Sunday, December 9, 2012

Grand Italian Vacation

One of magical canals in Venice.It’s already been seven days since we returned from our “Grand Italian Vacation” and I’m faced with my usual post-vacation conundrum — how do I do a good job conveying and preserving all the great feelings and experiences that we had, through words and pictures.

I think I will start by saying a couple of general things and will go into more details as I go on. Our Italian vacation — as most of our vacations tend to be — was great. We really liked Italy and all the cultural and historical experiences that it has to offer along with an abundance of famous places to visit.

Having said that I probably should mention that while we enjoyed our trip greatly we weren’t completely swept off our feet the same way we were in Japan. I’m not exactly sure why, but it probably has something to do with the fact that we really wanted to visit Japan for many years and year after year some obstacle would prevent us from going. So when we finally managed to do it — the achievement itself made if feel more special. And then there is the fact that it still is much more exotic of an experience. After all — United States itself, even though quite a bit different — did originate from Europe, while Japan existed and developed on a very different trajectory for thousands of years.

Florence. Climbing the tower.But not to get way too off course — back to Italy. The trip was great and everyone who has a chance should visit Italy. The country has so much history to offer in various forms that 10 days is barely enough to touch upon it — ancient structures, famous locations, familiar to everyone paintings and sculptures, unique cities and a great selection of local cuisines. We spent 10 amazing days in Italy that we will probably remember for the rest of our lives.

So a short summary of our trip would be that we got lucky with the weather, loved our Hilton hotels, used trains with great success to get around and even rented a car for one day. We tried a good number of Italian specialties and had a rather good luck with randomly picking places to dine at. All the cities look and feel quite differently from familiar to us U.S. cities and we loved exploring each and every one of them. But my favorite stop of all would have to be Venice — there is just nothing like it in the world and you feel how special it is when you’re there.

Milan. Main square.One of the things that we were worried a bit about was the time of the year that we were going at and all the floods that happened in Italy a week before our departure. However it turned out that weather was warmer and more pleasant than it was in New York at the time even though the most southern city (Rome) in our itinerary was still closer to the north pole than New York is. There were no signs of recent flooding when we were there, but even more surreal was the fact that the flooding has started again right after we left.

However a bigger advantage of the time of the year that we picked was the fact there were no enormous crowds. There were still tons of tourists everywhere, but we didn’t encounter a single line — no line to Saint Peter Basilica, no line to Vatican Museums, no line to Uffizi Gallery and tons of empty restaurants which were very happy to serve us.

Venice. View from Accademia Bridge over Grand Canal. Basilica of Saint Mary in the background.Speaking of which — the service everywhere was great. I couldn’t tell a difference between the typical great service that you would get at restaurant in U.S. from what we were getting in Italy — fast, courteous and very polite hosts and waiters everywhere. A lot of places put a sitting charge on your bill — ranging from 1 to 4 euros per person, but from what we learned from other Italians that we talked to — this pretty much frees you up from having to leave a tip. Even though we still left tips at certain places we felt very much OK with leaving a small tip or not leaving a tip at all.

But of course the best part of the timing of our trip was the fact that we ended up celebrating our 6th wedding anniversary in possibly the most romantic place on earth — Venice.

And now having all of the above laid out I can jump right into our trip and start from the beginning and get deeper into details.

P.S. Selecting photographs for the introductory post was really hard. I didn’t want to use up photos from the stories about each city, yet this post came out looking really photo-scarce. We’ll probably readjust this when we are done with all the posts.
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Friday, December 2, 2011

Japan: Transportation

Tokyo from one of the government building's observatory.What a vacation we just had. Tons of positive emotions and amazing memories. Everything went great. We saw a ton of things, experienced a lot of new tastes, visited a lot of destinations. We visited Tokyo, Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Miyajima Island.

Now we just have to write it down to preserve the little details and after 3 days of contemplating I’m still not sure how to go about it — chronologically or in categories. I guess it will be a little bit of both and maybe the end result will end up being a kind of a guide for someone who is planning to make a similar trip.

Preparations


We did a lot of research before our trip. A great resource for researching a trip to Japan is japan-guide.com. We knew the cities that we will visit, but we knew very little about what exactly we want to see in those cities. We picked out the places and read up on transportation and getting around.

We put together a 17 page document1 with maps, schedules and our step by step plan. This was instrumental in us not getting lost a single time. We didn’t take a single wrong turn, didn’t get on the wrong train and never missed our stop.

We also made sure to pre-order a pair of JR Passes that can only be done outside of Japan, which was a right decision. With respect to learning some basic Japanese — we made no progress whatsoever and hoped that we can rely on English to get us through.

Getting There And Around


The first part was easy — get on a plane in JFK and wait for 14 hours. We did just that on early Friday morning and landed somewhere mid-day on Saturday. Upon arrival to Narita International Airport (one of Tokyo’s airports) we went through passport control, customs and everything else within 20 minutes or so — everything was fast and efficient.

Shinjuku Station.We made sure to go and exchange our JR Pass exchange orders for actual passes right in the airport, so we wouldn’t have to look for an exchange agency somewhere else later on. We decided to activate our passes from our 1st full day in Japan (Sunday). This way our JR Passes were active for all of our trip and expired on the last Saturday. On Sunday we were flying back out home.

Tokyo taxi.In order to get to our hotel we decided to use a limo bus service. Taxi cost ran somewhere around $300, so that was not an option and we didn’t want to experiment with trains while we were loaded with luggage. The bus picked us up right at the airport and dropped us off right in front of our hotel. It cost us ¥3,0002 per person and got us to our hotel in about an hour and a half or so. No problems.

Women Only car in Osaka.In Tokyo itself we were originally planning to get a one-day unlimited subway pass, but since we ended up activating the JR Pass one day earlier than we originally planned it turned out that we didn’t need the subway pass at all. JR has a good number of lines in Tokyo and one of the lines (Yamanote Line) runs in a loop through all the central areas of Tokyo that we wanted to visit. The only place that we took subway to was Roppongi Hills Tower, since it had no convenient JR access.

Shin-Osaka Station.As we have learned getting around Japan’s train system is extremely easy, especially after living in New York. Each station has signs in English, without an exception. The are signs specifying the name of the station, the next station in each direction and signs pointing to the lines and the list of station names that trains stop on on each line.

Osaka Station.Inside the trains there are also electronic signs that switch from Japanese to English all the time in almost all the cases. And to top it off in most cases there are announcements in English as well.

Small station somewhere along the way.Also I had all the maps I could find in PDF format loaded into my iPad and I had a Google-like maps in my iPhone that didn’t need the internet connection. All this was very helpful too.

Rapid Train to Nara.JR Pass, even though expensive, is very valuable. Just all the time that we saved by simply showing the pass and going through instead of fiddling with ticket machines, figuring out the rate fare every time makes it worth it.

On the train to Nara.Of course you have to do the math and see if the money part makes sense to you. Most cost comes with Shinkansen (bullet train) rides. We knew that we will go from Tokyo to Osaka, but if we wouldn’t also make a day trip to Hiroshima it wouldn’t have paid for itself.

Bullet Train N700 (newest) Series at Shin-Osaka Station.The pass costs $370 right now. The ride from Tokyo to Osaka costs $174 with a seat reservation and $250 for a trip from Osaka to Hiroshima and back. Reservations are another added value of JR Pass — the are free with the pass. So we made sure to have our seats reserved when we were taking Shinkansen anywhere.

700 Series Shinkansen.We used the pass everyday and everywhere. We used it to get around Tokyo, we used it to get to Osaka, we used it to go to Nara and Kyoto, we took a round trip on a bullet train to Hiroshima and we used it to get to Miyajima Island from Hiroshima — the train ride and then a JR ferry which is also covered by the pass.

Older 100 Series Shinkansen.Trains are always on time, and are minute to the minute exactly on schedule. Before boarding the train people make two lines on the platform near the markings where the door will open. Sometimes there can be several lines at a time — one near a circle and one near a triangle on the platform. Each train on the schedule board is also marked with a circle or a triangle, so you know where to line up.

Platform markings.When the train stops and doors open the line splits into two and allows the people on the train to exit in order. After everyone has exited people go in from both sides of the door. Everything happens quickly and orderly. People also mostly do not talk on the train to each other or on the phone. The trains are surprisingly quite inside because of this. I think Alёna and I were the only ones who kept talking to each other — we were just too full of all the new impressions of things around us that we had to share.

Electronic sign at Osaka Station.Riding a bullet train is an experience in its own. First of all, the trains are gorgeous with their sharp noses. Inside they feel like a business class inside a plane and that’s in a regular car, not a green (luxury) car. Each chair has a lot of legroom, reclines, has a table and an electrical plug.

Bullet trains from Tokyo.Even thought the trains go at high speeds you don’t really feel it all that much. You’re generally looking at a distant mountains or towns and they move by at a normal pace. You only notice how fast the train is when you go by another train. You can’t even make out another train — just a big blur.

Inside Kyoto subway train.As I said before we took a Hikari express to Osaka from Tokyo on Monday and we took Hikari to and Sakura train from Hiroshima on the 25th of November (Friday). Sakura train appeared to be even more luxurious than Hikari was. There is a LED display at the end of each car with text scrolling in Japanese and English — “This is HIKARI superexpress bound for Shin-Osaka” and it lists the stops that the train will make and what the next one is.

Kyoto subway station.In Kyoto we bought a two-day unlimited subway and bus passes. It might not have made things cheaper, but it sure made things easier. A lot of locations are on the outskirts of the city and there is no convenient JR access in the city. But as in every other place everything was easy to figure out. Even the buses. That’s what makes the unlimited pass valuable — the pricing depends on the distance that you’re traveling in a lot of cases and with the unlimited pass you don’t have to worry about it.

Kyoto bus.We also took a tram in Hiroshima to reach the memorial park from the Hiroshima JR station. But again, reading about it beforehand and knowing what tram to take made it easy. Also there are maps available everywhere again. The tram costs ¥150 for a ride per person and all stations also have signs with English names, so we didn’t get lost here either.

Local train to Miyajimaguchi Station.On the last day we took a bus shuttle to Osaka Itami Airport, since there was no JR access to it — that’s why we ended up activating our JR Passes one day earlier than we originally planned. The ride to the airport cost us ¥620 per person and the bus stop turned out to be right at our hotel’s back exit — very convenient. The whole ride to the airport took only 25 minutes.

Miyajimaguchi Station.We decided to err on the side of caution so we left the hotel at 11am. We ended up near our gate in the airport somewhere before 12 — everything is just too efficient inside the airport as well. Our flight was at 2:40pm, so we ended up having to wait for almost 3 hours for our plane.

Hiroshima trams.We were flying from Osaka to Tokyo on Japan Airlines plane and they start boarding 15 minutes before take-off. And everything goes smoothly. From Tokyo we were flying AA non-stop to JFK and they started the boarding almost an hour before the take-off and everything was a complete mess.

Inside Hiroshima tram.The flight back itself was uneventful. The only thing that I wanted to mention about our flight from JFK to Tokyo was the fact that it took a really weird way to get there. The plane has flown all the way up to the frozen lakes over Canada, proceeded to fly over the north coast of Alaska (I could see all the frozen water below), then flew over the north coast of Russia and cut across Russia down to Japan passing by the western coast of Kamchatka. The flight back was much more along the lines that one would expect.

So as you can see our general day would start with us taking a train to a destination of our choice, then walking for 8 hours or so and then catching a train back to our hotel. Japanese public transportation system is very well developed. You can easily get anywhere you wish without ever needing a car or having to catch a taxi. And that’s pretty much all I have to say about transportation.

P.S. Every single subway or JR station and each bullet train has a super clean restroom available for general public.

P.P.S. Another very useful resource is Hyperdia. You can look up all the schedules for all the JR trains for any date and time, along with the pricing. The search itself is flexible enough for one to select only the trains that the JR pass will work on.

  1. The plan itself is specific to our itinerary and our hotel locations, but should be a good starting point for anyone. []
  2. Exchange rate at the time of our trip was at about ¥74 per $1. []
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