Dubrovnik by Tom Royal on Flickr
Dubrovnik by Tom Royal on Flickr
Dubrovnik by Tom Royal on Flickr
Dubrovnik by Tom Royal on Flickr
Dubrovnik by Tom Royal on Flickr
Dubrovnik by Tom Royal on Flickr
Dubrovnik by Tom Royal on Flickr
Dubrovnik by Tom Royal on Flickr
Dubrovnik by Tom Royal on Flickr
Dubrovnik by Tom Royal on Flickr

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The Tour de France Peloton hits London

July 7th, 2014

The Tour de France Peloton, in a GIF (might take a while to load). Snapped it in one burst on my iPhone as they passed Poplar.

Japan on a Budget: Sapporo to Ueno on the Hokutosei

June 8th, 2014

For Ueno

Having returned from Furano to Sapporo, I needed to get back to Tokyo in time to fly back home. There's one simple and obvious way to do that: domestic flights from New Chitose airport to Haneda run just about every 30 minutes, take 90 minutes, and aren't too expensive. Instead, I took a 16 hour long journey on a slightly knackered night train.

The Hokutosei, which runs from Sapporo to Ueno and back, is one of a dying breed of 'blue train' sleeper trains. Once to be found all over Japan, with more than 25 services, they're now down to four – all of which are due to be stopped soon, making them popular with the nostalgic and trainspotters alike. And with one of them running exactly where I wanted to go, I figured I'd catch one while I could. Besides, anything's more fun than an airport, right?

Getting a Ticket

I arrived back in Sapporo after stopping overnight in Asahikawa*, and already prepared with a ticket for the night's train, which leaves at about 5pm from Sapporo's main JR station. Tickets present something of a problem for tourists: you'll absolutely need to have one in advance – and they sell out pretty quickly – but that leaves you with a choice of booking online and paying full fare, or booking late using a Japan Rail Pass to cover most of the cost. I did the latter, paying about £60 for my berth a week before departure.

There are five types of accommodation on the train:

1) Royal. Ludicrously expensive (about 18,000 yen just for the room), and there are only a few of these.

2) Twin Deluxe. Apparently these have sinks. About 14,000 yen for the two of you.

3) Duet – a normal twin room for around 12,000 yen.

4) Solo – a normal single compartment for the standard fare of around 6500 yen.

5) B class berth – one of four beds in a shared compartment, which bizarrely costs the same as a Solo room.

Having booked late, guess where I ended up.

Welcome to B Class

Waiting for the train, I noticed a trend: everyone waiting to board was either three times, or half, my age: with the exception of one particularly earnest train enthusiast, everyone else was either a pensioner or looked like a broke student. But no matter, because at that point a huge – and, yes, really very blue – train clanked into the station.

People rushed to the front to take photos, and I followed to take a look, only to be a bit surprised – in the place of the boxy electric train I'd expected, it was being towed by two giant, chuffing diesel contraptions that looked like they should be pushing heavy goods. Turns out the service has to change trains somewhere en-route (I'm guessing near Aomori) as it moves onto electrified lines, every single trip.

b class

But I had to get on board, and find my berth. It turned out to be in the car nearest to those two giant diesel monsters (makes sense, I suppose – the posh rooms get the quiet end), and in a room shared with two very polite, and very quiet, students – one of whom seemed to fall asleep pretty much as soon as the train started rolling.

The amenities of a B class berth, as pictured above, are: some space in the luggage store above the compartment door (that's my backpack), a light with two settings, a sheet and duvet, a huge pink curtain that pulls around the bed to give you some privacy, and a JR-branded yukata. The bed itself is fine, if not quite long enough for me to lie down straight. You can sleep in it, but you won't want to pass all 16 hours there. I made for the lounge.

Lounge and Facilities

The Hokutosei has a lounge car, a dining car and a vending machine – all of which are found at the posh end of the train, so to get there I had to wobble down something like ten corridors, and between a lot of carriages. This gives you a pretty good overview of the train's fittings: the cheap bit seems to have emerged unchanged from the 1970s, while the posher areas must be a decade newer maybe. If you can't use a Japanese style toilet in a train that's jumping around from side to side, you'll need to avoid the cheap berths.

The lounge car has seating for maybe 20 people at most, with some tables on one side and a long bench table down the other side. On my trip, it was mostly empty, except for the young train enthusiast, who sat by the door, greeting everybody with the same "北斗星、最高ですね" (The Hokutosei, isn't it the best?") – even if it was the second time in as many minutes that they'd passed by.

そうですね、we all agreed, all the time. Isn't it just?

At one point, I tried to strike up a train-related conversation: what about the new Shinkansen service, wasn't that due to start quite soon?

Oh, he explained, the Shinkansen isn't the same.

Train-fans aside, people who had compartments tended to stay in them, except for a brief crowd just before "Pub Time" – when you can buy food without a reservation – opened in the restaurant.

Hokutosei

The near end of the lounge car, from where this photo was taken, also holds the train's other key amenity: showers. A few hundred yen buys you a little magnetic card, and a half hour timeslot in one of the two showers – during which you'll get six minutes of hot water (a red LED countdown keeps you on your toes). You need to take a towel and wash kit.

And beyond that, there's the restaurant car. In the early evenings, this is the "Grand Chariot" restaurant, for which you'll need a reservation weeks in advance – one of the men on the train, who didn't have a reservation, was very excited to have obtained the menu card for that evening. After that it's the aforementioned "Pub Time", which attracted a rush of pensioners, and in the morning you can buy a pretty decent breakfast for £15 or so, killing 45 minutes as you do – no reservations required, but there aren't many seats (I'd guess around 20) so it gets quite crowded.

Outside of those hours, the restaurant sells the shower cards, and there's also a trolley that rattles through the train selling beer and snacks – oddly, though, no booze in the vending machine. More surprisingly, a JR man passed through the train selling Hokotosei souvenirs – wallets, keyfobs, and the like – attracting plenty of business.

Getting some Sleep

After maybe five hours in the lounge, watching the sun set somewhere near Toyako and then nursing a book and a beer, I hit the sack – and, with the aid of alcohol and earplugs (grabbed some in Sapporo, in anticipation of a long, noisy night), I was surprised to wake up fairly refreshed around 7am as the light bled through the curtains.

The train makes a few stops as it heads down Honshu – you could disembark at Sendai, for example, if you could wake up on time – but the last four hours or so see it rumbling through the outskirts towards Ueno. People shuffled up and down the carriages in pyjamas, watched their watches, clicked away on cellphones. It's about this point that you realise that you could have just woken up in Sapporo, nipped to the airport from there, and you'd still beat the train to Tokyo.

hoku

But that wasn't ever really the point. As I dragged my backpack off the train at Ueno station, a crowd of people had gathered to take photos of its arrival, and I had begun to see why: like the Hakkoda Maru before it, the Hokutosei is a service out of time – a fixture for decades, but soon to be gone and largely forgotten.

When the Hokkaido Shinkansen does soon reach up from Aomori to Hakodate, Oshamambe and Sapporo, it'll be great – fast, smooth and reliable, getting you from Tokyo to Sapporo, or back, in less than half a day. But I doubt anyone will ever spend that whole trip watching the door and greeting complete strangers: "新幹線、最高ですね"。

Because, like he said, it won't be the same.

 

* Asahikawa has a zoo (I'm not really keen on zoos), an enormous and brand new JR station roughly the size of Paris and a bus system so fantastically complicated that, after two hours attempting to make my way to the Yukaraori cultural museum outside town, I gave up and decided to just find an izakaya. If you do find yourself there, a word of warning: the 'Buses by location' sign in English is hopelessly out of date – ignore it (and the buses in the direction of the Yukaraori leave from the a stop just in front of the Chuo highway bus terminal).

 

Futzing with Swift and Cocoa

June 6th, 2014

I've never learned Objective C – my iOS stuff is written in Titanium (essentially Javascript, because anyone can play guita.. uh, write Javascript), and my personal tools for Mac are all scripts to run from Terminal. So the idea of a simpler language that could be used for both iOS and Mac OSX is pretty attractive to me.

Problem is, I've never used Xcode, or the Cocoa libraries before. But I thought I'd give it a shot. Based on a few hours of futzing around, here's what I've found – my planned starting point was some button handlers, text inputs, and then some XML file manipulation.

Button Handlers

You can easily drag-and-drop a button onto the window in the Interface Builder view. To handle it, you can add a handler to AppDelegate.swift. First I imported Cocoa and Foundation:

import Cocoa

Then, inside the class AppDelegate:

@IBOutlet var window: NSWindow
@IBOutlet var testButton: NSButton

Then, after the applicationWillTerminate function, add a new function to be called on button click:

@IBAction func buttonclick1(AnyObject) {
  // do stuff
  println("button clicked")
}

You can then link the button to this function from the Interface Builder (it's a control-key-and-drag job).

Text Fields and Alerts

After dragging two text fields onto the window in Interface Builder, I added IBOutlet variables for them:

@IBOutlet var text1 : NSTextField
@IBOutlet var text2 : NSTextField

It's possible to get these – and link them up – automatically by control-dragging the text fields from the Interface Builder into the right area of your code. That done, you can then a value from one field, and put it in the other one:

var fromtextbox = text1.stringValue
text2.stringValue = fromtextbox;

It's easy to display it in a simple alert box:

let myPopup:NSAlert = NSAlert()
myPopup.messageText = "Modal NSAlert Popup";
myPopup.informativeText = "Echo that variable: \(fromtextbox)"
myPopup.runModal()

Because who doesn't love extraneous alerts. Or, if you need an OK / Cancel:

let myPopup:NSAlert = NSAlert()
myPopup.addButtonWithTitle("OK")
myPopup.addButtonWithTitle("Cancel")
myPopup.messageText = "Are you sure?";
myPopup.informativeText = "Do you really want to do that?"
if myPopup.runModal() == NSAlertFirstButtonReturn {
// yes, they're sure.
}

Else, handle the cancel action, etc.

A File Selector

I want to choose an XML file, in order to later manipulate it. I found that I could get a file dialog box like this:

let myFiledialog:NSOpenPanel = NSOpenPanel()
myFiledialog.allowsMultipleSelection = false
myFiledialog.canChooseDirectories = false
myFiledialog.runModal()  
var chosenfile = myFiledialog.URL // holds path to selected file, if there is one

And to check that a file has been chosen:

if chosenfile {
// do something with it
}

Maniuplating XML

Next up is opening, reading and manipulating that XML file. Getting a local file to manipulate it is pretty easy:

let xmlurl = "/var/tmp/file.xml" // or from your file chooser
let nxmlurl:NSURL = NSURL(fileURLWithPath: xmlurl)
var xmlasstring:NSString = NSString(contentsOfURL: nxmlurl);

Once you have the XML as a string, you could feed it into a proper XML parser – but I just wanted to grab a few values, so used some string manipulation using NSRange objects. You can also bust a string that's delineated (in my case a com.something.something GUID) into an array of values really easily:

var substrofguid:NSArray = currentguid.componentsSeparatedByString(".")

.. and then when you're ready to write the string data back to an XML file:

var myfileman:NSFileManager = NSFileManager();
var xmldatatowrite:NSData = myeditedstring.dataUsingEncoding(NSUTF8StringEncoding)
var writethefile = myfileman.createFileAtPath("/var/tmp/file.xml", contents: xmldatatowrite, attributes: nil)

You can then check that writethefile variable to see if the operation completed properly.

QNAP Nas to Nas RSYNC – Stuck at 0%

May 29th, 2014

Something I learned, and which may be useful to someone else:

One of Apptitude's servers is a QNAP NAS running firmware 4.0.7. Every 24 hours it runs a backup, via RSYNC (SSH encrypted) to a remote site where we have another QNAP.

Last night, the backup job glitched – no errors were logged, but it just sat uselessly at 0% for six hours. Here's what I learned:

  • The QNAP Rsync system can only handle file paths up to 260 characters
  • It doesn't fail gracefully if you exceed this

To find the offending files, here's what I did (on a Mac, in my case, via Terminal):

  • cd to the Volume root
  • find . > filelist.txt
  • perl -nle 'print if length$_>260' filelist.txt

Or, thinking about it, you could probably do it in one command:

  • find . | perl -nle 'print if length$_>260'

Once done, remove or rename the offending files. In my case the names were too long for the Mac to handle, even via Terminal – if that happens, SSH into the NAS and delete them there.

 

The Dai-Kannon of Ashibetsu

May 26th, 2014

Ashibetsu Dai-Kannon

In Japan, big statues are no big deal. There's the Daibutsu at Nara, of course, but I've stumbled across other monumental, well, monuments in several other towns. But then, rolling through the countryside on a local train somewhere between Takikawa and Furano, I spotted a giant white figure on the horizon.

The Dai-Kannon at Ashibetsu towers over the town – in fact, it's the tenth tallest statue in the world. And there's precious little English-language information about it – so I had to take a look. Here's what I found when I visited, and what I've since found out about it.

Huge and Abandoned

If the Kannon statue was in my car's GPS, I couldn't find it – but I figured that if I drove to Ashibetsu, it'd be signed – or, failing that, I could hardly miss it. Following the main road into town it was obvious that I should take a right across a suspension bridge, and on the other side I found what I thought was an oddly placed temple pagoda – it's actually fake, and part of a hotel – and then a car park entrance.

The car park is for the hotel. One U-turn later I followed an abandoned looking road that appeared to head towards the statue – and emerged in a large, deserted car park.

Ashibetsu Dai-Kannon

The photo above was taken as I left, with a big storm brewing and clouds shadowing the ground – but even in sunlight, it was a slightly unnerving scene. I dumped the car in the middle of the empty space, and walked up. The entrance shown on the left is long since abandoned – dusty, empty ticket booths, and no turnstiles, so I went on in.

You emerge at the bottom of a huge, and obviously rather ornate garden, with lots of fountains. All of which are dry.

Ashibetsu Dai-Kannon

Sunlight again, as I took this on the way in. At this point, I was tempted to turn and leave – the place was obviously abandoned, with nobody in sight. But having driven for an hour, I figured I'd at least take a look up close. And, about half way up, success – a family of three appeared at the entrance, struck a bell, and then drove away in the car that they'd parked off to the right of the statue.

"There's an Elevator"

Inside, a man behind the door looked rather surprised to see me – but was happy to let me in. There's a fee of, if I remember correctly, 500 yen.

"There's an elevator", he said.

"Thank goodness".

And indeed, from the rather large, and rather worn, entrance hall a small escalator takes you to the gaudiest set of lifts you've ever seen.

Ashibetsu Dai-Kannon

There are 20 floors, and the lift stops at every second one – but, not keen to get stuck if it were to break down, I went straight for the top. On the 20th floor you exit into a really rather large shrine, decked out mostly in gold, but signs usher you to the right, where you emerge onto a balcony just above Kannon's belt, and right next to a massive hand:

Ashibetsu Dai-Kannon

Even if you have no interest in random giant statues, it's well worth visiting for the view – it's really impressive.

Ashibetsu Dai-Kannon

And there's my car, all alone.

Coming Down

Back inside, I took the stairs down a few floors – to find that the shrines run all the way up and down the building:

Ashibetsu Dai-Kannon

..and you can see down all the way into the building:

Ashibetsu Dai-Kannon

which, again, was deserted. I'm pretty sure I was the only visitor, and the slightly strange atmosphere was beginning to weird me out. I called the lift from the 16th. The lifts have some amazing decoration, by the way:

Ashibetsu Dai-Kannon

At the bottom, you emerge into a kind of exhibition hall, in which you can walk all the way around the base. Fluorescent lights flickered, the bathrooms were out of order, the carpets were worn out, and it smelled very slightly damp. It had seen better days.

Ashibetsu Dai-Kannon

I took a quick look around, then made for the exit – I'd seen a big storm coming in and wanted to make it to the car before the rain. As I exited, the man appeared to be either sleeping or meditating, but sat upright as I appeared.

"Did you see it all?", he asked.

"Yes, thank you", I lied.

And then out into the garden, past the broken fountains, and into the car just as heavy raindrops began to hit the windscreen.

The History

Of course, I wanted to know why this strange place exists – but despite appearing in dozens of google-bait-y "Top Ten Statues" lists, there's precious little information in English. Here's what I've been able to work out based on my flaky Japanese and a bit of Google Translate – any corrections welcome!

Ashibetsu was a prosperous town due to coal mining in the post-war period, but many mines closed in the 1960s and by the 1970s people thought that attracting tourists could be the key to future prosperity. A hotel – complete with that Nara-like pagoda, and onsen baths – was opened in 1977. Planning of the Kannon statue began in 1975, and construction took until 1989 – there are a few photos from construction here.

The hotel and Kannon area was, if I've made this out right, known as 北の京 芦別 – kita no miyako, Ashibetsu – or, very roughly, the capital of the north, Ashibetsu. Also constructed was a monorail – the first in Hokkaido, carrying up to 80 people in three cars from the hotel to the Kannon – it ran around the left side of the garden, if you're looking up from the car park at the statue; the shadow of it is still visible.

Here's an advert from 1993:

The monorail stopped running in 1999, and was demolished in 2008 – there are some photos of it in various stages of newness, operation and decrepitude herehere and here - or in this video, which also shows some kind of 'English' show playing at the hotel. According to this excellent history, the main ticket gate of the Kannon has been abandoned since at least 2003.

Finally, in 2013, the company running the whole business collapsed. The Kannon is now owned by a 'religious corporation' called the Tentoku Institute; hence its new formal name: 北海道天徳大観音.

So, the giant Kannon is giant evidence of a sad story: people built it, but the tourists didn't come. The town's other tourist attraction – a theme park called Canadian World – didn't fare much better; it's now a park.

Businesses come, of course, and sometimes businesses go. But there's something sad about the way that this one remains,  a giant white shadow, watching over the town below.

 

This article is a small diversion from my usual stuff on traveling Japan on a budget – there's loads of that here, or you might like to start at nearby Furano.