Category Archives: travel

An Expected Journey

So, last week Cadsy, Sam and I went off to LA for the TORn Hobbit Oscar Party. It might seem a little bonkers to fly out on Thursday and back on Monday, but we attended the Two Towers and Return of the King parties, as well as the UK premiere of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, so we thought we’d head over.

We landed in LA early Thursday evening local time (early morning UK time) and after a winding journey to the hotel had a quick meal and then bed.

I got up early and did a quick session in the hotel gym on Friday morning then we headed downtown to the FIDM costume exhibit. Ah, the luxury of sitting outside in short sleeves after the wintry weather we’d been experiencing in the UK. After an hour or so there we headed over to the Farmer’s Market and the Grove, breaking up the shopping with a meal at the Cheesecake Factory (yes we had cheesecake). We also headed over to the Beverly Center to stop by Bath and Bodyworks, though they had discontinued the fragrance I wanted and were only selling it online (boo), then back to the hotel to drop off out purchases and head out to the California Pizza Kitchen (where I was the only one who ordered pizza).

Saturday and it was up early and another gym session before heading out to Warner Brothers for the VIP studio tour. Unlike on Friday when we had got around perfectly well (if a little slowly) using public transport, now we were are the mercy of cabs. I have a prius, I know how they work, so I can confidently say that the way the prius cabs were driven that they weren’t saving any fuel or emissions and I now know why there are so many body repair shops in LA (also not a single cab driver knew where anything was, we had to give them the whole address). We survived the cab trip and made it to the studios with enough time to have a leisurely stroll around the store before our tour guide Jeremy arrived. We’ve all done the tour before, but it’s been a few years so it was good to catch up on what’s been filmed and where. The Big Bang Theory stage was closed to visitors but we did get to see a lot of external Suburgatory sets, the Central Perk interior set and Conan O’Brien’s chat show set along with some cars, some costumes, props and so on, with a LOT of detail from Jeremy. After some shopping (I got a Big Bang Theory hoodie – so soft, and an Ellen t-shirt – I liked the sentiment) it was another cab down to the Egyptian theater (no, the cab driver didn’t know where that was either) to queue for an hour and a half for a free talk by the Production Design Oscar nominees. It was a good talk, but there were 5 nominees who each talked about their film for around 20 minutes with an extra 20 minutes of Q&A at the end, so by the time we got out it was almost 18:00 and we hadn’t had any lunch, so it was back to CPK for a quick bite as we were off out in the evening. The others had a quick nap when we got back to the hotel after dinner, but I got up to date with the internet and watched a couple of videos before we had to get ready and head out again. This time it was to Hotel Cafe for a gig by Beecake. Once again the cab driver had to have the full address, and seemed reluctant to let us out when we got there (there were signs in the windows advising that working girls would be moved on), but the entrance to the venue was down an alleyway and round the back by a parking garage. We got in nice and early and had a drink in the bar area while the previous act finished their set, so it was gone 23:00 by the time we got into the main area and probably nearer midnight when Beecake finally came on. I had done my research and bought their two albums in advance (though copies were also on sale in the foyer as well as t-shirts – they make you sexy apparently), but it seemed like I was in the minority in knowing the words to the songs. Everyone seemed to enjoy it though (the crowd was very female heavy, unsurprising given the lead singer being Billy Boyd), and it was a good gig. I enjoyed it immensely, even more so since I had decided to take comfort over style in the footwear department and was standing. I also managed to sneak my bag and coat onto the back of the person in front of me’s chair, leaving my hands free for leg tapping, clapping and whistling. We managed to snag a cab pretty much as soon as we got back outside and were in bed by 02:00.

A lazier day on Sunday. We got up late and had a leisurely breakfast before heading out to the hotel’s pool to catch some rays, have a swim and a lounge in the jacuzzi. I took the opportunity beforehand to try and find some sleeping pills that might knock me out on the plane on the journey back and managed to not only snag some max strength diphenhydramine but some Opi nail varnish too (at a dollar value that is less than the sterling value I’d have to pay in the UK for it). A couple of hours spent lolling about and painting our nails (note, don’t leave your topcoat in the sun, it goes gloopy and then you end up with bubbles), then we nipped over to Starbucks for some lunch before getting ready for The One Expected Party. We weren’t in any rush, the party didn’t open its doors until 15:00 and the Oscars didn’t start until 17:30, so with the venue in sight of our hotel room we meandered along at 16:00. This meant we arrived in plenty of time to get out photos taken and grab some afternoon tea before staking out good seats in the main hall for the ceremony. I enjoyed the ceremony, even if it was a bit long and even if it meant dinner had run out by the time it finished. We didn’t win any of the three awards we were nominated for, but it was like that for the first LoTR films and there was heavy competition in the categories this time. After the ceremony the dance floor was cleared (and we were ejected from our prime seats for press who never appeared) for sets by Emerald Rose, Charlie Ross doing the first third of his amazing One Man Lord of the Rings and Dorian Mirth. Oscar nominees popped in and there was a guy doing the lyrics of rap songs in a Gandalf voice. The main event for us was the Beecake set. Sam and I got out of our seats and joined the small crush by the stage. This was a longer set than at Hotel Cafe and featured a beatboxer (who was awesome) and a couple of covers with Dom Monaghan singing (when he could remember the words). Alas at 01:00 the venue enforced their curfew and we had to collect our Goody Baggins and make a final assault on the stairs (my dress was not stair-friendly, the 4 inch heels were fine) and back to the hotel. I took no photos (much more fun to enjoy the experience than live it through a lens).

Monday and another breakfast, then the attempt to cram all of the stuff we’d brought and bought back into the suitcases. A lot of the goody baggins contents were jettisoned (there’s no way a full size poster was making it back safely) and somehow they were all zipped up and under the weight limit (though in my case only by 1kg). Another terrifying drive back to the airport, this time by an incredibly torturous route and with such terrible stop-start driving that we arrived suffering from motion sickness. It took over an hour to get through security, so we weren’t waiting at the gate for too long before our flight back home. The sleeping pills didn’t knock me out but they did allow me to doze fairly deeply and I was able to drive back home (via Cadsy’s) without incident. The cat clearly didn’t like the fact that I’d been away and allowed strangers to visit her as she mauled me for only the second time ever, but a nice hot bath helped with that, and it wasn’t long before I was unpacked and had my washing done and hung up, as if it had never happened.

Good times, when’s the next Beecake gig. Photos here:


I have just (within the last 24 hours) returned from 8 days spent in Japan. I didn’t blog when I was out there (preferring to sleep in my downtime), so here is a short(ish) summary.

Day 1

An early start with about 4 hours sleep before the taxi picked us up to take us to Bristol airport. Checked in nice and early (though a new computer system was being used, which may explain later events) and pottered through security without any major hassle. The flight was delayed a little (maybe 20 minutes) but we arrived in Amsterdam with plenty of time to chill before the big flight to Osaka. We were to be joined by two Dutch kendama players but as boarding approached they were nowhere to be seen. Texts were sent but we had to get on the plane. After we’d taken our seats they did arrive: they had flown from Dusseldorf and been delayed, then went for smoke, not realising that international flights close their gates sooner than those within the EU. The flight was 11 hours. I watched The Hunger Games, didn’t sleep, but did eat all food made available to me.

We finally arrived in bright and sunny Osaka at 08:50 local time (0:50 UK time) and saw a note to contact KLM asap. Our luggage wasn’t loaded on the plane but had been left in Amsterdam. It would have to come across on the same flight the following day and be sent to where we were staying. The only problem was that we didn’t know where that was as we were being picked up by “someone” and they were on the other side of security. We filled in some forms, got through security to find, no-one. After a bit of hunting around we finally found our host, Yano-san, at the other international arrivals gate, got the address for our bags and headed off.

We were first taken to see Osaka castle and the park it sits in, with the girlfriend of one of Yano-san’s sons translating (along with his son). This was our first experience of the sapping heat and humidity of Japan in July, and it was a cloudy day, but we were grateful to head to a shopping centre for lunch before going over to Yano-san’s house for some pre-dinner kendama playing (watching and reading for me). Dinner was held at a local Indian restaurant and we’d been awake for 36 hours before we finally crashed out on futons.

Day 2

We headed over to the local elementary school early in the morning and two sessions were run for the younger kids with demonstrations, teaching, and games. The kids were all very well behaved, but also very vocal when called upon to be. Afterwards we headed to the home of our Dutch friends’ hosts fo lunch, and the again to a large Temple complex (and my first squat toilet). After a quick climb up the tower (it was approaching closing time) it was off again to a local community-type learning centre for some kendama practice and to meet some local players from Osaka as well as some of the players that went to the European Kendama Open in Munich in 2011. We returned to Yano-san’s to find that our suitcases had finally been delivered (woo!).

Day 3

Another early start and off to the learning centre again to meet more players, including the Canadians (Colin, the American, had missed his flight and wouldn’t arrive until later in the evening). A couple of trial competitions were set up to give the foreigners a chance to get used to the format of a kendama competition in Japan (something none of them had experienced before). I took the opportunity to take a walk through the local streets, getting a little bit lost, a little bit burned and blistered, but also seeing cats and dogs in the pet section of a hardware store and getting some aloe vera gel to treat my mosquito bites (my repellant was in my suitcase so I was undefended on the first night). I got back just in time for the auction of some rare kendamas before we moved over to the venue for the competition to help set up the stage.

Once the stage was set up (I got some very strange looks for helping to carry the wood from the van, maybe it was the bunnies on the dress I was wearing), the foreigners were given the opportunity to try and achieve the moshikame numbers they needed for their various dan grading exams. Colin managed over 500 within the allotted time, and Void and Nick both managed 1,000 which meant they would never have to do moshikame for a grading again (1,000 being the maximum required).

We all went off for a sit down, multiple course, dinner with much toasting, photos, and attempts to converse using translation apps, sign language, and hastily hand-drawn maps.

Day 4

Competition day. Up early to head to Kids Plaza in Osaka, for the 2012 World Kendama Championships. The festivities kicked off with a couple of young street dance crews before all of the competitors for the main event took to the stage for photos. The draw was made and the first three rounds of competition flew by, with two pairs competing head-to-head (first to 2 points) at a time. Tricks were selected randomly by players picking a card and the higher rated players (by dan grading) having to do the harder of the two tricks on that card. There was a maximum of three attempts per trick (but it was sudden death) and if after 4 cards had been drawn there was no outright winner, it went to a speed trick challenge. Unfortunately none of our group made it beyond the third round, but everyone put up a good fight.

I took a break at this stage to have a look at a local shopping street that is over a mile long, whilst the juniors competitions took place and the foreign players took the opportunity to take dan gradings (with mixed results, but the majority being pleased with their performances).

I returned in time for demonstrations, a juggler, and the finals (quarters, semis and final). It was all surprisingly entertaining for a non-player such as myself and after the prizes were awarded, more photos taken, and the stage was dismantled it was off for another group meal with lots of gifts being presented and trades being made.

Day 5

Basti, a German kendama player who currently works in Tokyo, stayed at Yano-san’s after the competition and he accompanied us to Tokyo via Kyoto (acting as tour guide). It was very helpful to have a Japanese speaker assist with exchanging our exchange orders for Japan Rail passes (offering unlimited travel on JR trains for 7 days) and getting us onto a bus up to the hills. The day was a public holiday (Marine Day) so Kyoto was busy, but he had chosen temples not involved in the day’s celebrations, so they were wonderfully quiet and crowd-free. The first temple had an impressive gate to stop the demons coming in and a waterfall under which we all got a thorough drenching (along with meeting a member of the triumphant US Ultimate Frisbee team). After lunch in a local cafe we wandered around another temple until closing time (monks seem to have pretty good hours). Then it was back to Kyoto centre and onto a bullet train to Tokyo where we were to spend the night at Basti’s.

Day 6

We headed to the hotel early as they would accept our bags whilst we hit Tokyo and managed to actually check in early (without getting the key), which was a relief as we were to meet up for dinner later and weren’t sure how long our sightseeing would take.

We headed first for Ueno park where there were a number of shrines, a lake (which we didn’t spot at first because it was full of waterlillies), and a fountain which wasn’t on originally but fired itself up as we were leaving. Then we hit Ameyoko arcade before heading over to Asakusa for more temple goodness and views of the new Skytree. This was the most touristy place we’d visited so far, with a line of shops catering to the visitors. It was a short stay, then back to the hotel for a shower via Akihabara (also known as Electric Town).

Dinner was proper Japanese sit down style (on a raised platform) with two local kendama players who had been at the EKO the previous year. Rare kendamas were brought along to be viewed and Void had another go at the speed trick for his next dan grading (but in poor light). We had our earliest night of the trip, getting to bed about 23:30.

Day 7

A lazy start with an all-you-can eat breakfast before heading to the HQ for the Japan Kendama Association to view their collection of old and unusual kendamas (and another failed speed trick attempt, though the practice run was a valid time). Then a quick trip around Harajuku (where we were photographed for a magazine with a board saying what we business we would start if we had sufficient money), and a fruitless attempt to find the famous crosswalk in Shibuya before getting back on the bullet train to Osaka.

Back in Osaka we had a final meal with our host family before being taken out to shop for souvenirs, then on to a cocktail bar for a flair show (which was awesome), finally returning to pack a number of additional kendamas into our bulging cases.

Day 8

After less than 4 hours’ sleep we were up again to travel back to Kansai International Airport where Void managed to get his speed trick in the required time (under a minute) before we finally said goodbye to our host family. The flight back was less busy than the one out, allowing us to spread out a bit more, but still didn’t get any sleep (even watching the appalling Sherlock Holmes 2 didn’t help). A fair old layover in Amsterdam allowed me to watch a number of episodes of Jeeves and Wooster on my ipad, then we were finally back in Blighty and the cat didn’t hate us and still remembered us.


Photos here: If you’re not into kendama you might want to skip the first few pages.


The mysteries of FGW timetabling

FirstGreatWestern have introduced a policy which, shock horror, seems to make sense. Where a prior service is delayed, they late the later train leave early (effectively switching the services at Reading). This is fine when there is a delayed train due to take up their spot. Today, however, I got to the station to find no trace of my train, which means it must have been let go a good 4 minutes before its scheduled departure and I had to wait 12 minutes for the next train (12 minutes may not sound long, but it is half of the journey time). Interestingly the later train I ended up getting arrived early and sat at the platform until its schedule departure.

Getting the later train meant I noticed that they had three fast services going to London within a 6 minute window, so I decided to check the times for fast trains at rush hour:

  • 07:57 (duration 32 minutes)
  • 08:02 (duration 30 minutes)
  • 08:08 (duration 31 minutes)
  • 08:14 (duration 27 minutes)
  • 08:17 (duration 28 minutes) – the train I try and catch
  • 08:19 (duration 40 minutes) – I’ve never seen this train
  • 08:24 (duration 32 minutes) – the train I normally end up on
  • 08:34 (duration 26 minutes) – today’s delayed train
  • 08:36 (duration 30 minutes) – the train I ended up on today
  • 08:38 (duration 31 minutes)
  • 08:45 (duration 30 minutes)
  • 08:48 (duration 40 minutes)
  • 08:52 (duration 30 minutes)
  • 09:02 (duration 27 minutes)

I find it interesting that the journey into Paddington is timetabled to take around 30 minutes, yet the trains travelling the other way are around the 25 minute mark – a nice way to get around being classified as “late”. The journey generally takes 20 minutes to get within 2 miles, then can take anywhere from 2 to 12 minutes to travel the final stretch (assuming you haven’t been sat as West Drayton for 10 minutes).

Number crunching

FGW annoyed me enough today that I did a little bit of number crunching. Petrol costs and congestion charge for driving into London for the period 7 October to 31 October (the time between my current season ticket expiring and my new contract ending) works out at about £17 per day. The last time I checked, the season ticket ran at about £11 per day – but that included weekends. Looking at my schedule (I have at least one workday that I will be undertaking at home because I have a medical appointment slap bang in the middle of the day) it might actually be cheaper to drive (assuming I can get one of the few work parking spaces).

A month of season ticket (which I may or may not fully use) – somewhere around the £350 mark; 18 days of petrol and congestion charge – somewhere around the £306 mark. You can buy a lot of yarn with £44…

I also had a quick google and found a couple of (lower paid) related jobs where I am moving to. Time to polish off that CV (not that I can do anything until I have an offer on my house).

I really don’t know why I bother

I left the house even earlier today to catch an early train in an attempt to get to work on time. I made it onto the 08:17 (scheduled to arrive into Paddington at 08:45, though curiously journeys in the other direction are timetabled to take 3 minutes less) and arrived into Paddington at 09:02. In to work late again, having to stay late again, annoyed with FirstGreatWestern again.

I finally got handed a new contract yesterday. It’s another one month contract. No increase in pay (though the salaries for permanent staff increase at 1 October). I am sorely tempted not to sign it and so avoid the aggravation of having to deal with FGW, but realistically I need the money.

It is looking increasingly less likely that I will be able to remote work with this firm, so I am starting to look for jobs locally, which includes getting in touch with ex-colleagues to see if their expat branch are still operating in that neck of the woods. If not then I am going to have to seriously research this whole freelancing malarky (though I am not keen on switching to an uncertain level of earnings – it makes planning hard and I like to plan).

In other news the cat is still pleased to have me back and has spent every night since my return sleeping on the pillow next to me. This does mean, however, that I am conveniently close when she wants a fuss at 3am (where do cats learn to headbutt?).

Just not good enough

FirstGreatWestern have made me late to work pretty much every day this year. Today I tried the old tactic of leaving the house earlier. I caught the earlier train which would have got me to work a good 10-15 minutes early for a change.

The 25 minute journey took 45 minutes and I was late again. This means I shall have to stay late at work again to make up the time and will be spending even longer out of the house.

My season ticket expires in about 10 days time. Assuming I have a job after that (current contract expires on Tuesday and no sign of a replacement yet) it’s debatable whether it would be quicker to drive (not cheaper, but potentially quicker).

Starting every working day frustrated is not a good thing.

Sodding FGW

There were things I needed to do before work today, so I got up early, skipped breakfast, raced out of the house and got to the station in plenty of time to catch the early train. Then my 25 minute journey ends up taking more than twice that and instead of getting into the office early and achieving stuff, I get there late and have to spend the rest of the day playing catch up.

Worst train operator ever.

Mmm payday

After fun navigation in Galsgow, and with a number of upcoming trips to locations I am unfamiliar with, I’ve caved and just bought a GPS through Pixmania. The Becker Traffic Assit 7926 to be exact. It claims to allow you to specify the type of vehicle you are using, so will navigate pedestrian routes as well as those suitable for a car (of varying speeds)/truck/motorcycle/bike. For those times when I don’t have a RossRoss in the car.

(having the) Hump Day

Have I mentioned my feelings towards FirstGreatWestern? Maybe once or twice?

Another classic today. My train left Reading about 7 minutes late (no surprise there), and made decent time to Paddington (which is a surprise, no random slow downs so that we can all get a nice clear view of the Nestle factory). Why it then remained outside Paddington station for 15 minutes is a mystery. At least two other trains passed to get on to platforms, so I blame the way train operators are measured on performance. As I understand it a train is classified “late” if it arrives 10 minutes after it’s timetabled arrival time. This means that it is better for the operator to further delay an already late train if it means it can get other trains into their stations before the 10 minutes isup.

The fact that this delays travellers on the “late” train further appears to be of no consequence to them. Meanwhile, I get into work late, again, through no fault of my own and doubtless will now not be getting home tonight, but rather tomorrow morning (as with yesterday).

In other news, I would like to suggest a new class in schools: how to walk in a straight line and not drift across pavements into the path of other people.

A bit of a mixed bag

Christmas is always a bit of a funny one. This year it was a lot of driving: Reading -> Bristol -> Reading -> Southampton -> Brighton (via Cafe Nero in Chichester) -> Brighton.

I had an excellent, relaxing time leading up to the 25th, a bit of a weird Christmas Day (not helped by solicitors’ letters and family questions about the divorce), then packing today. Running around tomorrow picking up Euros and parking permits, along with last minute things for Germany, then more driving and frantically stuffing things into cars. It should be good.

I have finally cleared my knitting projects, but have three to take to Germany with me. I am assured there is wifi where I will be, so will probably update from there.