おやすみ by Tom Royal on Flickr
Tokyo by Tom Royal on Flickr
Miho no Matsubara by Tom Royal on Flickr
Miho no Matsubara by Tom Royal on Flickr
Miho no Matsubara by Tom Royal on Flickr
Miho no Matsubara by Tom Royal on Flickr
Mount Fuji by Tom Royal on Flickr
Hokutosei by Tom Royal on Flickr
Hokutosei by Tom Royal on Flickr
Sapporo by Tom Royal on Flickr

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2012 (and 2013) London Travelcard Season Ticket Prices

December 29th, 2011

Because these are ridiculously hard, if not impossible, to find on the TFL website, I've put the weekly, monthly and annual costs in a spreadsheet.

Edit: Now updated to show 2013 fares, which are even worse. Thanks, Boris..

Data from from a PDF letter published here. Monthly and Annual rates calculated per that document's instructions. Thanks to Rachel H at Londonist for the link.

Twelve Months in Tech – from CES to the BJP App

December 23rd, 2011

I started 2011 in Las Vegas, covering the Consumer Electronics Show and, amongst other things, attempting to record a piece to camera in front of an occasionally exploding artificial volcano (it's all here). Since then, it's been a fascinating, if unusual, year. A few months later I was filming a robot monkey in Taiwan (covering Computex 2011), but around the same time something even odder than that happened -  I took a temporary step away from daily work in tech journalism and joined a small team bringing the British Journal of Photography  to the iPad.

The following six months have taken the app a long way: from sketches and mockups through UI prototypes and dummy issues, out of the country and back, via Quark, Xcode, a whole lot of HTML, MySQL, PHP and jQuery, a couple of tablets, three versions of InDesign and two busted Macs but, finally, we launched a huge, free debut issue in September. This month we released the first paid-for edition, along with Apple newsstand subscriptions, a free Preview Edition and, last but not least, a custom-made iPad edition of Computeractive, the UK's biggest selling computer magazine, also in iOS Newsstand.

Oh, and I launched a few apps of my own, too.

And now, just shy of Christmas we're closing the year with the BJP at the top of Apple's New and Noteworthy list, with well over 20,000 downloads and just announced as one of the ten best news and magazine apps in Europe by research firm iMonitor. It's time to wrap up, tidy up, clear the servers, fix the limping Macs, and look across the plans for 2012. Robot monkeys or not, it should be interesting.

Japan on a budget, 1: Planes, Trains and Hotels

December 12th, 2011

I've now been learning Japanese for about three years – long enough to get a decent grip on everyday verbs, adjectives and nouns, and to start wrestling with kanji (80ish, so far). But there's only so far you can get by speaking for 90 minutes per week in classes. So, I hatched a plan: to get to Japan as cheaply as possible and spend a few days practicing.

In the end, I managed to tour pretty much the entire lower half of Honshu quite inexpensively, and it was a great experience. In case it's handy to anyone planning something similar, this handful of blog posts – you can see the whole series here – will outline where I went, what I did, and how I kept the budget down.

Nara - Backstreet

Old Japan in Nara

Planes and Trains

My original idea was to fly in on the cheapest, crappest route possible, take the train to Kyoto and spend some time there. This went completely awry, but in a good way. First, air fares plummeted: I was able to get a direct flight from Heathrow to Narita for around £650, which is far less than we paid the other year, and even then the plane was half empty.

Hiroshima - Cranes

Cranes, Hiroshima

Booking on Virgin Atlantic gets you a choice between Virgin and ANA flights – in my experience Virgin's Tokyo planes are similar to others in the fleet – a bit knackered, with not enough legroom to sleep and mediocre food – while ANA's plane was immaculate, with more legroom and better (Japanese) meals. Given the choice, pick the latter – ANA were better than JAL, too.

Meiji Jingu Torii

A rainy Tokyo on the day I landed

Secondly, I found that getting a Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto costs around £200, so you might as well pay £250 or so for the 7-day Japan Rail Pass, which gets you unlimited travel on all JR lines, with a few minor restrictions.  I planned for eight days, but after my original flight was cancelled ended up with nine, during seven of which I could travel pretty much anywhere. In the end my route took me from Tokyo, through Kyoto, Fukuchiyama, Kinosaki, Hiroshima, Nara and Yokohama, then back  to Tokyo for one day before leaving.

Tokyo to Kyoto

Shinkansen – the best train service in the world

I really cannot recommend the Rail Pass enough. I must have used well over £1,000 worth of train travel, all for one fixed price, and on many trains you don't even need to pick up any other ticket. For those that do, you can use it to make reservations on Limited Express and Shinkansen services – the fastest Nozomi ones are exempt, but that doesn't matter much as you can use the almost-as-fast Hikari and Sakura services. The Rail Pass must be purchased before you travel to Japan – it is not sold there at all – and must be started within three months of purchase. In London, visit the Japan Travel shop under Mitsukoshi Department Store (which also sells tickets to the Ghibli Museum, if you haven't been!).

Ginza

New Japan in Ginza, Tokyo

Armed with a pass I spent 15 minutes in the JR Kyoto Eki ticket office booking ten or so journeys, which got me a guaranteed seat on even busy trains – reassuring when you're lugging a large rucksack. And the trains, of course, are fantastic. Even the oldest, crappiest (not very crappy) local ones run on time, while the Shinkansen are more comfortable than most aeroplanes I've been on (especially the reserved seating on Sakura services). It's a great way to travel.

Yosh!

The local train from Kyoto to Inari

Hotels and Hiking

With travel sorted, I aimed to travel not on the cheap, but relatively cheaply – no more than £120 a day, including accommodation. This is, fortunately, pretty easy – most cities have cheapish business hotels that have many single rooms that run from £50 (out in Kansai) to £90ish (Shinjuku, Tokyo). The Sunroute chain, in particular, is handy: you can reserve rooms online in advance with no deposit, and they're all good, no-frills places (think Travelodge, but often a bit nicer). Outside Tokyo and Kyoto I also found some cheap ryokan accommodation, which makes a nice change.

Add on one cheap restaurant meal a day, breakfast in a coffee shop and some onigiri for lunch, and you don't have to spend a fortune, even with the horrendously high Yen – but bear in mind that sightseeing and transport can be expensive. A day visiting temples in Kyoto, for example, must have set me back £50 at least just on entrance fees. Similarly, non-JR travel (Tokyo's subway lines, for example), quickly become costly if you're moving around a lot.

Hiroshima - Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki in Hiroshima – cheap and delicious

To cover my route you'll need luggage you can carry (a decent rucksack) and to be happy to walk 5km or so at a time carrying it. My route also required a couple of eyeball-hurtingly-early starts, and judicious use of train station lockers to hold  baggage when passing through towns. All big stations have these, although they fill up in the mornings, and they can be hard to find – ask 'すみません、コインロッカーはどこですか' (sumimasen, coin-ro-kah wa doko des ka?). Backpack sized ones normally cost 600Y for storage until 1am the next day.

Oh, and one other recommendation: just before leaving I grabbed a copy of the new Lonely Planet guide to Japan, as I've had good experiences finding cheap places to stay using their guides in the past. Although it has a few odd omissions, and a few sections were already out of date (just goes to show how long editing, proofing and printing can take, I guess), it proved really handy and I'd recommend it.

So, that's that. I flew in and out of Tokyo – more on that city here.

Japan on a budget, 2: Tokyo

December 12th, 2011

(This is part of a guide to travelling Honshu on a moderate budget and in limited time. Click here for the whole series).

Arriving

International flights arrive at Narita, outside Tokyo. It's worth claiming your Japan Rail Pass in the large JR office here (follow signs to the trains, and it's before the ticket gates) – I took the chance to wrangle with my bad Japanese, but I overheard staff speaking excellent English to another traveller. If you're not starting your pass immediately, the N-EX and Suica deal (£50 or so) gets you express tickets to and from the city (Tokyo or Shinjuku stations, reservations required) plus the Oyster-like Suica card with cash on it at a discount price. If you're not sticking around in Tokyo there are also Limited Express services into town.

I visited Tokyo before in 2009, so skipped most of the sights – see my old post here for Ten Tokyo Travel Tips, including Tsujiki, the Ghibli museum, etc. I did, however, find a few things I'd missed before.

Inside the Imperial Palace

The Japanese Imperial Family is notoriously reclusive, and the Tokyo palace is not open to the public. You can, however, tour some of the grounds inside if you book online (here) several weeks in advance. The tour is in Japanese only, but there's a fairly basic headset guide in English.

Imperial Palace - Nijubashi Bridge

The Nijubashi bridge from the palace

It takes you around behind the famous Nijubashi bridge (no photos allowed, but everyone snaps away anyhow), around the front of the main palace building then to the back where, apparently, the Emperor has a rice paddy to work in (shades of the French monarchy, there). The tour is worth it just for the chance to get a closeish look at two of the keeps perched high on the ramparts – both are stunning.

Imperial Palace - Keep

Keep, inside the palace grounds

After the tour, if the Higashi-gyoen is open, you can go straight through to that. It's not the prettiest garden I saw, but it is worth a stroll around. One word of advice, though: finding the correct gate to start the tour is a nightmare, as some small maps don't have the gates labelled. It's worth getting there early in case you have to walk miles to it. Also, large luggage is prohibited, so drop it in a coin locker at Tokyo eki.

Imperial Palace - Off limits

Inside the palace somewhere

Baseball at the dome

Arriving and leaving from Tokyo means that you know the dates you'll be there, so I also booked a ticket at the Tokyo Dome for a baseball game – the cheap seats cost about £12, and you can book online here. I was in town for the Yoimuri Giants vs Hanshin Tigers series (Tokyo vs Osaka) – essentially the Yankees vs Red Sox.

Tokyo Dome - Baseball

Grudge match at the Tokyo Dome

I've had a soft spot for MLB on the television for some time, but even if you're not a fan it's well worth catching a game either here or in Hiroshima. The myriad songs and chants – one for each batter up – are continuous, hour after hour, and legions of keg-backpacked bartenders scurry around the stands delivering beer for a wallet-melting £8 a go.

Tokyo Dome - beerseller

Beer, 800Y. Hang on, 800Y?

I backed the Tigers, who lost thanks to a home run in the 10th after playing a great game (gah), but it was still a great experience. It's also nice to note that, even in this most fiercely fought of matches, fans could mingle happily – a mother with her young, Giants-supporting daughter was alongside me in the middle of the Osaka crowd.

Onsen. Wait, in Tokyo?

God, I love Onsen. I didn't previously know, though, that there's one in Tokyo. The O-edo Onsen Monogatari is on Odaiba (take the Yurikamome to Telecom Centre) and is half-onsen, half-theme park. Pay your way in (go late, as it's around 1500Y after 6pm), pick up a yukata and you're free to roam a kind of Disney recreation of an Edo-period castle packed with various food, beer and knick-knack sellers.

Ooedo Onsen Monogatari

Onsen meets Disneyland on Odaiba

Towels and cloths are provided in the inner onsen changing room, and the male side has at least six indoor baths, a cold bath (ouch) and two outdoor ones. Go there on the evening of your arrival to soak away the jetlag – sitting in a hot outdoor bath in the cold rain makes any 12-hour flight worthwhile.

Bye, Tokyo

Also worth seeing on Odaiba: the view

Other facilities (mostly upstairs) include foot massage machines, vending machines of course, and a bizarre 'relaxation room' in which old men snore contentedly while failing to watch NHK on the in-seat TVs. Everything inside is purchased using a barcode wristband then paid-for when you check out.

Food, Hotels and Travel

God knows Tokyo isn't cheap, but you can go a long way on onigiri and instant ramen (all business hotels have water heaters for just this purpose). I also found good food, cheap in the big department stores around Shinjuku and Ginza – hit the basement, not the restaurant level – and around Shinjuku station (great ramen for a tenner or so).

If you're looking for a cheapish, decentish hotel, try Sunroute's Higashi Shinjuku – it's right by exit B2 of the Oedo Line station of that name, and is classic business hotel fare for about £70 despite the location. The Plaza Shinjuku branch, just a few stops away, is a little posher but runs £40 or so more per night (use the JR New South exit for that one).

JR Shinjuku is absolutely massive – I think it's the biggest station in the world, or something – so obviously has a large reservation office where you can book onward tickets, but beware – there are a lot of platforms, on many levels, and about a million entrances or exits. Don't try to rush for a train or book a tight connection unless you know it well.

Anyhow, the morning after the onsen before, I packed up early and caught a shinkansen from Tokyo station to Kyoto – for more on that city, see here.

Japan on a budget, 3: Kyoto

December 12th, 2011

(This is part of a guide to travelling Honshu on a moderate budget and in limited time. Click here for the whole series).

I arrived in Kyoto on my second day, via Shinkansen from Tokyo. You arrive at the huge JR Kyoto station, from which you can link to the local JR lines, the private railway (pass not valid) and the subway (ditto). Coming in at around 1pm I dropped my backpack in a coin locker (there are several sets – try the side of the station if the main area is full) and headed out on the local train to Inari. It's a few stops, and trust me, you want to travel light for this one.

Fushimi Inari-taisha

The Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine complex is directly opposite the JR Inari station – look for the red Torii gate. Then look for another, up the hill. Then look for a couple of thousand of them lining the mountain path. It's stunning.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

The first torii

The path leads on and on, past dozens of shrines and some scenic views. It's steep in places, and not something to undertake with luggage or nearing dusk. The route is signed, badly, and even with maps everywhere it can be a little baffling, but nonetheless I managed a scenic circuit taking in the very top in about two hours.

Fushimi Inari Taisha

Somewhere inside the complex

Kinkaku-Ji, Sanjyu-San and  Kyomizu-dera

Back in Kyoto, you can't walk a few blocks without hitting a gorgeous-looking temple. Probably the best known, though, is the golden pavilion, Kinkaku-Ji. It's a bus ride from Kyoto JR, or a nice walk from the nearby Kitaoji subway stop, passing a huge complex of Buddhist temples en-route. I arrived early, just after 9am, and it was already packed – walking down the approach all I could hear were cries of 'suggeeeeeeiii!' (roughly, 'wow') from schoolkids rounding the corner ahead. And it is, indeed, one hell of a view.

Kyoto - Kinkaku-Ji

The Kinkaku-Ji. Just stunning.

Most of the other temples lie over the other side of town to the East, and you could easily spend a week checking them all out. With a day and a half in Kyoto, I had to hike about quite a bit. After stopping mid-way at the International Manga Museum (below) I hauled across to the Sanjyu-San – a huge, ancient, Buddhist complex containing a frankly unfeasible number of many-armed statues, plus a Buddah in the middle. No photos are allowed, but to be honest you couldn't capture it anyhow – it's remarkable.

Kyoto - Kyomizu-dera

The Kyomizu-dera

The Kyoto National Museum is just across the way from there, but is currently in renovation and was closed as I passed. Instead, I walked to the unfeasibly beautiful Kyomizu-dera temple up on the hill to the East. It's possible to approach via two souvenir-shop-packed streets, but check a map for the path up through the huge cemetery below – it's a climb, but the views are amazing. As was seeing the sun set behind the pagoda from the top of the temple.

Kyoto - Sunset

Sunset over Kyoto. Such a beautiful place.

International Manga Museum and Nijō Jō

As well as all the temples, it's worth checking out the famous Nijō Jō castle. It's impressive from the outside, with elaborately carved gates, but take the tour to see the inner quarters and walk on the squeaking nightingale-floors. Also, don't miss the inner room decorations: these are housed in a separate museum inside the castle walls (look for the modern building). Photos are forbidden inside.

Kyoto - Nijo-Jo

Carvings on the Nijō Jō

Not far from the castle is the International Manga Museum. This is really more library than museum, but it's a chance to grab, sit down with and read just about any manga you've ever heard of, and then a couple of thousand more, going back decades. Entry (800Y) is good for the day. There are a few shelves of English translations, and English signage in the exhibits, but to be honest you'll need to a bit of Japanese (not much – lots of Manga are furiganated) to get the most from this.

Kyoto - International Manga Museum

Inside the International Manga Museum

The museum is housed in an old school, and a few rooms are devoted to the history of the building – these are well worth checking out.

Food, Hotels and Travel

From JR Kyoto the subway line runs directly north, then another crosses it at Karasuma-Oike station, running East-West. The rest of the city is served by buses. Both cost <200Y for most trips, but Suica or Pasmo cards won't work (there is a local IC card). As it's on a grid layout, walking is easy, and there are a couple of large covered shopping arcades should you need coffee, a pharmacy etc.

I stayed in the Hearton Hotel Kyoto, which is tucked away about a block from Karasuma-Oike – it's on the sidestreet behind the big sporting goods shop. It's a little worn (well, actually pretty knackered in places), but good value for the £55 or so it costs per night, and the location's good for the subway. I'd recommend it.

For cheap eats there are the usual combini and fast food outlets, plus department store basement food halls on the main Shijo-Dori parade running East-West (check out the posh coffee shop that turns into a cheap curry counter by night!) and some decent ramen places for 15Y or so.

I loved Kyoto, and could have easily stayed longer – but with a public holiday on Monday, all the hotels were full, so I bailed out of town towards Northern Kansai and the onsen of Kinosaki.