the bottle he lost interest. "It's not open."

"No, still sealed," I agreed.

Contrarily, he slid it back into the pocket on the opposite side of the bag and handed bag plus bottle back to me. I went over to my gate and crack the top. Somehow it tastes so much better when it's brought from the other side of security.

When my flight came to board, I scanned my own boarding pass at the gate. Not once did I show any of the multiple forms of identification I was carrying[*]. My demonic plans for world domination were now irrevocably set.

Sitting next to me on the plane was a passenger with a stinking cold. He proceeded to buy two cans of beer.

.... might have to put a hold on domination plans until after Christmas.

--
[*] Note to self, birth records of all family members dating back to 1742 are not required on Japanese domestic flights.
pergamond: ([PoT] Kaidoh // not listening)
For my train ride to Tokyo, I was issued with four identically sized tickets; one to take me down to Hakodate in the south of Hokkaido, one to bring me through the tunnel to Shin Aomori in Honshu and two for the Shinkansen bullet train to Tokyo. Standing in Shin Aomori station, I flexed the two card rectangles in my hand and wondered how the duplicate nature of this ride confirmation worked with the automatic ticket barriers. Presumably --I reasoned-- one ticket was a receipt or a seat reservation while the other would allow me to pass through the metal gates in full possession of my limbs. Experimentally, I inserted a likely looking ticket and stepped forward.

This outrageous act produced a squeal of red lights and the appearance of an attendant to see what the stupid foreigner had done stall their efficient system.

It transpired the required secret handshake involved inserting both tickets simultaneously, one on top of the other. To me, such an act should have resulted in a mechanical choking grind, the sound of shredding paper, and culmination with a flashing set of lights marked "DENIED" before ejection of what remained of both ticket and ticket owner. Instead, the machine sucked the paper through its body, stamped the bottom rectangle squarely across its front side and returned both in the exact position I had inserted them.

It shouldn't have been possible.

But it was.

Unnerved, I plucked the tickets from the barrier exit and hastened onto the platform. The Shinkansen carriages have a luxury air to them, with ample leg room for even the most spidery of foreigners and power sockets to charge your laptop or cell phone. The seats are also the most upright contraptions I've ever seen in my life. Mercifully, they recline to allow a position more suited to non-cyborgs.

As its name suggests, the bullet train does not mess about. It had taken me 6 hours to travel the 260 miles from Sapporo to the top of Honshu. I did the remaining 450 miles to Tokyo in 3.

Since it was now dark and I was jealous of my neighbour's bento box, I took a nap in my reclined chair, lifting my head only to squint at the lights of Sendai as we made a brief stop.

The Shinkansen stop in Tokyo is at Tokyo Station, a major station in the inner city but not actually the one I needed to travel out to my hotel. I had to transfer to another other large hub, Shinjuku, by taking the subway across town. I went through the Shinkansen barrier --whereupon one of my tickets was consumed never to be see again-- and found myself inside the normal ticket barrier for the subway. This left me with a conundrum:

Did I need a ticket to reach Shinjuku?

In the "no" corner, we had the fact I had been spat out inside the subway gate, still armed with one ticket, from which there was nothing to stop me taking a train of my choice. At least, not until I tried to get out the other side.

In the "yes" corner, there was the fact that the travel agent with whom I had booked this ticket seemed concerned regarding to which Tokyo station I wished to travel. Since we were battling with language, I told her Tokyo Station was fine and decided I'd easily work out a route to Shinjuku when I arrived. This confidence now seemed positively blaze.

Since it wasn't immediately obvious how to buy a ticket from inside the barrier, I decided to postpone the moment of reckoning until I reached Shinjuku. Then there would always be an fantastical option of jumping the ticket barrier altogether and trying to disappear in a crowd of black-haired Asians.

I walked across the station to the "chou line" and climbed up the stairs to the platform. The evening in Tokyo was its usual heaving self, and people pushed past each other to form lines ready for the next train. Over to one side of the platform, however, I noticed a crowd of people surrounding what looked like a ticket machine. This must be it! Those people were clearly all like me; they had magically found themselves on the other side of the ticket barrier without a ticket and were now trying to remedy this criminal act. I joined the queue and scanned the screen as I reached its front. According to the English guide, I could chose to travel to Shinjuku by 'semi-rapid' for 500 yen. I hesitated, decided it was better safe than sorry at this point in my journey, and bought the ticket.

The problem was the electronic boards were informing me that the next train due at the station wasn't a 'semi-rapid' but a 'rapid'. That sounded like the kind of transport for which my ticket would be invalid. I could have waited for another train but I was tired and wanted to get to my hotel. Such desperate times called for desperate measures. As the train drew up, I approached the station guard:

"このきっぷだいじょうぶですか。"
Is this ticket OK?

The guard looked at my ticket and nodded. "だいじょうぶです。" It's OK.

Ha! Who needs a communication class?

After this promising statement, the guard beckoned and led me across to another guard who looked at my ticket, took it and then handed me back my 500 yen. I was then ushered onto the train.

....... OK, I need a communication class.

This didn't make the slightest bit of sense. The train set off and arrived in Shinjuku about fifteen minutes later. Feeling dazed and confused, I stepped out into the station and decided to try my second Shinkansen ticket in the barrier. If it squealed, at least someone would come and rescue me and for an arrest, I bet they had to take me through the barrier.

The ticket machine took my ticket. The gates swung open. I scuttled away into the Tokyo city. The night was still young and there were undoubtedly another 101 ways I could be confused before midnight.
pergamond: ([PoT] Ryoma // all or nothing)


There are a series of smaller tunnels leading up to the Seikan Tunnel between the Japanese islands of Hokkaido and Honshu. Possibly this is to allow unexpectedly claustrophobic passengers to disembark ahead of time, grab a pair of water-wings and meet the train on the opposite shore line.

The Seikan Tunnel is currently the longest and deepest operational rail tunnel in the world, although wikipedia informs me the Swiss are about to surpass it. According to the information sheet that was on the back of the seat in front of me, the deepest part of the tunnel is 240 m below sea level and 100 m below the ocean floor. Its total length is 53.85 km with the part under the sea bed running to 23.3 km. Its tracks are apparently of the Shinkansen-type which is amusing since the Shinkansen has yet to run up to Hokkaido. The bullet train's arrival in Sapporo isn't planned until around 2020, which goes to show the extent of Japanese planning since the tunnel was built in 1988 and the current tracks laid in 2005. My hunch is that in Europe, the tunnel would have been found unsuitable for Shinkansen tracks and the whole project would have to be started again. (To anyone who believes this to be overly pessimistic, I recommend looking up the gauge war of the 1850s in the UK. The slower track width was selected as the national standard due to cost.)

I was going through this tunnel because I was taking the train between Sapporo and Tokyo. This trip comes under the category of "an experience" as opposed to "a sensible way to travel". When the Shinkansen does come up to Sapporo, this trip could take as little as four hours by train but currently it clocks in at 9, compared with a 90 minute flight. I totally ignored logic and thought it would be an interesting view of the country.

As the train winds south from Sapporo through to Hakodate in the south of Hokkaido, the tracks approach the coast. Japan's northern island is mountainous, so we pass small seaside towns clustered between the wooded slopes and the water. The train barrels straight through the hills so my view flashed between:

Sea!

Pretty town!

Dark tunnel!

And repeat. At one point I saw a large collection of multicoloured buoys that looked like a ball pen for adults. In another town, a series of concrete sand castles led down to the waves that were presumably something to do with erosion. In the final small habitation before the tunnel, I saw fishing nets being apparently left out to dry. Do fishing nets need to dry? There is no time to ask such questions on a train.

Dusk is a short lived affair at this time of year. This meant our train dove into the Seikan tunnel as the sun set and emerged to pitch blackness. It was particularly disconcerting since upon arrival on Honshu, the train immediately disappears into a second series of smaller tunnels. This produced the surprising visage of suddenly seeing a lamppost and a group of trees in the gloom before being faced once more with a concrete wall. The first possibility that struck me was that the Narnia wardrobe had moved to Japan.

At different times of the day, there is the option to stop inside the tunnel at the Tappi Undersea Station. Disembarking here must be arranged in advance, but if you time it right, you can take a tour of a museum dedicated to the tunnel's construction. Unfortunately, going on this tour meant leaving Sapporo before my Japanese class this morning which --due to terrible threats regarding absences and the fact I'd be missing class on Monday while in Tokyo-- wasn't possible this time. Hopefully I'll get a second chance before the museum closes with the arrival of the Shinkansen to Hakodate in the next few years. 

Once we reached our first stop at the top of Honshu, I jumped ship and caught the Shinkansen to Tokyo. Enough of this northern island layabouting; it was time to get a move on.

--
(Picture shows view from the train window as we travel to the edge of Hokkaido and the information sheet on the Seikan Tunnel that was on the train seat in front of me)
pergamond: ([Bleach] Ichigo // -.-)
There are times when I feel that automatic emails could benefit from some tailoring. This evening I received an email with the subject:

Itinerary Change - Important Information from Virgin Atlantic

This raised alarm bells since the only pending Virgin Atlantic flight I had was my trip from India to the UK on December 23rd. Needless to say, I was cutting it rather fine for spending Christmas at home with my family and a delay could be bad. The start of the email was not encouraging:

We regret to advise there has been a time change...

The heavily serious tone was more reminiscent of a funeral than a flight alteration. It suggested that I would be spending Christmas in an airport in Europe, having been deposited there after all transportation services had stopped running for the season. Since it was a flight booked with my airmiles, I doubt I could change the date easily. My festive turkey was looking likely to be a chocolate bar out of a vending machine. Assuming I had change.

The flight is now departing Delhi on 23DEC at 1350.

The original time of departure had been .... 1345. I looked at the arrival time in London. That hadn't even shifted by 5 minutes.

Sorry for any inconvenience caused.

Evidently they mean to my health from reading that email.

Pin cushion

Sep. 2nd, 2011 12:29 am
pergamond: ([Toy Story] Buzz // wibble)
After being randomly accosted in the streets of Sapporo by a man telling me to go to India, there was really nothing left to do but book my flight. Since I was circumnavigating the globe at the end of the year to go home for Christmas and then onto Canada before returning to Japan, I thought it would be practically rude not to stop off in Delhi.

In terms of flight paths, this actually makes no sense whatsoever but let's just pretend the Earth is flat and carry on with the story. Besides, the difference in cost was pretty small.

The only downside to this plan-of-awesomeness was that India is home to more exciting diseases that those found in your average Toronto suburb and requires an arm full of vaccinations. Canada deals with such things through specialised travel clinics where the only difficulty is finding one open during the summer since they tend to be populated by doctors who go to tropical parts for their vacation rather than Niagara Falls like everyone else.

"Which vaccinations have you had?" The nurse clicked through her computer system, bringing up the list of inoculations needed for India. The page seemed rather long.

"Erm."

The problem with moving around so much is that it's hard to keep a consistent record. I rattled off the few I remembered with their dates and the nurse ran a pen down the screen.

"How about tetanus?"

"Maybe 2007."

I'd found a slip of paper while sorting out my apartment before the movers came that suggested such an event. Since it came from the USA, it was naturally a bill. Oddly though, I had no memory of the proceeding at all.

"... maybe 1995."

That was the last one I was certain about. The nurse lifted an eyebrow and pulled out the appropriate medicine vile.

"How about hepatitis A, B, typhoid or polio?"

I shook my head and the viles stacked up. She swizzled me around on the chair so my right arm was facing her and loaded up three syringes.

"You don't have a problem with needles, right?"

My mind flashed back to my school days; to standing in the queue for my measles booster, becoming so completely scared that I refused it point blank and felt sick all day with guilt and the huge unused adrenaline rush. To anyone who knew me then.... I can hear your laughter.

"Nah, it's no problem."

I am all about denial. Besides, it was probably true; eight years ago I took a course of prozac for a boat of clinical depression. Not only did it have the desired affect of re-balancing all to where it should be but it removed my fear of needles. The only (non-medical, entirely guessed) explanation I have, is the antidepressant suppressed the overwhelming adrenaline rush, allowing me to stay in control. I still don't like injections but then, if I actively enjoyed being shot in the arm with a needle that would also be of slight mental concern.

We did the first two and then I asked for a break. The dual hepatitus A & B vaccine is double the size of a normal shot and makes your arm ache. It wasn't painful but you couldn't ignore it was happening either. The nurse plonked me on the floor for good measure.

"People are really heavy when they faint," she told me matter-of-factly.

Still, there was only typhoid left and it was the normal quantity. I started to sit up again.

"This one feels like you've been punched!"

... I lay back down.

"I always believe in honesty. Some people don't feel a thing but one of the other nurses here said it was like being kicked by a horse!"

So, for the record, this is a situation where I DO NOT BELIEVE IN HONESTY. I totally support telling me it'll be totally fine and I won't feel a thing and then adding in the correction after its done. I don't actually have a low tollerance to pain, but the prospect of pain? I don't do it well. My imagination is good and Dante's inferno becomes a scorching likelihood in less than a second per circle of Hell.

"You need a second shot for your hepatitis next week, so we could do it then," the nurse suggested kindly.

I considered it but the wisdom teeth were next week. There's only so much I felt I could sign my future self up for.

"It's fine," I muttered, sitting up and looking away.

The nurse administered the shot and I lay straight back down again.

It was totally fine and I didn't feel a thing.

The nurse waggled a finger at me. "Stay there. You're green."

There's no accounting for what you can do to yourself.
pergamond: ([Futurama] Bender // Applause)


Window shopping in Seoul was proving to be somewhat challenging since the shops didn't have windows. Well, strictly speaking they did; the mall consisted of the usual array of glass-fronted stores on multiple levels connected by a central escalator. The difference was that the shops seemed unable to be contained behind their façades. Like an outdoor market, rails of goods spilled onto the aisles making it impossible to tell where the actual front of the store began. It also bustled with people and it was past 10 pm.

When booking flights between Sapporo and Toronto, I discovered I would have to stop in Seoul for an eight hour layover. Feeling this was a stupidly annoying length of time to be stuck in an airport, I'd added an extra 24 hours to the stop and booked a couple of nights in a hotel. The plan was to see the entire South Korean capital in exactly a day and a half. Much more sensible.

I'd already fluffed part of my plan by falling asleep when I reached my hotel (it had an air-conditioner) so I emerged rather sheepishly in the evening to see if I could still get something to eat.

Since the hotel was in the Dongdaemun Market commercial district where the shops are open for 18 1/2 hours a day until 5 am, this turned out not to be a challenge.

Outside the mall, I browsed through the stalls of street venders trying to choose between meat skewers, sushi-like rolls or an orange pasta-looking dish. In the end I selected the possible-pasta, accepting a bowl of hot somethings with a cocktail stick to eat it with. The orange sauce turned out to be pretty spicy and the pasta consisted of a glutinous rice dumpling. I took a photo with my phone and posted it on facebook. This action had two results: the first was the discovery that the dish was called 'Ddukppoki' (떡볶이) and is apparently a very popular snack in Korea. The second was facebook asking me whether I had a Korean name that I'd like to add to my profile...

It was just dinner, I tell you! It didn't mean anything.

Prices in Seoul varied a great deal. My hotel was good value for its location, but not cheap at $100 a night. Food prices ranged a fair bit and transport was very cheap. It costs only $1 to ride the (extremely nice) subway and the shuttle bus from the airport to my hotel cost only $14 for roughly an 1.5 hour journey. Also, I did not invent the cheesy title to this post; every English language guide book I saw was entitled something similar. By contrast, the French version had the boring translation of "A guide book to Seoul". But, eh, they deserve it.

The following day I set out for some serious site-seeing. I started at the Gyeongbokgung Palace (top left photo); a royal palace that dates from the Joseon Dynasty in Korea. This period of Korean history lasted five centuries and ended --ultimately-- with the annexation of Korea by Japan at the start of the 1900s. This had the unfortunate consequence of most buildings being reconstructions of the original (although some are still quite old) which met their untiming decimation at the hands of Japanese forces. Each of the small information plaques beside the buildings states their use, their original date and the date they were destroyed by the Japanese.

... I was starting to see the historical problem between these two countries.

Traditionally, the Japanese and Koreans hate each other. Their history is bloody, destructive and recent, with the annexation of Korea only ending in World War II. The present conflict has a different feel to it than the one between the English and the French. Don't get me wrong, of course I can't stand the French! But that's because it's just such fun to beat them at football[*]. One of my Japanese friends (while somewhat inebriated) once told me; "Older people are very prejudice against Koreans. I don't feel that way and yet ... I understand why they do." Some wounds are still too raw to be confined to sporting events.

My guide books' pictures of Gyenogbokgong palace did not do it justice. They shows the outer wall; a military-looking affair at one end of a large concrete square. Behind this, however, the palace buildings extend back into large gardens around a central lake. There is not one huge building like the large houses and palaces in the UK but rather a multitude of smaller establishments designed for different purposes. Each of these was compact enough that you could see its extent by looking through the wide doors and windows. Despite their open frontage, the breeze passing through high-ceilinged rooms felt cool, smelling of wood and incense. If it hadn't been completely inappropriate, I would have jumped the rope barrier and laid out on the tatami mats; Seoul in July is not comfortable.

After the palace, I took a cable car ride up to the communication tower overlooking the city. It was slightly cooler here and there was a demonstration of ancient battle techniques which was pretty awesome. Many a straw dummy did not live to provide opposition for another day. I later walked back down to street-level where I saw a mother luring her small children up a steep set of stairs with a game of 'rock, scissor, paper'. The person who won each round was allowed to climb five steps. Cunning, very cunning.

Finally, I browsed in Namdaemun Market (right-hand photo); the largest traditional market in Korea. It was remarkably similar to the malls.

I left my hotel early Sunday morning to head out to the airport. The traffic in Seoul is notoriously bad but at 6:30 am it was still relatively quiet. The main people about were the street cleaners ... all of whom had "The Seoul of Asia" embroidered on his breast pocket. The old jokes are apparently the best ones.

--
[*] When, you know, England knew how to play
pergamond: ([Tamora Pierce] Circle // Tris)
Our plane touched down in Charlotte twenty minutes late. Fearing another missed connection, I sprinted across the airport and made it to my gate just as the last few passengers were boarding. Taking my seat, I waited .... and waited... and ...

"We apologise for the delay. We're standing by for passengers from a Rochester flight that was cancelled."

That made sense. Buffalo is about an hours drive from Rochester so while undoubtedly irritating, it provided an easy alternative for stranded travellers. After a few minutes, a small gaggle of vexed Rochester-bound people boarded. From their conversation, it appeared that the flight had been too under-subscribed to fly. Still, at only 60 minutes away, there were trains, buses ...

"This flight will now be making a stop in Rochester before Buffalo."

... and apparently planes. Since when did flights make local stops like a weekend NYC subway? There was so much fury at this that one passenger had to be calmed down by the pilot. A young man in front of me was especially put out since he would actually have preferred to go to Rochester, but his bags had been checked through to Buffalo and couldn't be retrieved.

During this furore there was more waiting while we took on the extra fuel needed to make our spontaneous touch down. We were assured that the time on the ground in Rochester would be no more than 30 minutes and our flight time to Buffalo would be a staggering 15 minutes. This just left one very obvious question:

WHY WOULD ANYONE DO THIS?

The total delay on the Buffalo flight was two hours. The driving time to Rochester would have been one hour and the fuel costs to bring a plane down and back up can't be low. Perhaps there was no way of getting a bus in Buffalo after midnight. Maybe all the car rental places were closed or only rented out two-seater sports cars. It could be that US Airways only ever thought about planes.

Or maybe the world has just gone completely mad.
pergamond: ([Futurama] Bender // Applause)
I dropped the rental car keys on the counter of the AVIS desk at Gainesville airport. "The gas tank is 3/4 full," I said. "But I'm on the state rate."

Since I no longer worked at the University of Florida, I shouldn't be using the special state rate for car rentals; a discount that gave you a preferable daily rate, removed the hefty excess charge for dropping the car at a different Florida location from where you collected it and gave you a reasonable price for fuel usage, making it less important to refill the tank. However, since I still knew the magic phone number and no one ever asked me directly whether I should be doing this, I remained numb on the subject.

The assistant behind the counter punched in the details of my rental agreement to his computer and handed me the bill. I had been charged $25 for a quarter of a tank of gas. In the UK, this might be quite reasonable, but the gas stations in town were displaying around $3.61 / gallon. I shot the man a peeved look.

"I'm on the state rate," I pointed out. "It's only a quarter of a tank of gas."

He looked at the bill and shrugged. "It's what the computer gave me."

I was reminded unavoidably of Carol from the TV show Little Britain who works as a bank clerk and has the catchphrase "computer says no" which she utters in deadpan tones in response to customers' ever more desperate pleas.

"That doesn't mean it's right." I tried to smile pleasantly.

My unhelpful friend shrugged again and tapped away at the keyboard. This did not look good. But then:

"I could just remove the cost of the fuel from your bill."

"..... Yes, I would find that acceptable."

Hard not to, really.
pergamond: ([Bleach] Rukia // fed up)
"The flight to Jacksonville has left."

Given the time, this wasn't a surprising statement but I had hoped that my connecting flight had also had been delayed due to the weather in Chicago. Quite how a storm in Illinois came to be my problem on a Buffalo to Florida flight is anyone's guess. However, it was apparently due to this that my first flight had been late departing, causing me to miss my connection at Washington Dulles. At 10 pm, I knew there wasn't going to be another flight that day and I trudged off resignedly in the direction of the United Airlines customer service counter. 

To be fair to them, United were making an attempt to sort everyone out. I had expected to be told that weather was considered 'an act of God' and I was responsible for my own arrangements until the next flight out of Dulles. Instead, I found out that I had been automatically rebooked on a flight the following morning and could have a complimentary a hotel room .... except there were no hotel rooms left.

Slightly strangely, the fact I qualified for a hotel voucher was due to not being a US resident. While I wasn't going to object, I couldn't see why my situation as a Canadian resident was worse than anyone else who had flown in from Buffalo. They couldn't exactly nip home for the night either. Perhaps it was due to a believe that nowhere outside the US had exciting buildings such as hotels so foreigners would be flummoxed. Or maybe it was merely that Americans should be responsible for their own weather system.

Either way, Canadian, American or British, there was no room at the inn so it was rather academic. They did provide everyone in the queue with a $15 meal voucher. The person next to me in the line looked at this coupon before asking;

"Where is the nearest restaurant?"

"Behind you," he was told. "But it's closed."

I was preparing myself for an uncomfortable, hungry night in the airport lounge when a woman in front of me asked about taxi vouchers to take us into Washington DC. Dulles airport is about 30 miles outside the city, so a cab ride wouldn't be an incidental expense, coming to around $60 each way. Her idea was there might be hotels there with free rooms. My idea was that there was a friend there with a free couch. Surprisingly, United bought into this idea. Possibly the line of irate passengers was becoming annoying and sending them to get lost in the city sounded like a great plan.

It's perhaps not conventional to visit someone between 12 and 5 in the morning, but my friend took it well. I rolled into his apartment in the middle of the night and was out before the dawn to catch an early morning flight. Really, when you look at it, these were highly questionable actions. I blame United and that's all I have to say on the matter.

It's now 7:30 am and I'm waiting at the gate. Sadly, I'm now going to miss a friend's thesis defence which is this morning but I'll be there by the time everyone's moved onto the party. And really, I'm far more in it for the after party than the astrophysics in any case.

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