University Power

Monday, October 8 2012 at 00:00 (Daily Life, Games, Trips)

Not sure why ‘power’. But I figured that just ‘University’ would be a boring title.

To start off with, unfinished business. obviously I never cleared up how things ended up in Japan, mostly because I was busy in Tokyo and then as soon as I got home a lot of things happened, then I had a lot of free time but was feeling lazy. Sendai was wonderful and extremely nice and one of my favourite places I visited in Japan. Tokyo was very nice as well, but somewhat bigger and scarier than Sendai (though no Japanese cities ever really feel scary because it’s such a safe country). I met up with Marie and Daniel and we did exciting things and I went to Comiket and it was awesome and I went up Tokyo Tower (though not Tokyo Skytree) and did some other things that slip my mind right now.

Basically the whole trip was a stunningly fantastic experience. I met fantastic people that I hope I’ll be able to keep in contact with for years to come and did amazing things that I won’t ever forget. I can’t wait until I get the chance to go back.
So when I got home I found out that I’d got into Nottingham university, which was surprising but rather nice overall. After that I spent around a month and a half gradually accruing university things and failing to do much in the way of packing. I did some more work on the Mid Suffolk Light Railway but overall I was rather unfocused and not exactly working on anything. There was one Head-Fi meet on the 15th of September which was pretty awesome apart from the fact that I got rather lost in Cambridge on the way back after kindly dropping someone off at the train station. I heard an SR-009 and Blue Hawaii SE combo and it was pretty good, but still not leaps and bounds ahead of my rig.

On the 22nd of September I made the journey up to Nottingham with two rather full rucksacks on a pathetically short two-hour train journey (it would probably have been about half an hour by Shinkansen) and spent a night on the floor of a friend who’s at Nottingham Trent. His parents, one of whom is my godmother, had kindly brought up the majority of their stuff in their car.
The actual excitement started on the 23rd, when roads were locked with traffic and confused students had seemingly taken over the universe – I was obviously not one of them, moving around confidently and only feigning confusion. After arriving relatively painlessly, getting my keys and moving in all my stuff we discovered that my hall wasn’t providing pillows and duvets – the hall information had very specifically said ‘bring bed linen (pillow and duvet covers and sheets)’ but didn’t mention the actual bedding itself. We went off to the nearby gigantic Tesco but the aforementioned students had raided the bedding hard and all that remained was king size duvets and a few other scraps. I managed to get an extremely cheap ‘extra-thin keep-you-cool’ duvet and a Tesco Value pillow. Both were pretty shit, but I figured that they’d work temporarily and I could replace them later on.
On the way back from Tesco the traffic was so bad that I ended up jumping/getting pushed out of the car, abandoned in Nottingham to fend for myself. I made my way back to the campus and my hall and then got to work assembling my bedside table using my exciting new tools (hammer, both types of screwdriver, needle-nose pliers, tape measure – everything necessary for 94% of problems) and then there were some speechy introduction things and some more things and food. I ended up talking with a group of three girls on the way to the big speech thing and then later I somehow ended up in one of their rooms…
Watching Doctor Who. Aw yeah. This is exactly what I hoped for in university.

The first week was pretty uneventful for me – I managed to go to an excessive number of pub quizzes but got struck with Fresher’s Flu very early on because of excessive rain and lack of an umbrella and so spent much of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday curled up after dosing up on ibuprofen rather than going out and having fun. I had a variety of struggles with the university network, which requires one to have Windows 7 SP1 installed to connect, something that I have had problems with in the past. I tried a lot of things and talked to an exceptionally unhelpful IT guy and his crony, who suggested that I might try looking online for the solution to my problem. Obviously. I would never have thought of that one. I later found out that most of the reason that I wanted to get off the guest internet and use the main network was moot because I wanted to be able to use Steam and play League of Legends and use IRC… all of which are blocked by the firewall anyway. Oh well, there are workarounds.

Lectures have been fairly interesting so far, involving quite a bit of maths but with a few modules having more of a focus on structure. I think the trickiest module will be engineering maths, which is essentially just a pure maths module with no application to real problems and covers lots of Further Maths things like complex numbers and matrices. I still have no idea how either of them are relevant to civil engineering.
Probably my favourite lecture/lesson is interfaculty Japanese, which I somehow managed to get timetabled for me as a credited module instead of a optional (and uninteresting) engineering module after a bit of wiggling. Sure all we’ve learned so far is ten Hiragana and how to introduce ourselves (something I’m well up on) but I’m sure that I’ll get to something new in the next few weeks.

Socially I’ve been doing my best but haven’t exactly been partying hard. I’ve avoided any and all clubbing so far and most heavy drinking sessions, though I have joined the people in my block a few times for corridor parties. I seem to be getting on well with most people, though I haven’t found any single person that I’ve become particularly good friends with yet.
In other news… OH MAN THAT GODDAMN CLG EU VS WORLD ELITE GAME. I was up until 4am watching that and it still didn’t manage to conclude. Thank the benevolent gods for Jatt and Deman casting like bosses for 8 hours straight. Oh, and the finish to that CLG NA vs SK game was pretty intense.

That is all.

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A Train to Japan: Stardate 23798.5

Tuesday, August 7 2012 at 17:00 (Trips)

I’m travelling in some kind of alien craft that is capable of moving extremely fast, possibly due to to a device located in its pointed ‘beak’. Surroundings are not identifiable. I will write probably my last log here in the hopes that I will prevent others from attempting my foolish journey.

(So yeah, I’m on a Shinkansen for three hours and figured I might as well do some writing.)

So what’s happened? Well, a bunch of stuff. There was further time in Mimasaka, where lots of cool things happened, and then there’s been more travelling. In fact, my trip can be neatly divided into three two-week ‘arcs’: the journey out, Mimasaka and the travelling in Japan.

In terms of activities in Mimasaka, there were several more instances if playing with young children and them showing us their rad cup-and-ball skills (I can’t remember the Japanese name), meeting high school students, cleaning near a Buddhist temple and one especially memorable morning where we picked individual blades of grass on a golf course.
At one point I went to go and see a public viewing of the Japanese women’s football team playing their first Olympic game with my host family – the goalkeeper and captain are from Mimasaka and the team won the world cup last year, so it was a big thing locally. At the public viewing I inadvertently ended up being filmed and was apparently on NHK (national television station) the next day. On top of that we also had a camera guy following our volunteering exploits as a group and that has also produced several reports on local television.
There were a number of other activities we did, but really it was the people who made everything fun and interesting. All the volunteers (and the leader) in our group were just great to work with, all the locals were helpful and smiling, and my host family were saintly in their kindness. Going back to travelling on my own after having made such good friends over the two weeks is crushingly lonely by comparison, though I hope to meet a few people again before I leave.

In terms of travelling, so far I’ve been to Kyoto, Fukuoka and Nagasaki and I’m now on my way to Sendai. Kyoto was a brilliant city – I was with Allan the Belgian from Mimasaka for the first full days, and he led me on a leg-shattering tour of Kyoto’s six billion temples. The worst one was the one with 10,000 orange torii (archway thingies) on a mountainside where we got somewhat lost. We also went to the Shogun house place and looked at the outside of the imperial palace.
On the second day, now on my own, I took a more leisurely pace due to my leg pains and laziness and saw only the golden temple, one other famous one and the one with 1001 Buddha Kannon statues. Honestly, I kind of feel that many of the quiet, plain shrines in the Okayama countryside were far prettier than most of the blaring ones full of tourists.

Next I went to Fukuoka on Kyushu, where I experienced the worst hostel directions I’ve yet had. Overall Fukuoka didn’t really agree with me – there wasn’t that much to see, the subway coverage was poor and the museums weren’t overly interesting. The best parts were when I went paddling on the beach and when I ate some of the famous ramen noodles with locals in a roadside stall.

Next day I went on a day trip to Nagasaki, taking full advantage of the fact that my Japan Rail pass lets me ride any JR train I like except for a few specific Shinkansen lines. Nagasaki was really pretty and had a neat tram system for getting around. I spent most of my time in the nuclear bomb museum, which was very interesting and very atmospheric… at least until 2,000 Chinese tourists appeared. Honestly, they were terrible. ‘Hey, take a picture of me doing a funny pose next to this nuclear fallout chart!’ What the eff. Seriously.
I visited the nuclear bomb remembrance hall after the museum, which was thankfully totally empty and utterly silent.
The Chinese had taken over Nagasaki (more than usual, anyway) so I only visited the various other nuclear sites and a few temples then got a train back to Fukuoka.

I had been worried that I wouldn’t be able to get a place at a hostel in Sendai because of the Tanabata festival, but fortunately I found one and all is good.

Loot-wise, I have a neat wooden bento box I made (also not so useful because European rice sucks), number of nice cards from people, assorted anime goods and some things from my host family’s shop.
In terms of things I’ve bought, I have a number of CDs: Holidays in the Sun (YUI), Birthday (ClariS), Prog-roid (school food punishment), Rock the World (Home Made Kazoku) and one Chatmonchy album I can’t read the name of but I know that I wanted. I still want the nano.RIPE album which is nowhere to be found, as well as Over the Border (Stereopony). Oh, and I bought a Star Driver artbook too.

(I’m now in Sendai as I’m publishing this but I’m too tired to update it in detail. Sendai is brilliant.)

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A Train to Japan Chapters 4-22 (synopsis part 2)

Monday, July 23 2012 at 16:55 (Trips)

So yes, after sixteen days of travel over land, over sea, under sea, across deserts and forests and under mountains I finally arrived at my destination in the land of the rising sun. I was more astonished than anybody that all this had gone through without any serious problems and not a single missed train. I even arrived in Mimasaka at the exact time I’d planned.
As before, I won’t go into details about my activities, but will attempt to give an overview of some Japanese things that I’ve done or experienced.

Living: The host family I’m staying with is very nice. The house I’m staying in actually belongs to the mother of my host mother and is very traditionally Japanese – the room I’m staying in even has tatami mats. The toilets are pretty scary, with most having a heated seat and some kind of bum-washing mechanism, and some having adjustable strengths of bum washing, different settings for men and women and even a playable flushing noise to cover the sound of your own urination.
Having to wear indoor shoes is a real pain, not because it’s a hassle but because the Japanese all have tiny feet and so the slippers are always too small and rather uncomfortable. The weather is extremely hot (30-35 degrees most of the time) but nearly everywhere has air conditioning so it’s only a problem outside. I’m travelling around mostly by bike, and despite the mountains Mimasaka is next to a river so the roads are relatively flat.

The work camp: I had some doubts about how I would find the work camp, but in fact it’s been really great so far, despite having to sit through a few boring speeches and also the endless need to introduce yourself formally to everyone (Konnichiwa minna-san! Hajimemashite. Watashi no namae wa Benedict Brown desu. Ingurisujin desu. Yoroshikunegaishimasu!)
The people are great – there’s Allan the Belgian, Maria the Russian, An the Vietnamese, Eunbee the Korean, Aleksi the Fin (living in Scotland), Noemi the Spaniard (from Barcelona), Daniel the German self-titled otaku*, Emanuele the Italian, Martin the Czech (and my housemate) and Marie the Japanese camp leader person.
*He claims to have watched a lot of anime but owns a One Piece t-shirt and had never heard of Star Driver, Hanasaku Iroha, Penguindrum, Ano Hana etc. He did know about Rinne no Lagrange but that more served to worry me about the kind of people that show is attracting rather than reassuring me.
The work we’ve been doing is varied and usually interesting. Today we played with preschool kiddies, a few days ago we were cutting flowers and showing local people things from our country.

Language: Unlike Polish, Russian, Mongolian and Chinese, I actually have some desire to learn Japanese, so have been trying to pick up as many new words and phrases as possible. It’s kind of bad that all the other volunteers know good English and mostly more Japanese than me as well as their native tongue, yet I’m just sat on a few scraps of various European languages and negligible Japanese by comparison. I feel very lazy.
Don’t let anyone tell you that cartoons don’t teach you anything though: Chobits taught me basic Japanese customs and I’d have never known the word for ‘cousin’ without Denpa Onna to Seishun Otoko (or the words for electric waves, woman and young man for that matter).
Overall I think my Japanese is improving somewhat and I can interact with people on basic level. I’d like to learn some more complex sentence structures, but really I need to learn more vocabulary first.

Culture: The Japanese are crazy. Seriously. Their culture is just insane. Bookshops are usually around half manga and light novels and half other books, with even a supermarket in the countryside having vastly obscure volumes of manga that I wouldn’t even expect people to be aware of the existence of. I haven’t found a good CD shop yet, but when I do I will raid it so hard.
Apparently One Piece is really, REALLY big in Japan. I barely glanced at a Shounen Jump or something that happened to feature One Piece similar yesterday in an okonomiyaki shop and ended up leaving weighed down with related loot from the proprietor at no cost to myself. I haven’t had the heart to tell any Japanese person that I don’t actually like One Piece – I think they might keel over and die from the shock. Oh, if anybody reading this wants some One Piece loot, please tell me.
I went to a local festival a few days ago, which was a brilliant experience; the girls in our group wore yukata and the boys wore happi and we did traditional local dances and stuff. There was beer, takoyaki and fireworks and at one point I even got set upon by a group of Japanese high school girls who seemed to find me fascinating.
The hot springs are another very Japanese thingummy. The nice thing about them is that they’re not chlorinated, but they are also kind of excessively hot for this weather.
Oh, and Japanese television. Need I say more? The adverts are easily the best bits.

Food: Nihon no gohan wa hontou-ni hoishii desu! Well, most of the time. There are some things in Japan that are sweet that would normally be savoury in the west, such as sweet azuki bean paste, and it’s kind of jarring. I’m taking a try-anything approach to food on this trip, so I’m making sure that I eat at least some of everything that’s put in front of me, even if it looks strange (my mother is now scoffing angrily that I never take this attitude at home). So far I’ve had yakisoba, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, udon with tempura, nikuman, sukiyaki, and yakitori, as well as obviously lots of rice and various other meats, fish and vegetables. Oh, and miso soup.
I still want to try taiyaki and Japanese strawberry cake. I’m currently using chopsticks perfectly well with my own somewhat avant-garde technique, but am trying to use the ‘proper’ grip whenever I don’t mind dropping my food everywhere. I tried natto and didn’t really like it, but it was early in the morning and I had an upset stomach, so maybe not the best time to try it. I also can’t get the hang of tofu – it’s extremely hard to pick up with chopsticks and tastes of nothing when plain, and only slightly of something when cooked in a sauce. I think it actually sucks flavour out of a meal.

Today we went to a game centre and visited a karaoke bar. Karaoke in Japan was actually popularised in Okayama prefecture (where I am), so there was even cultural background to it. All the silly gaijins wanted to sing silly western songs, but I proved my manliness by singing Shining*Star, Hana no Iro, Secret Base ~kimi ga kureta mono~ and Cross Over. The 9nine numbers were relatively easy, the nano.RIPE somewhat harder and the ZONE nearly impossible because the lyrics I had for the song were not correctly ordered (I had to read the lyrics off my phone instead of the screen because I can’t read hiragana fast enough). Still, it was a lot of fun and it gives me another item to scratch off my list of things to do in Japan.

Well, that’s life in Japan so far. Further updates will probably contain more of what I’m actually doing and less overview, so look forward to it. (Or don’t.)

More emoticons:
(♯`∧´) (−_−#)
ε=ε=ε=ε=ε=ε=┌(; ̄◇ ̄)┘
*・゜゚・*:.。..。.:*・'(*゚▽゚*)’・*:.。. .。.:*・゜゚・*
(The Japanese iPhone keyboard is worth it just for this)

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A Train to Japan Chapters 4-22 (synopsis part 1)

Sunday, July 22 2012 at 16:10 (Trips)

It’s been a while. Perhaps you thought me dead, murdered by strange Russian men, or trampled by Mongolian goats? Perhaps you hoped this would be so, such that you would not find yourself so consistently outshone by my own brilliance?
Fear not (or fear more greatly), for I am alive and well and in Japan.

So why have I not written for such a long time? Well, first I was on a train in the middle of nowhere for six days, which kind of put a damper on any blogging activities, then I was in China where Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WordPress are all blocked. Yet I have spent the last six days in (mostly) restriction-free Japan and have not written, why? Well because I’m lazy and I’ve been reading Harry Potter and playing VVVVVV instead, that’s why.

So given that so much has happened, I will endeavour to summarise rather than relay everything I’ve noted in my written log.

The Trans-Mongolian train: I found it eventually with the help of evidently all the foreigners in Moscow, who all seemed to be about to board the train. The train was actually possibly the least comfortable of all the sleepers and had no showers and very basic facilities, so washing was difficult. Food in the restaurant car was expensive and took a long time, so I mostly lived on a diet of crisps and whatever else I could by at the small Russian station stalls.
I met a number of people on the train, the most significant of which were Lize the South African who was my sole cabin mate in a four-berth compartment and Jasper the Cool American, who was a guy from Los Angeles who spoke Mandarin. The days were rather uninteresting: endless taiga punctuated by occasional stops transitioning eventually into desert in Mongolia and then finally into gorgeous mountainsides as we entered China. The most interesting place we stopped was Ulaanbataar, and even that was pretty dull. Still a fascinating experience, though.

China: China was really hot and really full of people. I realise that ‘lots of people’ is kind of China’s thing, but it has to be said because it’s such a big part of what being in China is like. Beijing is a great city full of nice buildings and people, with a fast subway that is easy to navigate and cheap (2 yuan per journey = 20p). At my hostel (which was essentially luxury after six days on a train) I met Daria the Polish English teacher working in China on pretend sick leave and Roger the Very American American. We visited the Great Wall together which was exhausting yet rewarding and also talked a lot. Apart from the GWoC I visited the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, both of which personified China perfectly by being gigantic, really hot and full of people.
The train to Shanghai is the fastest in the world at 300km/h and would have been wonderful were it not for the Chinese passengers. The Chinese like to spit and also make their bodily functions as loud as possible, so naturally I ended up sat next to a man who sniffed with a sound like a jump jet exploding every thirty seconds whose ladyfriend had incidentally stolen my window seat. I had three and a half hours of this to Nanjing, then one and a half of blissful peace.
Shanghai was a shithole, no nice way of saying it. The hostel was somewhat crummy and I managed to spend a total of nearly six hours wandering around trying to find an international ferry port that was nowhere near any metro stations and had minimal signage – none of which were aimed at pedestrians even though none of the ferries carry cars. Bah.

The Ferry: I had doubts about the ferry, and even more after my misadventures in Shanghai, but after having finally bought my ticket and boarded, I found that it was actually very pleasant. It was comfortable and clean, there was food that was cheap and delicious and best of all most of the passengers were Japanese people rather than Chinese, so far less spitting and snorting. The highlight of the voyage to Osaka was going between the mainland and the southernmost island of Japan with spectacular views on both sides and the sea breeze on my face.

Japanese trains: Osaka has the most complicated subway ticket machines I’ve ever seen. They do, however, happily accept ¥10,000 (~£80) notes with no qualms at all and full change from my ¥350 purchase. I went to Shin-Osaka and bought a ticket that was actually cheaper than what I’d seen online and then went to find my train. Annoyingly, Japanese trains only seem to show their final destination and not intermediate stops. I have no idea how one is meant to find these out normally, but fortunately I got help from an assistant.
I wasn’t waiting for just any train, though. Oh no. This was a Super Hakuto 7. Not only did it look cooler than the normal trains, it was also twice as fast and twice as comfortable. I giggled to myself when we easily overtook a regular train going at full speed. I then took a local train from Sayo to Hayashino that was much slower but much prettier in terms of views of Japanese countryside.
When I did finally reach Hayashino station in Mimasaka, I sadly ran out of enthusiasm and time for writing and decided to finish this with a second part tomorrow.

Here are some Japanese emoticons to ease the wait:
ヾ(@⌒ー⌒@)ノ
♪(*^^)o∀*∀o(^^*)♪
☆*:.。. o(≧▽≦)o .。.:*☆

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A Train to Japan Chapter 3: Russia is too Russian

Tuesday, July 3 2012 at 15:23 (Trips)

So last time I set off bravely to explore some of Warsaw. I didn’t get very far – it was far too hot for extended exploring and the grassy area turned out to be fenced off for something football related, so all I could do was gaze longingly at the shade under the trees. Shortly after that a random Polish guy came and talked at me. He was either drunk, insane or trying to steal my stuff. Possibly all of the above. I ran away.

I fretted for a while about what to get to eat on the train and ended up with a sandwich, bag of crisps and a gigantic apple. Eventually it was time to board the sleeper to Moscow, called the ‘Polonez’. It wasn’t that different from the Jan Kiepura except there were three beds to a compartment instead of six. Somehow though, I ended up with a compartment all to myself – this meant that I was lonely and had no-one to watch my stuff, but on the other hand I finally had a window seat/bed. I sat and read Harry Potter+Philostone for the six or so hours it took to reach the Belarus border.

I was mildly terrified about the Belarus border since it would be the first test of my visa escapades. I was given a migration card which I filled in to the best of my ability and also worried that if we reached the Russian border before midnight, I could be thrown off the train due to the dates on my visa. The border control check took a while but I was handed back my passport and migration cards with exciting stamps and nobody even jabbed me with an AK47! Things were going well.

Shortly after passing the Belarusian border we had to stop to change our train from standard gauge (5ft 6in if my memory serves) to Russian gauge (6ft exactly). This involved literally jacking up the whole train and swapping the wheelsets. Sadly from my position on the train I didn’t actually get to see the process happen, but it was pretty neat nonetheless.
Whilst stopped a number of crazy Belarusian ladies came up to the train to sell us food and alcohol. I declined. A helpful stoner couple on the train were not English but did seem to speak English/Russian/Polish so translated some key details for me.

Did I mention all of the cool Russian rolling stock? There was a lot of it. Being on the sleeper made me grateful for all of my recently acquired railway knowledge and also my experience with sleeping in noisy, rocking boat cabins. I sat and watched the moon go by for a bit then went to sleep.

I was expecting to be attacked by Russian border control in the wee hours of the morning but evidently Belarus border control also cleared you for Russia, as I didn’t awake until some kind of sensible time like 6:45 (that’s 4:45 UK time). I slept on and off until we arrived in Moskva Belorusskaya around 11.
Moscow is terrifyingly Russian, so Russian that you kind of feel like someone is pulling an elaborate joke. I think it’s mostly the Cyrillic and the architecture but it’s really unmistakeable for anywhere else in the world. The first thing you see when you leave the platform is a huge set of flower beds – that was reassuring somehow.
I changed 100USD into Roubles and went in search of the metro station, which turned out to be hidden around a corner with the smallest ‘M’ sign possible despite being a sizeable building. I managed to beat a ticket out of a machine and somehow got on the right train to the correct station, where my departing station for the trans-Mongolian is. The metro is grand, with chandeliers and faux pillars, but is poorly laid out and not very tourist friendly. I dropped off my big bag by giving it and some cash to a man in a hole in the wall. Unsure if I’d ever see my belongings again, I set off for Red Square.

Sadly for probably the biggest and most iconic tourist attraction in Russia, Red Square is poorly signed for those not knowing any Russian. I only found it myself by looking up which metro station to go to before I left, and even then I gad to do a fair bit of wandering to reach it. The Kremlin is smaller than I imagined but still eminently photographable, though still probably better in snow than the baking heat of the time. The architecture was all round pretty great, very… Russian, and totally incomparable to the squared-off concrete blocks that are out in the countryside.

By this point I was incredibly thirsty and set off to the Red Square McDonalds where I met a Canadian couple inside who couldn’t help me with Cyrillic but did give me a Canada badge instead… ‘kay. For those scoffing at my lack of adventurousness food-wise, be aware that ordering here was a deeply cultural experience: Sure I just got 0.8l of Coke and a chicken wrap, but I had to point and mime my arse off for it. It’s also notably the first time I’ve ordered from a McDonalds in any country. So there. Also there was the deep irony of being near a monument of communist government and going all ‘Capitalism ho, bitches!’ (Anyone who gets that reference wins 10 Roubles.)

There was no wifi in McDonalds so I had to text home to check something about registering visas that I was unsure about – turns out that I’m fine and it’s just that the advice given on my migration card was a year out of date. I’m spending less than seven working days in Russia, so don’t need to register.

Red Square is pretty good but kind of bleak. Right near it, however, is a beautiful garden area with loads of trees, flowers, grass and fountains. It’s the first time so far that I’ve felt compelled to take a lot of pictures; it really is that pretty. There’s even a Doric facade with metopes, but their columns only have 16 flutes, the jokers. I also saw some ceremony involving guards duckwalking around, not sure what for but there were lots of people watching so it was probably something well-known.

Overall right now I don’t mind being a camera-toting tourist if I get to look at stuff like this.

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At Train to Japan Chapter 2: Sleepers With No Sleep

Monday, July 2 2012 at 11:29 (Trips)

Day one of my awesomely epic journey began in modesty – with the regular train from Diss to Liverpool Street. The biggest difference from usual was that I was travelling first class and thus didn’t have to associate with any dreadful ruffians. I spoke briefly to a rather nice middle-class woman who asked me where I was going given that I had a large bag and a crazy woman waving me off through the window. She seemed rather impressed by my intended trip.

Arriving in London, I boarded a Metropolitan line tube that turned out to be not only cool and spacious, but also kind of empty. Thankfully the tube was fully functional despite it being a Sunday. St Pancras was okay, the check-in was painless though the security checks are no different from an airport and thus still annoying. The Eurostar itself was full of ruffians, including a number who were carrying about 2-3 times my quantity of luggage. The journey was bearable, but no window seat.

On arrival in Brussels I spotted a guy who I knew was English who had been on my Eurostar looking bemusedly at map on the wall. We began talking and discovered that although we were both headed to Cologne, I was on an earlier Thalys whilst he had a later ICE. My new friend Patrick and I went in search of tea and after walking around the station (which is helpfully Brussels Sud and Midi at the same time) we eventually found a tea shop full of Belgians playing board games. Patrick was cool. He’s an Oxford student who lives literally opposite my favourite burrito bar. He was going to Helsinki to study anthills for seven weeks for his dissertation. He also knew the first few lines of book 4 of the Aeneid off by heart after studying it in GCSE Latin. If that’s not cool I don’t know what is.

I eventually bid Patrick adieu and went up to the platform to find my Thalys. Again, the train wasn’t uncomfortable but still no window seat. There was an English couple next to me about my age, but they had a soppy pre-bought ‘travel scrapbook’ (as opposed to a manly blog) and voiced a fondness for Russell Brand films.

Arriving in Cologne I looked around for some schnitzel, but none was forthcoming. I refused to eat at either the Asian cuisine or sushi bars in the station, so for some reason ended up with Pizza Hut. No idea why, it was vile. I saw the first goal of the football then went outside to the Dom (cathedral) which was right next to the station. It was very pretty and pleasantly cool, but unfortunately there were some unpleasant punks (literally punks with Mohawks etcetera) who were shouting loudly and being annoying.

I went back inside to find the platform for my train to Warsaw (called the Jan Kiepura sleeper) and chatted briefly with another English guy and also saw Patrick again briefly – it seems that the train to Warsaw and Copenhagen is the same and just splits. The sleeper itself was somewhat cramped and hotter than the fires of hell. Also a guy in my couchette read with his light on until quite late. Takeaway from this is that I got very little sleep.

Today I woke up all too early and read Harry Potter on the Kindle for three hours before we arrived. After navigating Warsaw Centralna’s mazelike layout for a while I eventually calculated a (apparently) near-exact exchange rate for Polish Zloty using a Mars bar as a metric, and so withdrew an appropriate amount.

I then sat in Starbucks and blogged for an hour and a half since there’s power and wifi. That’s right, I came all this way to be served by Poles in Starbucks. Why did I go on this trip again?

There’s some kind of park thing nearby, so I’m going to go look at that.

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A Train to Japan Chapter 1: Shitshitshitshit

Sunday, July 1 2012 at 00:47 (Trips)

So  around a year ago I had a thought: I wonder if one can take a train to Japan? I’ve always wanted to visit Japan, and planes and airports kind of suck. Apparently, you can – there are several trains that run from Moscow to either Vladivostok or Beijing, with the latter going by either a trans-Manchurian or trans-Mongolian route, and after that you can easily get a ferry across to Osaka or Kyoto. My mother said to me that if I were to not get my grades for my university choices, she would pay for a ticket for me on the trans-Mongolian train so that I could visit Japan (spoiler: I didn’t get my grades).

Fast forward about 11 months and everything is suddenly kind of shit. My dad had a fairly serious stroke about a month and a half ago which has had a serious impact on my life and the life of my family in general, generating a lot of stress, my university place which I figured was in the bag is suddenly not due to a miscalculation of marks and thus missing a a grade boundary by less than 1%, and I’ve also been stressing out about this stupid bloody trip I decided to go on.

I will just say right now that I am never doing this gods damned trip again. It’s been expensive, stressful (note how that word keeps popping up) and hugely complicated, and I’ve had to deal with it on top of everything else that’s being thrown at me right now. The first issue was establishing when I was actually going to go, which needed some kind of ‘anchor date’ to organise everything else around. One idea we had was for me to do some volunteer work in Japan for a few weeks after I arrived, so after some looking around and a few false starts I finally ended up on the MIEA (Mimasaka International Exchange Association) which annually brings in a selection of volunteers from around the world to come to a medium-sized town in Japan to do various bits of manual labour, work with kawaii Japanese schoolchildren etcetera. I get to stay with a host family which is pretty neato, since I’ll get to sample what the living experience is like for myself rather than just observing. It’s also two weeks of time to settle down with food and board for nothing, so no complaints there. After the volunteering I’ll have two weeks of time to myself before flying back to England because trains be buggered, planes are easier.

After that came booking the train tickets. This was actually fairly straightforward, though somewhat more expensive than I had assumed. First there was the main trans-Mongolian ticket from Moscow to Beijing, which is the most expensive train, covering the most distance and lasting seven days. Then there was the Eurostar to Brussels, Thalys to Cologne, overnight sleeper to Warsaw, then another overnight sleeper to Moscow. Finally came the ticket to London on the day of departure (that being tomorrow/today). I also need to book a train from Beijing to Shanghai so I can get a ferry, but due to the Chinese trains system I can’t book that one this far in advance.

After that it was visas. Screw visas. I hate visas. Especially for Belarus, a country in which I will spend a grand total of maybe two hours in the middle of the night that demands that I supply them with £100 and an extensive form for the pleasure. I left the visas somewhat late and so ended up paying more to have an express service in order to get my passport back in time. Making one visa application for most of these countries is complex, but trying to do four at once (Belarus/Russia/Mongolia/China) is just mean. Certain applications demand things like confirmed hotel bookings for every day you intend to spend in a country, complete details of all entry and exit travel and confirmation that you have more than £100 per day of your stay in your bank account by means of officially issued bank statements (with the most recent transaction within two weeks of the date of the statement issue). Needless to say it was a pain to sort out, though incredibly all my visas went through without being rejected/returned for tweaking.

All that was left to do after that was sorting out the final details and packing. I’ve spent the past few days packing, repacking, discarding around half my clothes and then attempting to pack again. I’ve also printed off about a million sheets covering contact details, metro maps, directions to hostels, as well as my bookings for various things. Here is everything laid out shortly before packing, with tickets in chronological order:

And after:

This bag weighs a damn ton. I’m going to die. I know I am. That doesn’t mean I’m ready for it, though.

Yeah, I’m scared shitless.

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