Category Archives: Experiences

Experiences Travels

A Visit to Europe – Preparations – Accommodations (AirBnB and

Now that we had all the destinations planned, there were still a number of things to prepare for. Obviously, accommodation was the first and most important item to plan for. Since we would be going during the start of the peak tourist season, costs for normal hotels would be high and would likely book up fast, so we began exploring budget options. Another important thing to plan/prepare for was transportation (train tickets and car rental). Since S was staying behind after I returned to Tokyo, I also wanted to make sure that she had a phone for emergencies. Finally, since I know that my map-reading skills are somewhat sub-par, I wanted to make sure we’d have use of Google maps/GPS available. This would also ensure that we would have access to email/internet.

These days, there are a number of options for finding travel accommodations available out there now. I won’t list them all, but the ones I ended up using were and I used AirBnb the most (since the rooms listed there tended to be cheaper), but… as they say, you do end up with what you pay for, and following is a not-so-brief rundown of the experience, the good and the bad.

First of all, signing up is a breeze. You have to provide your contact details (email, phone number at least, picture of your passport for some accommodations). All of it is automated, and didn’t take me more than a few minutes (even registering passport). Note that you don’t HAVE to register your passport, but some BnB have that requirement before they’ll allow you to make a reservation with them, which is understandable as hotels do the same.

Likewise, it’s also very easy to find accommodations. You specify your destination, you set your budget and other criteria, and you’ll get a whole slew of results to choose from. You will often get accommodations that are conveniently located to major sites at lower prices than typical hotels. The downside is that since these BnB are typically privately owned residences, you don’t really know what a place is like until you’ve actually arrived. Sure, you do have user reviews, but those can vary widely because what seems fine for, say, a single backpacker would not necessarily be fine for a couple or family. (more on that later)

Another thing to consider is communication between yourself and the hosts of your selected BnB. Finding and booking a BnB is very quick and simple. You can do so on your computer through the browser, or via the AirBnB app on your mobile device. Both offer fairly slick user-friendly interfaces. It’s worth noting though, that you should be sure to list the DATES of your travel in order to get accurate prices. As with hotels, hosts can list different prices for different dates (ie peak season vs. off-season). Prices also vary from host to host for the number of additional people – prices for a single person may be cheap, but the cost for a 2nd or 3rd person can vary wildly. When I initially ran my searches, I was only looking at location (hoping to get a baseline of prices) and didn’t input number of travellers and the dates. So when I finally started the booking process, I wondered why the final costs were so far off from my initial estimates!

The final thing to be aware of is checking a host’s cancellation policy. These also vary, from the flexible to super strict. Ideally you want to avoid the strict and above levels. With those, once you book, you only get a 50% refund if you cancel – up till 1 week before. If you cancel less than 1 week before your scheduled arrival date, you get nothing back. I understand that this is for the protection of the host, but still rather inconvenient, especially if there’s a chance your travel dates might change. So – look for hosts offering “flexible” or “moderate” cancellation policies if you can.

A host’s communication capability is also something that is difficult to gauge on AirBnB. Remember, these are folks in different countries, where English may not be a first or even 2nd language. In my case, I tried to get in touch with one of the hosts in Prague I had booked with (who had a “strict” cancellation policy) because I needed to adjust (or “alter” in AirBnB terminology) my booking dates. I wasn’t trying to cancel, just shift the dates forward by 1 day. Even though the listing calendar showed that date as available, I had a dickens of a time trying to get this communicated across and in fact, after several back-and-forth emails, he simply stopped responding to me 2 weeks before our travel!

This was very stressful because a) I couldn’t cancel outright without losing 50% of the total fees, and b) it also meant that we didn’t have a place to stay for the first night! Unfortunately, AirBnB customer support was not… supportive. I got a canned response when I asked them for assistance, but then didn’t hear back from them until AFTER the trip. In the end, I booked another accommodation for the first night, this time via, so all went well. In fact, after my arrival and talking with the AirBnb host face-to-face, we managed to work things out .

This underscores the main difference (for me) between AirBnB and AirBnb (usually) offers cheaper prices, and more choices in terms of location (some hosts live REALLY close to major attractions). However, you have a higher risk of encountering communication difficulties and lack of customer support. on the other hand, allows nearly trouble-free cancellation up until 24 hours before check-in, and communication appears to be more reliable. Of course, you do have to pay more for this. So it’s a trade-off.

Would I use AirBnb in the future again? Probably. Next time though, I will be much more mindful of a host’s cancellation policy (especially if there is ANY chance that my travel dates might change), and pay very close attention to user reviews. I know that reviews may not necessarily be “accurate” (there’s a dual feedback process whereby hosts also review travelers, which rather “encourages” positive reviews of each other), but it’s still worth going through and observing if there are any negative patterns that come up. AirBnb seems to have a lot of potential, and I would say is particularly suited for single travelers, backpackers, or people who just need a place to crash at night and don’t necessarily care about amenities or environs. Plus, you may get some great locations. Of course, you could also PAY more.. but then there’s less value when compared to a site like which offers more peace of mind.

Hmm… this post has turned into a review of AirBnb, hasn’t it? I’ll go back to the other preparations we did for our Europe trip in my next post.

P.S. AirBnB contacted me apologizing about the delay in support, saying that they had a large backlog and that it wasn’t usual for them to be that slow when responding. If others have had experiences with AirBnb customer support, I’d be curious to hear about it!

Experiences Photography

Thaipusam Festival in SG

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I’ve finally uploaded pictures of the Thaipusam festival I visited last year while in Singapore.  Pictures are uploaded to the usual place, but this time I’m putting the link at the bottom of this post since viewers may find some of the pictures a little upsetting if you don’t know what to expect.

One of the guys in the SG office is a shutterbug as well, and when he learned that a group of his photography friends were planning a visit to the temple where preparations for the festival were taking place, he asked if I wanted to come along.  I’m always up for any kind of photo walk, so I happily agreed.

Preparations for the festivities start EARLY – so I had to wake up around 4AM to grab a taxi to the Little India area.  There I met up with my colleague and we headed to the temple.  Once there, you have to take off your shoes (luckily I was wearing sandals) before you’re allowed to go in.  I’m used to taking off shoes when going in Japanese shrines/temples, but always within buildings.  This temple was more or less “open-air” though, and it took me a while to get used to walking on dirt and grass barefoot (I’ve grown pretty spoiled since I’ve come to Japan). 😛

I also hadn’t expected so much leeway in taking pictures, but there were tons of photographers and tourists already at the temple snapping away, some really up close and personal – I was rather surprised at how easygoing the devotees were and how well they took things.

The preparations for the event were fascinating to observe, if a little…unorthodox (at least for me).  More information can be found at the Wikipedia link for Thaipusam here, but the gist of it is that it’s a festival celebrating commemorating the defeat of an evil demon by one of the Hindu deities.  Devotees prepare several days in advance with fasting and prayer, and on the actual day of the festival, take on various burdens which they will present to the Hindu deity Murugan.

The types of “burdens” vary greatly as you can see in the pictures.  Some only carry pots of milk on their heads, while others pierce their bodies while carrying a portable canopy called a “Kavadi” (example shown in the picture at the beginning of this post).  Even the degrees of piercing vary – from thin rods that barely pierce the skin, to skewers that jut through one cheek and out the other, rods that punch through the skin of the belly, and nasty looking hooks that snag the flesh on the back.

Some devotees handle the pain fairly stoically, even appearing nonchalant, while others (notably the younger ones) were in obvious pain.

There were other preparations as well, such as the manufacture of incense (the place positively reeked of incense which lingered on my clothes throughout the day), offerings of food and drink, prayers, and more.  While watching one of the men get fitted with his kavadi, one woman appeared to get possessed, and started throwing herself first against him, and later rolling around the dirt.  I actually got a video clip of this which I may later upload, but sufficed to say it was a little disconcerting.

My colleague and I stayed until about 8AM, after which we packed our cameras away, washed our feet under a convenient nearby faucet, and headed to work (we had brought a change of clothes).

It was an intriguing experience, and despite the early hours and the somewhat disturbing displays of self-mortification, I’m glad I went.  For a look at all the pictures I took, and if you’re not averse to piercings, head on over to the gallery section.



2011 Karuizawa half marathon

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I’ve finally gotten around to posting some pictures of a recent marathon that I took part in, which can be found at the usual place.  My participation in this marathon was completely unexpected; two weeks before the marathon, a colleague of mine at work (a dedicated runner) came by my desk and asked if I would be interested in taking his place in a marathon he had previously signed up for.  An unexpected business trip had come up and he would not be in Japan on the weekend the marathon was scheduled to take place.

With not a little trepidation, I said I would try – “try” being the operative word, since I hadn’t participated in a real run since last year’s Tokyo marathon!  I managed to get about a week and a half’s worth of practice, though only running about 4-5 km each practice run.  The reason for this was because I had decided to run in my new Vibram Five-Finger shoes, and it was taking me longer to adjust to “barefoot running” than I had expected.  Seriously, running in those REALLY work out your calf and… tibialis?  soleus? whatever the muscle directly below the knee facing front is called.

On the day of the race I was still worried because I still hadn’t gotten to run for more than 5km at a stretch, and I had also chosen to rest for the 2 days just before the race to give my legs a chance to recover from the practice.  However, I woke up at 04:30, showered, and headed out (also managed to get a few shots of a lovely early morning sunrise from my balcony just before I left).  I got on a shinkansen to Karuizawa, and within an hour and a half I had arrived.

Everything was in Japanese, but luckily I didn’t really need to know much – I just followed the hundreds of people wearing running gear all getting off the train.  (also, as far as I could tell, I was the only one wearing Five Finger shoes).  The race started at 09:00 and off we went.

I kept to a very slow pace during the entire run – in fact, I don’t think I ever got winded throughout the entire 21km.  My feet and legs also held up surprisingly well for the first 10-12km, but gradually after that I really started to feel the burn in my lower legs.  The last 2km were the worst… my feet, lower leg muscles, and whatever one calls the muscles located on the outer side of the knee were on fire… I’m pretty sure I completed the last leg of the race on adrenaline alone!

Finally, after 2hrs and 25min, I crossed the finish line.  Towards the end there were volunteers handing out paper cups of water to runners… I swear, nothing ever tasted so delicious in my life.  When really tired and exhausted, nothing beats good ‘ol water!

It had started to drizzle during the last stretch of the race, and shortly after finishing, the drizzle turned into a full blown storm.  I didn’t even bother changing out of my runner’s clothes since I didn’t have an umbrella and my dry clothes (thankfully my clean clothes were in plastic) would just have gotten wet.  Instead I hung around the finish line, grabbed a quick bowl of ramen from a nearby stall and after slurping it down I trudged over to a mega-outlet that was located near the train station.

There, I changed into dry clothes, and sat for a couple of hours reading and sipping a cup of decadently rich Godiva hot chocolate.  Mmmm…

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After a wonderful rest, I grabbed another shinkansen back home, showered, and fell asleep instantly.

I have to say, I have never recovered so quickly from a race – ever.  Every race I’ve run in has always required that I rest up for a week or two so my knees would recover.  This time, all pain was gone in 2 days.  The only thing I can attribute the quick recovery to is my Vibram shoes – I guess that the emphasis that these shoes place on a front and/or mid-foot strike may be doing me some good, and I definitely plan to continue running in these to see how things go.

Well, there you go, the story behind the pictures I’ve posted in my gallery section.  Sadly the picture selection is rather minimal since I only took pictures after the race.. but still, I had a great experience! 🙂


Experiences Photography

More views of the Tokyo Sky Tree

I’d previously posted pictures I took of the Tokyo Sky Tree almost a year ago, but I’ve just uploaded new pictures that I took on Wednesday to my gallery page.

Not only has the Sky Tree reached its final height, but the pictures are of slightly better quality this time as well. 😛

I’ll do a further write up of Wednesday a little later, but for now I just wanted to get those up first.


Gorilla toe shoes (aka Vibram FiveFingers)

I’ve always been fond of five-toe socks, and have been wearing them pretty much ever since I came to Japan.  I find that they’re comfortable and help keep my feet dry and warm.  Actually, I don’t like wearing “normal” socks anymore because they make my feet feel sweaty!

Early last year, I learned about a new kind of “shoe” produced by Vibram – a funky type of footwear named “Vibram FiveFingers” (I still don’t get where the “Fingers” come from, I’d think “FiveToes” would be a more accurate naming convention).  For one reason or another, I never got them last year, but last week I finally broke down and purchased a pair of “Bikila” FiveFinger shoes.  Today, I finally put them on and wore them throughout the day.

My experience in them so far has consisted of jogging from my apartment to my station (about 5 minutes), jogging from the Takadanobaba station to the park where I do taichi (another 5 minutes), and normal walking for an entire day.  Despite this relatively minor exertion, I’m definitely feeling a little footsore tonight.

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I’ve got some pain from chafing on the back of my left heel.  This started after the first 5 minute jog, but luckily I had thought to bring along some band-aids and socks, both of which helped tremendously.  Most of the soreness though, I attribute to the adjustment of walking all day virtually barefoot.  It was rather interesting to note how walking/jogging in these shoes really forced me to modify the way I walk.  When I started my first jog to the station, I initially ran the way I usually would when wearing regular shoes.  However, after about a minute or two, I noticed my feet automatically compensating for the loss in padding around the heel area (which is the normal design of typical running shoes) and I started gradually striking more with the ball of my foot.  This felt good, but after a couple of minutes, I was already feeling the strain around my forefoot and ankle area.  Luckily, the jog session was very brief; I can tell that I’m going to have to carefully ease into using these shoes.

I definitely really liked doing taichi in the FiveFingers though.  I freaked out my teacher a little with my “Gorilla toe shoes”, but nevertheless I felt that the FF’s gave me a greater sense of stability as I could feel the ground under me and grip appropriately.  I will absolutely keep on using the FF’s for taichi.

As for running in FF’s, I think I’m going to hold off on that for a little while until I’ve really gotten used to them.  I believe it would be all too easy for me to strain my ankles and calves if I push too hard while my feet are not used to this new footwear.  So, I’m just going to start off by walking around with them as much as possible.

Surprisingly, despite my feeling extremely self conscious when I went out, I don’t think many people noticed what I was wearing!  In fact, the only odd looks I got today came from a cute little toddler on the train.  I could see her staring at my feet and could almost see the question marks floating around her head (just WHAT is this guy wearing???). 😛

Overall, I enjoyed wearing these new shoes.  I’ll keep on using them for taichi, and eventually will give extended jogging a go in them as well once I’ve given my feet a chance to adjust.

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Experiences Photography

More wedding pictures!

I’ve finished working on the color pictures of Leon and Machiko’s wedding and uploaded them to the same location as before:

I think they turned out pretty well 🙂

Experiences Fun


Yesterday I attended the wedding of a close friend – in fact, I was best man!  Though I did not have to do too much, I think I felt more nervous than Leon (the groom)!  Leon’s been a good friend of mine for… heck, I guess over 10 years now.  We both attended the same introductory courses when starting university, and I have fond memories of us doodling (when admittedly we should have been paying attention to the teacher) during the less exciting sections of the lesson.  I still have some of those doodles stored away amongst my old papers… Leon was also my go-to guy for math/stats courses *shudder*.

He graduated before I did since he had already taken some university courses prior to TUJ, but we still kept in touch over the years.  It’s odd to see how we’re getting older, and (hopefully) more mature.  How time passes…

Anyway, his wedding was a great success – an absolutely lovely day, and everything went off without a hitch.  I’ve created a separate section to upload the pictures that I managed to snap after the ceremony.  For now I’ve only uploaded the black and white versions, but I’ll upload the color versions after I’ve had a chance to go through them – hopefully by this weekend.

Omedetou Leon and Machiko! 🙂

Experiences News

Another aftershock…

It’s hard to believe that it’s already 1 month after the 9.0 quake that hit on March 11th.  Things (particularly in Tokyo) seem more or less back to normal, aside from the bottled water shortages (PLENTY of tea and soft drinks though!) and dimmed lights.  Just yesterday I was out for tai chi, and the park where I go for my lessons was in full bloom with cherry blossoms and there were picnickers everywhere.

Today though, as I was walking back home from work, I felt the street shift below me.  It is actually quite unsettling to feel that the ground is literally sliding around under you, quite different from being in a car or building during a quake.  For a second I didn’t know what was happening until I looked up and saw my building’s bicycle stand shuddering back and forth.  The building gate was banging back and forth in its frame, and I could see the electrical wires jangling above not far away.

It settled down after about 3 minutes, but even now as I type this, I still feel a few more aftershocks.  Ha… literally as I type this my monitors wobbles from another aftershock…

The big aftershock today was a 7.1, fairly big as well, and unlike the March 11 quake, was inland instead of out to sea as you can see in the image below.   Another point of concern was that it hit close to where people are still struggling to contain the reactors.

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Honestly, I’ve had enough of quakes for a while now… though… I guess I would prefer a lot of smaller quakes instead of another major earth shaker like that of March 11th.

Experiences News

Spring’s on the way

Just a brief update in the vein of my previous “Things are ok” post… on Saturday I went out with my parents and J2 to the Yasukuni shrine.  The city (and shrine) was subdued in atmosphere, simply because things were so empty.

There were still plenty of signs of life though, and at the shrine the first of the annual sakura (cherry blossoms) were also starting to bud.  I took ALOT of pictures, but will upload those when I have access to my computer later so I can process the raw files.

For now though, here are just a few I took in jpg format.

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