A journey begins when you step outside the ordinary and into the extraordinary. But what is extraordinary anymore? This trip was our tenth to Japan in nine years. My eleventh, as I travelled alone last year in business on Jetstar. Even our three and a half year old son Alex had been there three times previously (four if you count in utero).
It doesn't matter. I wanted this trip to be as exciting as our very first overseas, lived for this escape from the daily routine. It must be obvious that I love Japan, love the ease of getting around, the trains to amazing places that are unexpectedly so wonderful to visit. I love the people, the security, the gadgets, the food, the craft, the lights, the... And I know that it all must change, so I must savour it while I can.
I was originally going to visit by myself, for I have many train lines to follow that the other two would rather not and a need to seek the serenity that I find only in Japan. So I bought my tickets, but could not, in the end, leave the other two behind. So when the two for one Jetstar sale finally arrived, as I knew it would, I booked seats for B and Alex.
I had wanted to see Japan in winter or during the beautiful cherry blossom season, but B was in search of something warmer, so we booked the first weeks of June, the start of the Australian winter and the opposite in the north.
Alex was extremely excited about the trip, every day asking if we were catching the airport train and going to Japan.
"I want to go to Japan, catch an Anpanman train and have a hot bath."
"We need to save up money for a ticket first [and that's why we can't buy you x]."
"Are we going to international airport today?"
"Not today, you need to wait until winter. Is it winter yet?"
"No, it's autumn."
"Then we can't go yet."
When the first day of winter arrived I took him from childcare, met B in the city, caught the train to Wolli Creek and walked to the airport Mercure Hotel. Despite staying in a high floor facing the airport, the spotting isn't the best, but it's a comfortable place to stay before an early flight.
The next morning we were up at around four am and an hour later catching a shuttle bus to the international terminal across the road.
We were originally booked to fly at 6am out of Sydney domestic to the Gold Coast on a Jetstar A320, but then I was informed of a flight change to 7am on an A330 from the International Terminal to OOL, then continuing on to KIX. Woohoo, an extra hour of sleep! Except that you don't get that extra hour thanks to the additional hassle of immigration and security.
For whatever reason we were ineligible to use web check in, but the manual process is short and we go straight through immigration and security.
I rather like Sydney's international terminal post immigration. It might not be as modern and airy as many other examples, but I think it generally looks classy and there are a few interesting retail outlets, not just luxury brands. We stop first for a quick breakfast at McDonalds, mainly to let Alex use the play equipment and burn off some energy. He is hopping and skipping with the excitement of travel.
It's a pity that there aren't free physical activity areas for children at the airport, rather than wall puzzles and the McDonalds.
By the time we make it to gate 35 the aircraft is already boarding. I look out the window and it's... VH-EBC... Again! I've been on it too often and I find the silver Jetstar livery nicer than EBC's white, the sole aircraft of the fleet with that paint job.
At the gate I have to wave goodbye to B and Alex. My separate booking has been upgraded to Jetstar's "business" class (it's really premium economy/domestic business), while they are back in economy. I offer to swap with her at any time, but she refuses, wanting to spend time looking after Alex. Alex is a bit of a Daddy's boy and I've gone on a number of flights where it was just him and me sitting together.
I'm in seat 5A and the cabin is empty for this short leg up to the Gold Coast. Later one other passenger boards. There are no amenity packs.
Attendant Karen cheerfully offers me a welcome drink but I've just had breakfast and decline. Eventually she plonks a bottle of water beside me.
It's miserable weather outside, not very inspiring for travel. I'm a bit disappointed, for Sydney Airport can be very beautiful in the early morning light. The doors are shut and we back away from the gate. It is time for the standard safety demonstration.
We pass the freight terminal on our way to the northern end of the main runway. Then it is up, up and away on our latest adventure to Japan, up into the overcast skies.
Ascending rapidly we pass over the Kurnell Peninsula, oil refinery and sandmine visible. Then a bumpy ride up though the many layers of cloud above us. When we reach the top the scene is of an amorphous white landscape. The seatbelt light is quickly extinguished, so I power up my phone (in flight mode, of course) and listen to music.
I am disturbed once by Karen, persistant again with offerings from the cart. Having just had breakfast I am not hungry, but I accept a packed of M&Ms and a very nice hot chocolate served in a china cup.
Only odd glimpses of the land below are visible between clouds. It isn't until our long descent into the Gold Coast that more scenery becomes apparent, the rich green of the Northern Rivers district. We swing around to land from the north, joining another Jetstar A330 destined for Tokyo and a heavily decorated AirAsiaX of the same type bound forn Kuala Lumpur.
Exiting is done via stairs and it is fortunate that there is a break in the rain.
Gold Coast airport's international transit area is nothing to write home about. A newsagent, cafe and duty free store, where I picked up a couple of emergency gifts for Japan. Then in the newsagent Alex spotted a "Busy Airport" lift-the-flap book, quite different to his much loved title at home. It even had big pictures of x-ray machines. I could not resist.
Sooner than expected we were being asked to reboard the aircraft. Outside, up the stairs and off on our separate ways. This time there were amenities on the seat and I accepted a glass of orange juice. An elderly Japanese couple beside me were split by the aisle to their disappointment. I wanted to help them without giving up a window seat, but B again refused my offer to swap. I figured that they would probably sleep anyway and I was mostly right, while I snapped happily away.
Again we took off towards the south and rose up through the clouds. The number of cloud layers seemed interminable and we bumped our way through each. And again they obscured the view. Having seen the Queensland coast countless times I didn't mind too much, perhaps it would be a chance to watch some entertainment, write, or even sleep.
Instead we were fed an early lunch. I was surprised to be given a menu booklet that listed every business class meal on every Jetstar long haul route. I chose chicken rikyu-yaki, which was a bit overcooked and the rice was more of a risotto than a typical Japanese dish. The miso vegetables were nice, as was the rather gluggy sauce. I was looking forward to the cheesecake, but it has been replaced by rather small, but rich, chocolate brownies.
Then it was entertainment time.
I'm used to really dreadful movies on the Jetstar main cabin screens, but today it was The Adventures of Tintin. I want to watch it, but couldn't be bothered with the rather distant screens. Instead I pinned my hopes on the portable units which were being handed out.
Gone were the "bricks" as I used to call them, replaced by modified iPads. Unfortunately, there was still nothing I wanted to watch on them. Zilch. I tried some of the included games, which looked cool in a late nineties PC kind of way, but which gave me motion sickness. I asked if I could give it to B as she might like the chic flick, the included eMags and Alex the childrens eBooks, but I wasn't allowed to.
I wasn't concerned by the lack of entertaiment. The window is the best IFE, as the saying goes, and I had plenty stored on my own devices.
There were brief glimpses of coral atolls around Heron Island, but it was thick clouds all the way up until we approached the coast of Papua New Guinea. Coastal settlements and big rivers carving their way down from the highlands. Suddenly the clouds changed to tropical cumulonimbus and the flight got bumpier. Suddenly the clouds stop and we are crossing the northern coastline of Papua.
Since then the clouds have varied from scattered cumulus with a shimmering blue sea below to hazy high cloud that gives us the shakes. But there is nothing but ocean below. Maybe I should have a nap!
Before I could do so B decides she wants to swap with me and read her book in peace. So I go back to economy to play with Alex. We read stories, draw and play "conveyor belt" games with the tray tables. Eventually she returns and I am surprised to see that we only have two and a quarter hours left to go.
The remainder of the cruise is spent in hazy skies of high cloud. We are served a light dinner of yakisoba (fried noodles) with ice cream for dessert. I watch the final episode of Dirk Gently on my phone before listening to music until we begin our descent.
It is evening and the grey sky has an orange edge as we fly down between Shikoku and Honshu. I can see rivers and rice paddies, cities and factories, ports for ships and aircraft, and a lot of reclamation work off the coast. It is a visual feast after the past eight hours, but I wonder how many of those reclamations are really needed and how much is make work for the Japanese corporations.
Finally we land on the manmade island that is Kansai International Airport. Alex emerges excited and having been very well behaved on the flight. I feel stuffy and stinky, despite just sitting down almost the entire day.
Immigration is dreadfully slow, every foreigned fingerprinted and photographed. We collect our luggage (Alex doesn't want to leave the luggage belt), make a trip to the bathroom (Alex is amazed at the light activated flush and automatic soap dispensers and hand dryer, all built into the one sink. Then to his delight we catch an airport lift up to the station.
After exchanging our vouchers for rail passes we turn the corner to see some sort of noisy singing promotion along with a number of stalls selling food. I want to eat, the beef smells delicious, and some free samples confirm this, but B wants to move along.
The Haruka express takes us from Kansai Airport to Kyoto via Osaka. I enjoy the glimpses of neon lit suburbia, but Alex is dreadfully tired and eventually falls asleep just as we arrive at Kyoto. It is a struggle to carry him and all the luggage, but he awakes as we leave the station and is soon thrilled to see a colourful fountain moving to music.
We walk all the way up past Kyoto Tower and the dark Higashi Honganji temple towards our accommodation. I can't find it and eventually have to ask for directions from a Toyoko Inn. Fortunately, it's not too far away and we arrive at the very stylish and comfortably equipped Citadines apartment. I think this will be our new favourite accommodation in Kyoto.
The next day, after changing our mind about visiting Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku, we turned back and travelled across to the sand dunes of Tottori, before returning to Kyoto.
Last year we had planned to visit Japan's northern regions for the first time, but then the earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear reactor leak intervened. Now things had calmed down enough to resume our plans. We caught Shinkansens up to Tokyo and then on to Shin-Hanamaki, where we hopped on to a scenic local train ride out to the town of Tono to find some kappas. Then it was back to Shin-Hanamaki and up to Morioka for a couple of nights.
We had a day trip up to Hirosaki, with its pretty castle grounds and fascinating Neputa festival museum.
Then up to Sapporo by train, with a squiddy stopover in Hakodate for lunch.
At Otaru we tried squid ink and sea urchin flavoured ice creams. (Not recommended).
The following day it was into Hokkaido's mountainous interior for a cable car and chairlift ride up Mt Daisetsuzan followed by a hot soak at Sounkyo Onsen.
We were tempted to fly in or out of Sapporo, and there were some cheapish fares with Peach and some other airlines, but not cheap enough to justify the cost. We already had 14 day JR passes and it was cheaper just to stick to the trains, so it was a long ride back down to Shinjuku in Tokyo.
The Shinjuku Prince Hotel is our second home and it was great to spend three nights there. We took Alex up to the FujiQ amusement park, which featured Thomasland (Thomas the Tank Engine). B dared go on the Fujiyama rollercoaster, previously the world's tallest.
Our last Shinkansen ride was back to Osaka, where we spent the remainder of our time shopping before our flight back to Australia. Five minutes away from the airport by train is Rinku town, with its Premium Outlet Centre. As I suspected it was a total waste of time, unless you love the whole branded outlet shopping thing. But on the walk back to the station we stopped at the Seacle Adventure Town, which was perfect for kids stuff. While B looked through the children's stores, Alex got to run and climb around in the fantastic kids play area (500 Yen for an hour). If you have young kids about to take a long flights out of KIX then I thoroughly recommend it.
A ten minute play turns into half an hour. There is no way I can deny Alex a last happy memory of Japan. The playground is so very cool. Enclosures with balloons blown around, climbing ropes and frames on spinning or moving platforms. Wobbly water mattresses and ball areas. Even wooden train layouts. It is so much better value, so much fun, in comparison to most playgrounds in Australia.
Alex loves it and B has fun shopping for him. By the time we arrive at the airport the check in desk is near closing, but fortunately there is no queue. Our bags are surprisingly even under the prepurchased and business class weights. After bathroom trips there is no time to eat dinner, so we make our way straight to the gate. Fortunately (an inadvertently) we have prepurchased meals for the flight.
It's white VH-EBC again. I'm so bored of this aircraft.
Again, we are separated, B and Alex in economy, me in business. I find myself missing them dreadfully during the flight. I'm already sad enough due to leaving Japan and just want this flight to end as soon as possible. I'm tired and resist falling asleep as we taxi as I want to enjoy every bit of our stay.
There are some pretty views of the airport and cities below as we ascend into the sky, but we are soon over blackness. The first half of the flight is pretty bumpy and, as the moustachioed captain predicted, the seatbelt lights are required over Guam. I distract myself listening to music and watching episodes of Spaced, Gruen Transfer and Wonders of the Universe on my media players. The power is dead to our seats, despite working on the flight up (same plane, same seat).
The captain announces the half time scores at the State of Origin rugby league match and says that the full time results will be posted at the galleys. I don't care.
I enjoy my dinner of crumbed chicken and rice and the slice of berry cheesecake, much smaller than they used to give, is very good. I don't think I sleep long either. When I wake after one short nap I see a glow on the horizon. It is the waning moon rising, making silhouettes of the cloud beneath us. Finally there is something to see.
Just north of Papua New Guinea there are some isolated lights shining below and the moonlight shimmering off the water. Then more cloud. The time has flown past quickly.
It is still dark outside when the cabin lights are switched on and breakfast is served. My omelette, bacon, mushroom (yuck) and potato is surprisingly tasteless (actually, not that surprisingly for taste is deadened at altitude). The hot chocolate is still very nice.
I watch the glow of the approaching dawn outside the window. A couple of planets are visible as reddened spots on the horizon. The sun is yet to rise as we penetrate the cloud layer and descend over quiet seas into the Gold Coast.
We pass through customs and quarantine with few problems as our food is all kept separate. Then it is back into the domestic section for a little over an hour's wait for our flight to Sydney. Alex and B slept for most of their flight, I am very sleepy.
We are all seated together in the A320 that takes us between the Gold Coast and Sydney. I fall asleep during the taxi out to the runway and am surprised to wake up and find us at full power, about to lift off. The other two sleep almost the entire way. I have another nap at one stage, but for most of the flight I enjoy the bright skies outside of the window. I do love these short domestic flights.
Sydney's CBD is right beneath my window, then we fly over the coast and up over Kurnell on our final approach. Everything looks so clear and it is such a pretty way to arrive into Sydney. Then we are out of the airport and on to a train and a bus for our ride home.
Alex is happy to be home and back with his new toys, building an even bigger train layout. He's been such an incredible traveller again. Kita is so excited when we pick him up from the dog kennel that we pays little attention to his new toys. We enjoy sitting out on the veranda under the cool sun, eating Vietnamese pork rolls from the local bakery.
All of us are sleepy, but you know what, I could go straight back the airport again and up, up and away.
While flying the pseudo business class on Jetstar is nice, I think I would generally be quite happy in their economy section. There isn't the huge difference that you might find with a full service airline. They do the job, they get you there.
If you want to find out more about the trip with lots more photos, please see my travel blog. Due to time constraints, most of this report came from there. Tomorrow, it's off to Singapore with Scoot (in economy), so stay tuned for the comparison between these two long haul LCCs.
[Edited 2012-07-22 21:25:44]