This visit, my first to Japan, was booked to coincide with the Japanese Grand Prix, a circuit I had always wished to visit. Of course, that was not the main reason for going: there were many actually and it was a trip which I went on full of expectation.
The start, though, was anything but great. On the day before my departure, I was savaged by a dog in the local field on my early walk and, although my tetanus is always up-to-date, I thought it best to visit the surgery and was prescribed antibiotics as a precautionary measure.
The day of departure was little better either. I had chosen to fly from Birmingham and, although it is not the most straight forward of journeys from Swindon, it went well and I was pleased that I decided against arriving earlier in a usually futile attempt to secure a front row seat. I arrived around two-and-a-half hours before to be greeted by news of a delay. It turned out to be four hours and, frankly, was a disaster.
What it meant was that I missed the onward flight to Osaka despite allowing almost three hours for the transfer. I must say that Emirates were extremely good in their handling of this situation: a food voucher was given and accommodation ( with all meals and internet included) in the Copthorne Airport Hotel in Dubai found as I would have the next day there instead of Osaka.
The six-hour wait in Birmingham Airport actually went a little more quickly than a restless person like me usually finds. Despite being too late to save being charged for my planned first night in Japan, I contacted the hotel by email to explain that I could not take up the reservation. Very kindly, the Kishiwada City Princess close to Kansai Airport wrote back quickly and waived the charges which was much appreciated. I also found out train times to go directly to Kyoto the day later from Kansai.
When we did move, almost four hours late, the flight was fine. I had been given a bulkhead seat and enjoyed watching Where Eagles Dare which I thoroughly appreciated seeing on the excellent Emirates ICE service. Arrival into Dubai was at 3:30 a.m. and being first out from the Economy section possibly worked against me as I was given differing information on where to collect the hotel voucher - at that stage I did not know where I would be staying - and found myself in a little bit of a pickle.
It was, of course, fine and the hotel bus had all the stranded Birmingham passengers quickly into the hotel and into our very comfortable rooms. I managed some sleep before an excellent breakfast. I mentioned earlier that wi-fi was included but this is unusual as it is made available free of charge only to stranded guests. At approximately £15 for six hours usage, this further gesture was equally appreciated.
I wondered if it might have been possible to have met my friend in Dubai but, given the late notice, I wasn't surprised and completely understood that she was tied up that day. In the event, I went to the Creek and took a water taxi, abra, across the water and had a pleasant walk around what is for me one of my favourite areas of Dubai. (I had actually taken the metro to Creek only to find that my interpretation of the area I expected to find differed vastly to the Emirati one!)
The Copthorne's evening buffet was excellent but any further, later attempt at sleep was scuppered by my confusion over my onward seat number. A somewhat sullen girl on the Connections Desk earlier in the morning had given me my boarding pass and hotel voucher but it had taken time. She hadn't, though, told me that she had very kindly booked me an emergency exit seat and this understated gesture made me later view her far differently as such seats are like gold dust and, at 6'5, a nine-hour flight is made much easier. When told this by the Copthorne's Emirates Desk, I insisted on badgering the staff to confirm that it really was true and, as such, missed out on sleep. Mea culpa…
Off at 1 a.m., everything went smoothly and the seat was the emergency exit so I had a very comfortable flight. I'm not sure that it was the lack of sleep or another funny five minutes on my part but the menu suggested that dinner was being served first and breakfast later. Given that we left at 3:30 a.m. and arrived into Kansai Airport at 5:30 p.m., I did struggle to understand that but, anyway, my pre-dinner G & T had to be taken at 4:30 a.m…
I was relieved that the flight left early and, although it was one of the bumpiest I have been on, it still reached Kansai Airport slightly earlier which I appreciated. New countries do not bother me but evening arrivals can do and, with a possible two-hour onward journey to Kyoto, I felt happier knowing that I would just arrive before the hotel's check-in closed for the evening.
Immigration went well and it was good to see my passport given the necessary Temporary Visitor stamp which is so necessary for the Japan Rail Pass. As it happened, I would not be starting my usage of it until the following day so had to buy a ticket from Kansai to Kyoto which was novel. I declined to buy a cheaper ticket with a change in Osaka in favour of a direct and quicker Limited Express train directly to Kyoto. The ticket had to be purchased from a ticket machine but, with help from station staff, I was on my way quickly and with much help from many people including a group of ladies. As I had expected, my first impressions of Japan were most favourable.
In Kyoto just after 8 p.m., I exchanged my rail pass voucher for the real ticket and booked seat reservations (included for holders of the pass) as far as possible for Suzuka. The fabled rains had by now arrived and I was pleased to quickly find a free taxi and be taken to the Toyoko Inn Gojo-Omiya. The room was, shall we say, cosy but everything was nice about it. I was grateful later when I found out that one staff member had said she would stay until midnight to check me in after my somewhat frantic message from Dubai to the hotel as I was aware that a further flight delay would have caused a great headache.
A Japanese breakfast of rice cakes, soya beans and other accompaniments with tea or coffee was included. The confirmation suggested that it was on a first-come, first-served basis and, if you arrived late and there was nothing left, then tough. The hotel was busy but never once did anything run out so, again, it might just have been my interpretation. The greater problem for me was facing a mouth-watering sausage whilst confronted with chopsticks. I realised that I was facing everyone else but quickly dithered over my breakfast when I saw a local also with a sausage on his dish. I waited, eyeing him up to see how he coped with it and missed the great moment: I was mortified to see that the wretched sausage had vanished. It didn't thereafter take me long to pick up the art of spearing.
With now just one full day to see what I could of Kyoto, I started early and in heavy rain. I was pleased to have packed my wet weather garments and they came in very handy. I bought a day pass on the buses which turned out excellently. In essence, each single fare costs 230 Yen ( approximately £1.50p) and the day pass is 500Yen. I must have used it seven times that day so it was a worthwhile investment.
I went to the Kinkaku-ji Temple with its Golden Pavilion. This stunning building overlooking a lake and gardens is one of Kyoto's many famous sites and its entrance fee of just 400 Yen made it a complete bargain. Indeed, many of the entrance fees are modest in comparison to other countries. There are, though, a lot of souvenir shops whose prices suggested that I should look for good luck in other shops, let's say...
On the way back, the bus stopped near the Higashi Honganji Temple close to the bus station. Before I continue, I should add that walking distances are given on signposts and one sign suggested a 27-minute walk to the Railway Station. Now, I didn't test this assertion (despite priding myself that my long legs will shave a good amount of time from these figures) but I am one who turns the light off at night at 11:11 p.m. and usually rises at 7:08 a.m. but nonetheless I did chuckle at some of the times given and wondered on whom they are based.
These temples, which also have a view towards the more modern Kyoto Tower, were equally impressive and no entrance fee was charged. Photography was prohibited inside and shoes had to be taken inside in provided plastic bags.
After a quick return to the hotel, I headed off to the famous area of Gion. Yes, okay, I am probably not alone in knowing that this is the area of the Geisha and, although I went more in hope of seeing one, I wasn't surprised that I failed. The geisha appear to have an unfair and incorrect reputation but, from what I have read, a dining experience with geisha costs more than the amount I took with me for the whole holiday. Despite the bus being held up in heavy traffic, I did arrive at the time when sightings are possible but, to be honest, I might not have been in the right area.
What I did see, though, was a wonderful array of beautifully-dressed ladies all presumably going for their evening's entertainment. Their outfits were stunning and Gion was certainly an impressive and busy area.
I ate in Kyoto Station in one of the top-floor Ramen restaurants. This is quite an interesting area which I had read about and sought out at lunchtime. One floor is filled with small restaurants where tables are small and meals have to be bought by voucher outside before entering. A young waitress had encouraged me to eat in her restaurant and shown me how it worked so I returned and coped reasonably well. Fear not, the machine comes in English too and, although I felt better for a helping hand, the pork dish with noodles which I had was vast and the rice which I had additionally ordered, was largely superfluous. The beer wasn't and the whole meal cost just under £10.
One thing I immediately noticed was the reply I received from just about all Japanese staff to whether they spoke English. Their faces tended to screw up slightly and the thumb and forefinger were placed together before a somewhat pained response of "little" was given. Without exception, all were very much better than that and communication wasn't that difficult. One person on the station broke this general rule by saying Hi to me. It was only later that I realised that he might have been saying Hai which means yes...
Anyway, I had interesting company with a chap who spoke no English so we didn't get very far but smiled and bowed to each other. His meal and beer were larger than mine but, due to my deficiencies with the chopsticks, I hadn't got very far by the time he left.
The Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka was not the main reason for going, merely the date so that I could go to this, one of Formula 1's most celebrated circuits. Quite often, rain results in some spectacular races and World Champions have been occasionally crowned after this race. Sadly, the 2017 Grand Prix turned out to be a disappointment for me after Sebastian Vettel's car hit trouble on the first lap leaving little excitement for the championship battle between him and Lewis Hamilton.
Another oddity was that much of the half section of the track which I walked round had barriers put up which stopped most people from having a better view, it seemed. Okay, in front of these barriers were designated areas for photographers but it was a little disappointing. Being 6'5, I could quite comfortably look over and have an excellent view but I wasn't surprised when I was very politely moved along.
The undoubted highlight of the day was my first journey on the famed Shinkansen or Bullet Train. Travelling from Kyoto, there was one change in Nagoya and it was this first journey which took place on the Shinkansen. With my very reasonably-priced Japan Rail Pass and, having made seat reservations, where available, for the day's travel, it was noticeable how all staff allocated window seats which was much appreciated.
I had arrived at Kyoto Station in adequate time and had thoroughly enjoyed watching the many categories of Shinkansen arrive on their special platforms. I have to say that my first experience of watching the Shinkansen arrive and leave left a great impression on me. Needless to say, travelling by Shinkansen was a further experience and I would travel on seven during my week's holiday. Kyoto to Nagoya took just over half-an-hour but was as memorable a train journey as I have made. The speed at which the train left and travelled at has to be seen to be believed.
The onward and naturally busier train to Suzukasakittoino was by another form of Japanese Train, a Limited Express. These are usually the next quickest type available but can make a few en route stops. They are efficient and comfortable but are not as memorable as the Shinkansen. As part of the Nagoya to Suzukasakittoino track is not owned by Japan Railways, a fee of around £4 each way had to be paid on arrival and departure at Suzukasakittoino. Considering the hordes of fans attending the race, the organisation at the small station was quite impressive.
Dubai Creek with recognisable buildings in the background

The Golden Pavilion at Kinkaku-ji Temple, Kyoto

Higashi Honganji Temple, Kyoto

A Ramen restaurant in Kyoto Station

A Shinkansen arrives into Kyoto Station

Plenty of room within a Shinkansen standard carriage

One of the standard carriages on a Shinkansen

Early action from the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka

A Haas close to the iconic Ferris Wheel at Suzuka

Matsumoto Castle by day

Matsumoto Castle by night


Kamikochi in the Japanese Alps


Awanoyu Onsen in Shirahone Onsen

Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo

Shinjuku, Tokyo

Eel and, to me, the odd way of serving Sake

My pod in the Rex Inn, Kawasaki (before the luggage went in)

A row of pods in the Rex Inn, Kawasaki

The following day, I moved on to Matsumoto, which is the gateway to the Japanese Alps. When I found out before leaving for Japan how much there was to do there, I had changed from going to Kanazawa to Matsumoto instead and it turned out to be a good idea. I took the same Shinkansen to Nagoya before a Limited Express to Matsumoto which enjoyed very pleasant scenery en route.
I had booked into the Super Hotel Matsumoto Ekimae which is close to the station. I was too early to check in so left my luggage which was helpful but the greater problem was that my battery charger had failed me and sightseeing before being able to enter my room would not be the same if I could not take photos. The lady at Reception, without my asking, quickly provided some batteries for which I was most grateful.
Matsumoto is quite a modern-looking place. Lots of people give freebies outside the station: I was offered a Japanese newspaper which I had to reluctantly turn down for obvious reasons but I did accept a protective mask! Who knows? It may one day come in useful. People also parade about the same area with microphones and boom around the block whatever they are telling others. It was almost like a Speaker's Corner and could be quite eerie in the evening. A slight case of a Big Brother bearing down on one. I should stress, though, that I never once felt threatened but found these disembodied voices strange.
All hotels in which I stayed featured predominantly fairly small but comfortable rooms. I was pleased to have a double-bed in all hotels but the baths were, well, a struggle to get into. Usually deep but narrow, they weren't made for tall people like me, let's say. The toilets had some paraphernalia on the side which I wasn't ever going to try to remotely cope with and the end result was that I usually set off the flush before I had even sat down... The bathrooms could best be described as cosy.
Matsumoto is most famous for its impressive castle, a National Treasure as it is described on signs. This wooden, almost pagoda-style edifice is the main attraction of Matsumoto and I did manage to visit the following day just before it closed for the day. For sure, the six floors are narrow and care needs to be taken going up and down the stairs but there are some lovely views of the nearby mountains from the top floor. It is a popular area and, with good weather, was most impressive.
Eating in Japan was interesting too. It may have been me but there was so much choice - too much - that I could often not decide upon where to go. Before I went, I was unaware of how big the dishes might be and how many I might need. In most cases, I did well but on a couple of occasions, I came out wondering if a little bit more might have been preferable. In others, I came away in awe of the size. Looking at the price didn't always necessarily give an idea of the meal's size. Anyway, in Matsumoto I visited a British pub twice and ate well and, on the night they were closed, I took to a Japanese restaurant in the station and had an exciting time as no-one spoke English. I took a guess with their pork stir fry and ended up with noodles, rice, soup and the pork and it was delicious. My dictionary told me how to let the staff know that I had enjoyed the meal and how to ask for the bill. Not only was it understood but all concerned had a good laugh at my token Japanese.
I found the Japanese lovely people as I had expected to. They were everything which I hope to find in others: warm, polite, appreciative and helpful. The bowing is mentioned a lot but, whilst I saw a good deal of it, it was not quite as prevalent or overbearing as I had perhaps expected. I found myself participating in it also but probably not with quite the confidence of the locals. I was once alarmed after joining a for once short queue at Matsumoto Station to walk out after much bowing between the staff member and me only to find that the queue had trebled in size and wondered if I had been responsible...
The most extraordinary example of bowing I saw was on the Shinkansen by ticket inspectors. It seemed that the inspector would walk out of the carriage with head lowered and return and, after much bowing, announce that tickets would be checked.
I found Japanese drivers excellent also. They indicate too. One didn't, though, want to miss the green man above zebra crossings as the wait was, for a restless soul like me, draining. Again, most people obediently waited for the little green man to appear however little traffic might have been about.
The Japan Rail Pass is not available on the private railways around Matsumoto which takes plenty of people into the Japanese Alps. A two-day pass is available for 6000 Yen (approximately £42) and is much better value than buying the two main trips separately. It also offers discounts in and around Matsumoto.
On the first day, I went from Matsumoto Station to the delightful and tongue-twistingly-named Shin-Shimashima, a half-hour trip by local train with en route stops aplenty. Buses then ferry tourists, both international and Japanese, to the hiking area of Kamikochi an hour's ride from Shin-Shimashima. I had reckoned that this area looked spectacular from brochures but it was even better on arrival. Not since I visited Srinagar in Kashmir almost thirty years ago have I been so impressed and taken by a place. Were Japan not so far, I would very much consider a week's walk in Kamikochi.
I enjoyed a gentle walk of around 7 kms around the area. My stomach had been playing up that morning but the walk soon dispelled any lingering pain. Many Japanese people took this walk and I must have exchanged around one hundred and fifty konnichiwas (hellos) and a few bows. It was completely idyllic. Seeing the vast number of people in the area, I wondered how the buses, however regular, would cope and so I returned in good time. Just as well because reservations are required and I was pleased to obtain one from the ticket office for the bus on which I intended to travel.
I was up earlier the next morning to travel to Shirahone Onsen because buses from Shin-Shimashima are irregular at best. I could see why as I was the only one who left the bus at Shirahone and the only one on the return bus much later in the afternoon. It meant a long stay at one of Japan's most famous hot springs, Awanoyu.
Onsen are plentiful in Japan and this experience was fun. It took me a while to get myself sorted out. If anything bothered me, it was the washing before entering the hot springs. I was quite relieved to find stools on which to sit and wash, though. It is considered a sin and considerable faux pas to walk into the hot spring bearing soap so the washing and drying beforehand had to be considerable. Rather than take on the communal and main onsen first, I tried out one of the two in the male changing room and hoped that the communal bath would not be as hot. Mercifully, it wasn't. The view from the main bath was remarkable: outside, one looked up at the trees with an array of different colours and, with the most perfect weather, it was beautiful. My fingers soon wrinkled but noticing that others stayed in for an hour or more, I did the same. Being the only tourist there was not remotely a problem and indeed all that was said was the occasional konnichiwa.
I moved on the following day to Tokyo. The Japan Rail Pass was a real boon here because, having enjoyed the shorter Shinkansen journeys, I could choose whichever train I pleased and found a longer trip on the Shinkansen Kagayaki peculiar to the Kanazawa line and a more recent addition to the bullet train services. It meant a fifty-minute wait in Nagano but was made all the more worthwhile for the eighty-minute journey to one of Tokyo's larger stations, Ueno.
From Ueno, it was one stop to Uguisudani where I put up in the Hotel Cerezo. This place was most convenient being just a four or five minute walk from Uguisudani and again it was comfortable. Again, the bath was a struggle...
Having so little time in Tokyo, I quickly left to see what I could in one afternoon. It promised to be an even shorter afternoon by the time I had struggled to buy a metro pass and then been turned away from one line as it did not qualify for the pass. Never mind, it did take me to the impressive Senso-ji Temple with its wonderful pagoda and temple.
A very crowded but exciting area, lots of ladies were again beautifully attired and were the subject of quite a few photos. A whole row of shops sold any number of items and I was much taken by the area.The Tokyo Skytree skyscraper is also close by.
I also visited Shinjuku which I believe is the world's busiest railway station. Odd to relate, I actually found it less forbidding than I expected. Less oddly, I still got lost. It was actually Kawasaki Station the following day where I felt at my wit's end but Shinjuku was an interesting experience as was a walk around the built-up area outside the station.
I ate that evening in Ueno. In an area of restaurants, I chose one place and returned later but suspected that I should have been in the one adjoining (which may actually have closed at the time of my return). I admit that I had found eating a little precarious and confusing and I found myself at odds with the Japanese menu and trying to decipher the photographs of what I might expect. When an English menu was volunteered, I found myself, for possibly the first time ever, walking out: the food I would have chosen had to be cooked on a grill on the table and I couldn't face potentially looking a fool. ( It reminded me of a time in Switzerland when I had been asked if I understood what to do with a meat fondue, said yes and ate the meat raw... A reminder of a Fawlty Towers episode when Basil asks a sick guest whether she would like the meal cooked: "it will be even nicer"...)
I eventually found another place where the meal had to be ordered by a computer on the wall. Could I find the fish? The waitress had to be called and went for the heading "eel" and, lo and behold, there it was. I have to admit that I wasn't expecting flaming eel but, hey ho, it was very nice. I had my one and only glass of the local drink, Sake, and wasn't surprised that I enjoyed it. It was extraordinary, though: having ordered what looked like a medium-sized bottle, a small glass was brought, placed in a type of open box and the waitress filled up not only the glass but also the box giving three small glasses. It was one of the rare drinks which almost went very slightly to my head.
My last day, Friday 13th, was a busy day. The last event on my list was to see Mount Fuji but here my luck ran out. I went by three Shinkansen from Tokyo Station - in rush hour, initially by metro with a vast suitcase: nothing was said but I doubt that I was flavour of the morning - to Shin-Fuji Station but sadly Japan's most famous mountain was under cloud. A shame but I had at least tried.
I went for an hour's dip in the very warm waters of Hakone's Kappa Tengoku ryokan. This is a hot springs area and, as the Kappa Tengoku is the closest to Yumoto Station, I was pleased to visit there especially as it was raining quite heavily. It was another pleasant experience made more comical by my having written down some Japanese to recite to the owner and then finding that I was so out of breath by the time I had lugged my suitcase up the steep steps that she could not understand me.
No trip would have been complete without a stay in a capsule hotel and I had booked into the Rex Inn in Kawasaki as this was close to Haneda Airport from where I would fly at midnight. It was a shame that I had followed my map, found the right area for the Rex Inn but sadly walked straight past it and turned up half-an-hour later somewhat wet. It isn't the first time and won't be the last either.
It was thoroughly exciting. My suitcase was too big for the locker so had to come into the pod with me. There is actually ample room but, as I do have a tendency to be at times a little cumbersome when I move about, I did keep crashing against the walls and it was just as well that there was only, at that stage, one other person in another pod. There are washing facilities and it was quite comfortable. My pod was the top one: the lower one might have been better for me (and others in the "dormitory" area) but, even though I only spent four hours there, it was a novel time which I shall always remember.
The vast array of restaurants in the area had left me flummoxed again and I had returned to the Rex Inn a trifle frustrated and indeed wet. It made better sense to change and check out and try again at the vast Kawasaki Station but it was far from easy. There were two vast areas of restaurants only: maybe I was just being difficult but, wanting a beer and a light snack as I would be fed later on the plane, wasn't quite as straightforward. I did, more out of desperation, find somewhere which actually fitted the bill and had an amusing "conversation" with a chap in which there was again no common language so there was much waving of arms instead. It set me on my way ideally for the long trip home via Dubai.
I was grateful to Emirates staff at both Haneda and Dubai for giving me a legroom seat which made a vast difference. It took eleven hours to Dubai and a further seven to Heathrow and, having room to move about made this long journey far easier. This time there was no delay and everything went smoothly.
Japan had been a revelation and one of the most fascinating holidays on which I have been. The people had been lovely and I had seen and done just about everything which I had set out to do and it had been literally a thrill a minute and a lot of fun.