The Launch of Kenning Innovative

I’ve been pretty busy at work doing data migrations here, and test plans there, and so the business can seem a little neglected…

But I’ve been inspired by a few different events:

  • Watching the New Zealand version of The Apprentice  with 21 year olds battling others;
  • Seeing a friend of mine go from some CDs to launching a profit-making dance party;
  • Wondering what’s happening with my company, and will I be a millionaire before 30?

And so after a bit of inspiring, I decided to launch a new research brand where my new ideas can go under. Here it is:

I hope you like it. I’ve been thinking about a research brand for quite some time, and kicked around some ideas:

  • Kenning Internet Labs
  • Kenning Innovation Labs
  • Kenning Research
  • Herald Internet Labs
  • Herald Innovation Lab

All floating around the ideas of research and innovation. I even looked at companies like Aperture Science and Computer Associates. In the end, I came up with Kenning Innovative. I thought about Kenning Innovation, but then decided on Innovative because Kenning is innovative, not just the results of the company.

Anyways, the first product to be branded is the Resourcer prototype at http://goresourcer.kenning.co.nz. I’ll keep you in the loop as more products are added.

Rethinking Work Breakdown Structures, and Resource forecasting

I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about Project Management, not so much at the execution level (i.e. me being a Project Manager) but more at the research level. Now Project Management success statistics might be high in your neck of the woods, but in IT about 85% of IT projects fail (see http://kenning.co.nz/business/85-of-it-projects-fail-i-know-why/).

I guess I’m interested in how to improve that statistic, especially around the use of collaborative tools. I don’t count Microsoft Project (or even Project Server) as collaborative for that matter. In fact, the vast majority of project management tools are designed purely from the Project Manager’s point of view of executing the project, but not really taking into account that projects are actually social constructs made up of groups of people, and so what is the best way to deal with their requirements and thoughts and commitments.

So I’ve attached two documents that demonstrate my current research, one into Work Breakdown Structures, and the other focused on Resource Estimation.

Traditional Work Breakdown Structures (WBS) feature items based on nouns. These are then split into levels with more nouns, and so on. There’s a couple of rules, mainly each item should consist of less than 40 hours effort, and no more than 4% of the total amount of work. My thinking is showing, how do you show gaps in time and size in the different components of the WBS? I’m proposing that the gaps between tasks equates to the period of time between tasks, and also the size of each square that represents a task represents the size of that task, as demonstrated by the attached photo of a WBS. A quick glance at this shows which tasks are relatively big in size, and the amount of time between tasks. I believe this is represented better than the same information in a gantt chart which does show duration, but squishes all tasks next to each other making for poor readability.

You’ll notice that the WBS only consists of nouns which doesn’t make for a useful project plan, but by adding a circle shape for verbs, then we can both demonstrate nouns which are outputs, and verbs which is what we need to do to achieve those outputs.

The second document is an Excel spreadsheet used to try and better estimate how long it takes different tasks to complete. Project Managers tend to think of people as resources, i.e. all people are the same. Hence I should take just as long to do a piece of work as any other Systems Analyst. This is inherently a flawed assumption, because all people have different skills, experience, and motivation, which combines into a modifier for them. This modifier is multiplied by the ‘perfect’ time to do the task, and out comes a more realistic time.

Anyways, that’s my research for now. My goal is to combine these into a ‘Facebook for project management’ that’s inherently more usable and people focused, rather than resource and project focused.

The morning after in Himeji

So completely missed the bullet train at 7am. Instead dragged myself out of bed sometime around 10am, and caught the 11am bullet train to Himeji. It happened to be the Hikari Railstar, which is the Hikari Shinkansen but using the faster engines from the Nozomi. It was sweet. I hadn’t reserved a seat, so you have to get in pretty fast to get one of the non-reserved seats. If you don’t, well it’s a pain the ass to stand for three hours if you’re heading to Hakata or Tokyo.

After one stop in Shin-Kobe, we were in Himeji. It’s all tunnels between Shin-Osaka and Himeji, so there’s no sightseeing at all. Because it’s New Year’s day, pretty much nothing was open except food places. From between the 2nd and the 11th/17th of January is when all the department stores in Japan have bargain sales, so I’m going to wait until tomorrow to buy a suitcase. Instead, it was just a straight trip to the castle and back.

The castle, which is a UNESCO world heritage site, is the real deal. Unlike Osaka Castle, which is really a museum dressed up to be a castle, Himeji Castle is Japan’s most famous castle, and best condition one as well. Having managed to survive Japan’s civil war, earthquakes, firebombings, WW2, and everything else that could be thrown at it is pretty impressive. Himeji Castle is six stories tall, and has been around since the 1600s. It’s just a really impressive structure, and is the only castle in Japan that still dominates the skyline around it, unlike say Osaka castle which has skyscrappers next to it that are five times the size.

Himeji castle was done a little on the cheap, and uses gravestones and old millstones as part of the walls. A famous story was of one Japanese peasent who donated the only stone she had, her millstone to the castle. After this, the castle was flooded with people doing the same thing, and then the castle was built pretty quickly. There was no rhyme or reason in the stone placement, really just big stones at the bottom, and smaller stones filling in the gaps.

Because it was New Years day, the castle entry was free, instead of the normal 600 yen. But in return, the place was packed, and there was a solid line from the 1st floor all the way to the 6th. It was madness, and must have taken half an hour to go up 6 flights of stairs. Oh well, such is life!

From here, I was super tired, so I walked straight back to the train station, to catch the next train back to Osaka. The Hikari was going to be about 40 minutes, so instead I caught the Limited Express Super Haruko. This is a diesel train that goes from Himeji to Kyoto, going through Osaka. While it took about an hour, at least I could see the coast of Japan, and a massive bridge heading over to an island. The bridge was easily twice the length of the Auckland Harbour Bridge, and was something impressive. In the end I ended up falling asleep on the train and waking up at Osaka Station. Must have had god on my side, because it would have been shame to wake up in Kyoto. And imagine if I had fallen asleep on the Shinkansen, and ended up in Tokyo. I wouldn’t be smiling much.

Now it’s bed time, tomorrow, Hiroshima.

I thought he was dead + another day in Kyoto

So yesterday spent another day in Kyoto, and went to the Kiyomizudera (pure water temple), Ginkakuji, and also some park in Kyoto.

Kiyomizudera, or the pure water temple, is a temple built on the side of a hill in Kyoto. Like pretty much everything else in Kyoto, this place has been around for quite some time, and is famous for the water coming out of the temple. The bus stop is at the bottom of the hill, and you have to walk about 1km up a hill to reach teh temple proper. This road happens to be where all the tourist stalls are, selling green tea ice cream, and gifts for friends back home. It was a freezing cold day, and continuing the Kiwi tradition, I bought myself an ice cream. 250 yen later, I was eating a half chocolate/half soymilk ice cream. Tell you what, soymilk is a horrible flavour. Who ever came up with that was not onto a good idea. The only redeeming thing about this ice cream was the fact that there was a chocolate side.

After dodging literally hundreds of people, made it up to the top of the road, and to the entrance of the temple. Another day, another temple. This one was a little different from the others, being built up on the side of a hill, and pretty much on stilts, it has a commanding view of Kyoto. You can also sample some of the pure water if you like, but the lines to do so are pretty significant, and we’ve got some pretty pure water in New Zealand, so I passed on that.

I headed back down the hill, and found a place where everything inside was 1050 yen. Whether this was cheap or not was debateable, think of it as a $15 dollar store. Weirdly, the only thing I wanted in the store was a Yukata, which is a Japanese Summer Kimono, and was 2000 yen. Sure, that’s only $30, but it’s still $30. Flagging that, I continued to walk down the road. Another popular thing in Japan is buying lucky dip bags, and is a great way to buy presents for people back home. I bought a lucky dip bag for some of mine and Kathryn’s mates for 1000 yen, and contains 5000 yen worth of gifts, with the only pitfall of you not knowing what you’re buying. So Kate and Sam, I hope you enjoy your gifts.

Caught the 101 bus to the Ginkakuji, which is the silver pavilion. In contrast to all the bustle at the Kinkakuji, the Ginkakuji has far less people, and is a far more enjoyable experience. They’re a big fan of shaping sand there, and so you can see what looks like rivers in the sand flowing around bonsai trees and rocks. Also, there was a massive sand sculpture which looked much like an upside down bowl. I don’t know why or what it means, but it was pretty precise, and was amazing, if not a little bizzare. The gardens at Ginkakuji are pretty amazing, and are worth having a stroll around. Considering Ginkakuji is really the world’s sweetest retirement home, you can understand why everything is so peaceful and serene. It kinda makes you wonder why they’re all like this, and are instead the dismal places that they are. Anyways, you walk past a sculptured garden, and then head up through a bamboo forest, to see another view of Kyoto, before heading back down and around past the moss garden.

After all this, I was feeling a little hungry and decided to grab a bite to eat. Headed into a place selling Japanese food. My hot tip – if you buy food from a place that’s nearby a temple, expect to pay about twice the price you normally should. I ended up buying a Beef Ricebowl, or Donburi. It was pretty good, but not 800 yen good. If you’ve ever had say, a Sausage in Bread with onions and thought to yourself, man, this could do with like 10 times more onions, I recommend buying a beef Donburi. It was 40% rice, 50% onion, and 10% beef stuff. The Miso soup was not Miso soup, but instead a burnt tasting bitter water with rubber bands in it. Not super recommended. The green tea was delicious, as it always is.

After this, I’d had enough of hanging out with all the people around the temples, so instead I decided to catch the subway to the final stop, which happens to be where the Kyoto International Conference Center is. It seems like a weird place to go, but there’s an artificial lake there, and is a good place toe relax and escape the bustle of Kyoto. And Escape I did, except for the fact it was so damn cold. Of course, it is the middle of Winter, so it’s probably not a surprise. The place would be a lovely place to go in summer and have a picnic. In Winter though, it’s just a good place to relax by yourself, and regain your thoughts before heading back into the bustle.

By this time, it was time to head back to Osaka, and plan a New Years party. There’s a few different ways to you can from Kyoto to Osaka, either the Shinkansen, or the local train, or a rapid train, or even a limited express. They all have their pros and cons. The limited express is the best if you have a bit of time, and would like to do some sightseeing. It goes roughly half the speed of the Shinkansen, but doesn’t use tunnels, so you actually see Japan. The rapid trains go more often, but stop at a few stations, and the local would really be the last resort. Shinkansen are always a good idea, except the Hikari and Kodoma trains only go every hour or so, so you might be in for a bit of a wait – it could be shorter to just catch a limited express instead.

Anyways, ended up drinking with a whole bunch of people from the hostel, Casper the american guy, another american guy I forget the name off who lives in Japan and Germany, two finnish brothers and their girlfriend, and two Australian girls. Was a great time. Cans of Chi-hi, which is like Smirnoff Ice, 500ml for $3 just go down a treat. Then we decided to catch the train to JR Namba station, because that’s always where the party’s at. Turns out we could find any bars there, and we only had 30 minutes until New Years. In the end went to this small American Flag Place, and it turned out to be a great night.

The cover charge was one drink, which isn’t really a cover charge to be honest. Had a really delicious paradiso + orange, it just went down like delicious water, and it really hit the spot. Casper bought us all drinks which was nice, and we counted down for New Years. Once it turned New Years, there was a special treat – Michael Jackson. I thought he was dead. And not Japanese. But turns out I was wrong, and here he was in the flesh, singing and dancing his way back to success. Only in Japan, only in Japan. Anyways, had a ball of a time, caught the train back to Shin-Imamiya, and then had a midnight snack before hitting the sack at 3am.

Didn’t end up catching the bullet train to Himeji at 7am for some reason.

A golden temple and a supermarket, Kyoto

Today was the day I headed to Kyoto to fill up on my cultural part of the journey.

I was a little late last night talking to an American guy called Casper, so I didn’t get around to updating the blog and adding pictures until the morning. This means I didn’t leave Shin-Imamiya until about 9am, which was a downer. I got to Shin-Imamiya station, had a bit of panic, and jumped on the first train I could, which took me to JR Namba station. Which is a one way stop, so that was a pain in the ass. So I headed back on the same train to Shin-Imamiya, and then caught a rapid train to Osaka, then another train to Shin-Osaka station, and finally booked a Hikari Bullet Train to Kyoto. All up it must have taken me about an hour and a half, the half going from Shin-Osaka to Kyoto, and an hour fluffing around getting from Shin-Imamiya to Shin-Osaka. So my travel tip – plan your travels, seriously, www.hyperdia.com is your friend when it comes to train time tables. And of course, the JR rail pass means I travelled by bullet train and all trains by free. I would probably not come to Japan without the rail pass – best way to spend 28,300 yen.

One bullet train later, I pulled up in Kyoto Station. Kyoto Station is massive, and a really interesting building to look at. I remember coming here in 2000 and seeing it, and to see it again in 2009 was awesome. The station was built in 1997 and has a massive roof over a relatively open air space. There’s an open air escalator to the 9th floor, which is where the English speaking Kyoto Tourism Center is. However, because it’s New Years, it was closed. On the ground floor of Kyoto Station is the Japanese speaking Kyoto Tourism Center, and they also speak English. Head in here to grab a map of Kyoto and also a guidebook – highly recommended. For 500 yen you can buy an all day bus pass to get you around Kyoto, and is really good value, considering each bus is normally 220 yen, so after three trips the card is saving you money.

Catching a bus in Kyoto is pretty straight forward, enter at the back of the bus, making sure you’re heading on the right bus number. When you’re at your stop, insert your all day bus pass into the ticket machine, and you’re done. Probably the hardest part is getting off at the right station. The buses aren’t as friendly to non-Japanese speakers as the trains are. Often they’ll just say the name of the stop in Japanese, so you have to listen pretty carefully to make sure you’re getting off at the right stop. And you can’t count the number of stops since the bus won’t stop at stops where there’s no one, but not to stress. If you miss your stop, just get off the bus, and cross the road, and head back up the street.

I caught the number 205 bus to Kinkakuji, which is the golden pavilion. This place is simply amazing, and is so scenic, even with the seething mass of tourists. The temple is coated in a gold leaf, which does look a little like gold spray paint, but I’m sure it’s not. However, it’s surrounded by water, and is really just a sight to behold. It’s also a UNESCO world heritage site, but there’s heaps of those in Kyoto. You pay about 500 yen to enter Kinkakuji, and you don’t just see the temple, but go for a walk through the grounds of the temple, along with the other thousands of people. Since this is the most well known temple in Kyoto, you can imagine that it’s pretty busy, and it is. After a walk through the gardens which is perfectly manicured, even down to how the trees look, it was time to have the other well known thing about Kinkakuji – Green Tea flavoured Ice Cream (O-Cha). It’s not as bad as it sounds, but it’s certainly not as nice as say, Chocolate flavour. But when in Kyoto…

Next stop on the bus is the Rock Garden. You could probably walk from Kinkakuji, it’s not too far, but if you’ve got a free bus pass, then why not catch the bus? The Rock Garden was created ages ago by a painter, and is used as a place of meditation. There is a rock garden where the rocks are arranged in such a manner that it is impossible to see all 20 or so rocks from any one place on the garden. The rock garden is just a little more intense than the one at Hamilton Gardens, but it’s the same idea. At the same place you’ll find a shrine dedicated to all the Japanese soldiers that died in WW2 in Burma. The whole grounds of the rock garden are pretty impressive, and well worth the 500 or so yen to enter.

The last temple I visited was another UNESCO site, a five story pagoda. This one was also just down the road from the last temple, but was a free temple (except during cherry blossom season). As always, the buildings, the age of them all, the size, it’s all just wonderous. I believe Kyoto must have been spared somewhat during WW2, because it would have been a shame to see all these temples damaged. I did notice that even on the oldest of temples, there’s still vending machines. The Japanese have really made spending money during sightseeing into a fine art. Once you’ve gone through this building that’s been around for 1000 years, you can buy a keyring of the place, or perhaps a good luck charm, or some ice cream, or drink tea. I guess there’s no cultural taboo about selling items in ancient temples, and fair enough. I just couldn’t imagine going down to the local marae and then buying a can of Coke there. Maybe you can, it’s not like I go down to the local marae ever, but still.

By this time it was about 3pm and it was starting to get dark. I caught the bus back to Kyoto Station to explore Kyoto downtown, but instead got distracted by a supermarket. I think you can tell the most about a culture by hanging out at the supermarket. It’s just such an interesting experience, looking at the food locals eat, seeing locals buying their day to day goods, and I enjoy going to supermarkets more as an anthropological experience, than anything else. I ended up buying a pack of Yakitori, which is grilled chicken skewers. They were delicious. I also bought some Pocky Cheese Flavour. I even bought some Fried Chicken bits, Cheese Flavour. It’s refreshing to see a culture that enjoys cheese-flavoured and grape-flavoured things as much as I do. By the time I was finished in the supermarket it was time to head back to Kyoto Station. However, the 205 bus back to Kyoto Station was packed to the limit, so standing for 30 minutes wasn’t that great of an experience. Probably didn’t help the Yakitori either.

Finally made it to Kyoto Station around rush hour. It’s always recommended to avoid travelling during rush hour, and I wholeheartedly agree. I tried to book another Shinkansen back to Osaka, but this time my poor Japanese failed me, and instead I decided to catch a local rapid train back to Osaka. Any train that’s a limited express such as the train from Kyoto to Kansai Airport, or the Shinkansen, generally needs a seat reservation. There’s always a couple of cars that don’t need reservations, but they tend to fill up pretty quickly. They also cost additional money, not a problem with a JR rail pass, but certainly an issue if you don’t have one. Rapid trains are the same price as local trains, but don’t stop at as many stations as a local train. Because of this, they are packed. I didn’t enjoy travelling for 30 minutes standing waiting to go to the toilet. It wasn’t my best travel experience. I did make it back to Shin-Imamiya, safe and sound though, and did my photos and blogs tonight. Tomorrow, another big day in Kyoto.

A can of sex, oh, and Tokyo

So last night I arrived at the Asakusa Capsule Hostel Tokyo. There also happens to be another Capsule Hostel in the same area with pretty much the same name. This one was close to the subway station, and cost 2700. But I saved 500 yen (about 7 dollars) by walking like half a kilometre down the road, turning at a couple of intersections, into a dodgy part of town. Kinda regretted doing that. Anyways, only a few hours late, I made it to the capsule hostel. First you purchase a ticket for a capsule from a vending machine. Then you write your name on the ticket, and give it to the counter staff right behind you. Then you put your shoes in a coin locker, and then give the counter staff your shoe coin locker key. Finally, they exchange the ticket and key for your capsule key. Seems like an intense process, but who am I to judge.

The capsule was tiny. I mean literally, tiny tiny. I thought where I was staying in Osaka was tiny, but really it’s a capsule inside a small room. This place in Tokyo was just a capsule, with a small door closed with magnets. The door doesn’t even have a lock, instead being a small 15cm wide locker to put your passport and what not, and then another coin locker down stairs to put your larger bags. The room was about 1.3m at its widest, about 1m at the narrow end, and when I lay down, with my feet touching the back wall, my hands would touch the door. I’m 165cm tall, so if you’re a giant (anything over 6 feet), then good luck with that.

Did manage to have a good chat with some people though, talked to a couple of sisters from Bristol England, and some guy from Germany. Turns out that teaching English is a pretty popular career, and a good way to get to explore the world, though you’ll never get rich out of it. The main reason why I stayed so long talking to them was so I didn’t have to sleep in that damn capsule, but eventually I did.

Knowing a bit of Japanese is helping. I saw a sign that said “Shawaa 9am until” which means you have until 9am to have a shower. I mean seems straight forward, but you have to turn the word Shawaa from Katakana, the word “Ma-de” from Hirigana, and then know that Ma-de means until. Anyways, the shower experience in Japan relies on you sitting on a bucket in front of a mirror scrubbing yourself next to other people doing the same thing. You scrub yourself clean and then when you’re done, you sit in the big communal bath not to get clean, but to relax. I was terribly fond of the public hairs floating around, but Cest La Vie!

I checked out early from the Capsule, and headed towards the Tsukiji Fish Market. It’s a few subway stops from Asakusa down to Shimbashi, which is near Shidome which is near Tsukiji. While it seems like a lot of distance, it’s about a 1km walk from the train station past a whole bunch of skyscrappers. In the middle of all the skyscrappers is a massive bustling wholesale fish market, the largest fish market in the world. There’s a sign out the front gate saying where things are. Man I wish I saw that on the way in. Instead I just walked through the front gate, and then proceeded to not die by being run over by things. You can’t really comprehend how busy it was, with all these little vans, and big trucks, and forklifts, and people, all moving around with their boxes of fish and vegetables and fruit. I arrived at 7am and the place was winding down, yet it was still massive. Aparently if you start at 5am, that’s when the real madness strikes. Anyways, I walked past the vegetable wholesalers, and then got lost by the industrial chilling units. I think it takes a certain state of mind to say “Hey, here you are in a foreign city, lost in a massive fish market, but don’t panic. You’re not dead, and you can just keep walking until you see a road”, which is what I did. After about half an hour, I managed to escape finally.

After this, it was only about 8.30, so I decided to head to the Tokyo Imperial Palace East Garden. I tried to go there last time with Kathryn, but it was closed because we went on a Friday or something. This time I was prepared, and came on a day I thought it would be open. Turns out because it’s the end of the year, it was closed. Ace.

So I headed to Shinjuku. Shinjuku is a pretty big part of Tokyo, and is right on the opposite side of the Yamanote Ring Line. From there I walked down al lthe side streets, and found myself a game parlour. After giving a drum playing game a go (and doing pretty well, I can hit the coloured light as good as the next guy), I saw a Gundam Robot Simulator. First I went over to the pilot station and inserted 300 yen. Nothing happened. Then I touched the screen, and faked my way through some more screens to then put in 300 more yen and get a pilot card. Then you head into the Robot Simulator. If you don’t know much about Gundam, they are big giant robots that you can control. So you sit inside this capsule, with a projector above your head which creates this massivve curved view. There are two arm controls, and two foot pedals. You insert your pilot card, and 500 yen, and then the battle begins. The controls are much like that of a tank, move one arm forward to move one side of the machine forward, and move the other arm forward to move the other side. Move both arms forward to go forward straight. One pedal is to jump using a rocket pack, and the other is to dash forward with the rocket pack. Seriously, was great fun, and you get to keep the pilot card as a memory of your time.

By this time, it was about 12pm, so I had six hours to kill. I went to Akihabara. Akihabara, or Electric Town, is a place fun of electronic stores, and Geek culture. All the stores are surprisingly different, in terms of one floor will be cameras and mobile phones, and the next will be pornography DVDs. But be rest assured, Japanese censors have the good measure to blur out any of the particular detail, so it’s sort of like watching people have sex behind a perspex screen. Yet weirdly, the videos of people pooing aren’t censored at all. I don’t understand why. Some of the videos contain girls who are only 14 dancing around in their underwear, and would surely be considered illegal in any other Western country. I don’t understand why it’s not illegal here.

I did manage to get my good friend Kelvin a gift – a Vagina in a Can. It’s called an O-ne Hole. Have fun with that mate. Speaking of things people have fun with, also found the famed used panty vending machine. Jesus, why would you pay money for this?

After that, it was on to more electronic stores. Seriously, I’ve seen more digital cameras than you’ve had hot dinners. Once again I tried to buy a mobile phone, and again they wouldn’t sell it to me. Damn you Japan! Why will you not sell me a mobile phone! By this time I was running a bit low on cash, so I popped into a 7-11 dairy. They all have international ATMs that can take money out from Visa cards. Awesome! Then it was off to McDonalds to get a Small Grape Fanta and two Chicken Shakas, Cheese Flavour. Slowly my Japanese is getting better, and I can order some things from the McDonalds menu. Perhaps that’s not the best way to measure Japanese, but I’m happy with myself, and it means I can eathot stuff for a change. I’m sick of eating weird pastry things from 7-11.

I did manage to go into a random store called Jeansmate, a 24 hour Jeans store. Because there’s a whole bunch of New Years sales at the moment, one thing I saw was a whole outfit being sold as a bundle. Now this is a great idea, and something I think would really take off. Instead of buying just a top, you buy a jacket, a top, some shirts, maybe a scarf or a beanie, and sometimes pants. I even managed to ask the shop keeper “watashi no sizu wa, nan desu ka” or what size am I? She said Large, which seems reasonable considering all Japanese people can fit in my pocket. Anyways, I bought this outfit in a box for 10,000 yen, reduced down from 40,000 yen. I haven’t tried it on yet, I hope it all fits.

From here, it was time to head back to Tokyo Station. Akihabara Station was madness, but made it through, and caught the Yamanote Line two stops to Tokyo. Tokyo Station was another level of madness, but 24 platforms later, I was waiting for my Shinkansen back to Osaka for the night.

I did manage to get back to my hostel a while later, and talked to a really interesting American guy called Casper, like the ghost. He’s in the National Guard, and was just in Afghanistan. It was interesting hearing his views on the war, and his experiences in Osaka cheering up his spirits. Seriously, Osaka is such a friendly place, I highly recommend it, even over Tokyo.

Here, there, and Nagano

Today is my big day of travel. After getting up at 5am, and lingering around the bathroom for a bit, I got my gear ready and decided to head on the train to Shin-Osaka. Today was also my first day of the JR Rail Pass, so I caught the Rapid Train that goes directly from Shin-Imamiya to Shin-Osaka. Shin as a prefix means new.

Shin-Osaka is a pretty big station, and is the terminus of two shinkansen (bullet train), the one from Fukuoka to Shin-Osaka, and the one from Shin-Osaka to Tokyo. There’s three speeds of Shinkansen, Kodoma which is the slowest, Hikari which is pretty quick, and Nozomi which is the quickest. The actual speeds of the trains don’t vary that much, it’s really just the number of stations they stop at. Kodoma stops at every station, which Nozomi stops at just the big ones.

Anyways, caught the Hikari from Shin-Osaka to Nagoya, where I had 4 hours to explore. Sadly, Monday in Japan is a bit like Sunday in New Zealand – nothing’s open. So I wondered around lost for a bit, and then headed for the Visitor’s Center. Which was closed. So I wondered around the station for a little bit more. Finally the Visitor Center opened and I grabbed myself a map of Nagoya. The goal of Nagoya was to head to some of the automotive museums – Nagoya is the Detroit of Japan and the birthplace of Toyota, which started out as a loom-making company. But it was all closed. Even the tourist bus. So instead, I caught the subway a few stations down to the big radio tower in the middle of Nagoya. Much like the Tokyo Tower (which is much like the Eiffel Tower) but a little older, I didn’t bother to head to the top, since all skylines tend to look like every other skyline. It was pretty cold in Nagoya, only 6 degrees, so like all good New Zealanders, I decided to have an Ice Cream, and sit in the area where the homeless people sit (I didn’t know this). One Ice Cream later, it was off for a quiet stroll to a shopping mall that is designed to look like an alien ship made of water. It looked much like a shopping mall, though the roof is made of clear plastic with water on the surface, making the roof shimmer. I went into a toy store to try and find a model of the Yamamoto (a Japanese Aircraft Carrier) but I had no such luck. There was an ice skating rink in the middle of the shopping mall, but instead decided to start walking back towards the station. As I looked at all of the buildings above ground, I realised that there is a another level of shops below ground. The shops did not end, they stretched as far as the eye could see. And they were all women’s clothing stores. Fantastic. I caught the subway back to Nagoya Station. By this time it was about 11am, and only an hour left before catching the Shinomi train to Nagano, so I decided to head to the basement of the JR department store. Basements of department stores are the food levels, the first is likely to be gift food and fine food, and the second is likely to be a supermarket. I managed to take a few photos of things before being told no photos. I did manage to buy some sweet crab for 8 dollars. It was delicious, and only made my lips and fingers tingle for quite some time. I think I’m a little allergic. It’s also considered poor manners to eat outside, and probably double if it’s crab, but man it was good.

Finally jumped on the Shinomi bound for Nagano. This was a limited express train, and required transferring from the Shinkansen lines to the regular lines, so don’t forget! The journey from Nogoya to Nagano was about three hours, and pretty tiring. I’m sure I fell asleep a couple of times. But the journey was so peaceful and relaxing, and scenic. A bit like travelling on the train between Greymouth and Christchurch, except three times as long. I finally got to see a little snow which was sweet, and a bit of rural Japan.

I only had an hour at Nagano, which really doesn’t do the place justice – I mean how much can you see of a town in an hour? For Taumarunui, all of it. 30 times. Anyways, I had a look around, and went to McDonalds. There you can buy a fillet of chicken for 100 yen, including flavouring you put on top, and then shake in a bag. It’s called Shaka Shaka Chicken, and I got Cheese flavour. It was delicious!

Anyways, it was time to catch the Asama Shinkansen to Tokyo. Each Shinkansen is named, with only the single speed Asama between Nagano and Tokyo. If there is any hint of a hill or mountain, the shinkansen will use a tunnel. So pretty much it was half tunnels the whole way. The Asama Shinkansen is really just a high speed subway line from Tokyo, or so it felt.

Finally made it into Tokyo Station. From there, it was a mad dash to Hotel Asakusa and Capsule, Tokyo. Popped on the Yamanote Line to Ueno, and then caught the Ginza Subway to Asakusa. Turns out I printed the map to Capsule Hotel Asakusa Riverside, which is not the same place. This did not please me running around Asakusa trying to find a place to stay. Eventually walked the 300 m around a corner to a rundown capsule hotel where I’m typing this now, and inhaling the strong scent of stale sweat from the guy in the underwear next to me on the computer. FML.

A $40 party, and a river cruise

Does anyone read these blogs? They take bloody ages to write.

Anyways, last night was the Whynotjapan! International Party in Osaka, at Sam and Daves Bar. The entry fee was 2500 yen or 40 dollars roughly, but was unlimited food and drink. I thought this party would have all the gaijin (foreigners) of Osaka out partying. I caught the subway from near Shin-Imamiya (something like Donbatuen-mae on the Midoguchi line) through to where this bar was. Was supposed to be 1 minute walk from gate 6. Turns out gate 6 was closed. Interesting note, most times there will be two gates, one on each side of the road. I exited from gate 7, and instead of crossing the road and going to the club, decided to walk 30 minutes in a big giant circle. Eventually made it to the club. Being stamped with invisible ink was cool, no unsightly ink on the wrists the next day.

The club was packed, and hence unlimited drinks and food really meant one plate of food every five minutes for 200 people, and a ten minute wait for a glass of beer. Still, I tried for about 10 drinks so each drink was only 250 yen. I met a cool guy called Hiro who works for Bosch in Detroit. There weren’t many foreigners in the club, and of the Japanese people, not many spoke English, but Hiro did, and was an excellent person to talk to all night. The music was pumping, and the scene was pretty good, but as I get older, I just can’t be bothered rocking, and surrounded by Japanese men, that night was no exception.

Today was my last day in Osaka touring, so I made a good go of it. First off was heading to Osaka Castle. No trip to Osaka can be complete without heading there. While the castle grounds and a lot of things have been around since the 1600s, the castle itself has only been around for 80 years. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as all buildings need to be repaired. Made it into the castle, entrance was free because of the Osaka unlimited pass. Didn’t really spend much time in the castle as it is a museum, and I’m not really a fan of museums. The view from the eighth floor was good. Caught a fake steam train to the other side of the castle grounds. One thing that was impressive was the castle grounds. First, there is the outer moat. If you could get through the outer moat without dying, then there’s the wall of the moat to climb. And then battle through the castle grounds. And then get through the massive walls and then reach the inner moat. After that there’s more castle grounds, and finally the stairs up to the castle. Seriously, those armies must have been at it for ages to take this castle. 600 yen I think.

A light jog down past Kintetsu station to find the Aqualiner, which is the Osaka river cruise boat. The boat cruise is normally 1600 yen, but free from December to February with the Osaka Unlimited Pass. This was a boat that cruises the rivers of Osaka. While the cruise itself was uneventful, the boat was pretty cool. As some of the bridges are pretty low, the boat which is normally 2.4m tall can lower the roof by another 30cm to get under low bridges. Sweet.

60 minutes later, it was time to head to the pier. The pier area of Osaka is a tourist destination, and takes a little while to get there via subway. Interestingly, the subway goes above ground towards the pier, which is weird for a subway. When I saw the light of day I was a little surprised. All the vending machines had drinks for 100 yen. Considering most places have drinks for 120 to 150 yen, that’s some sweet savings right there. Vending machines everywhere is just amazing. You literally only ever have to walk 2 minutes before getting a drink. Why is this not in New Zealand? Probably because people would rob the vending machines, or steal them.

Took a ride on the world’s largest ferris wheel. Was 600 yen after discount (thank you Osaka pass). They took a photo of me before I jumped on the ride, to try and sell to you as you exit. Turns out it was a really nice photo, so I bought it for 1000 yen. The view from the top was well, much the same as the view from Osaka castle. I mean I like going up to the top of tall buildings as much as the next guy (and this ferris wheel was 112.5 or 125 m tall or something like that), but a skyline view is a skyline view. There are a lot of bridges in Osaka, with lots of varied designs. They all don’t look the same at all. It must be a competition to make the most interesting bridges.

From here, headed towards the Aquarium, via KFC. 240 yen later, I was eating that delicious bit of chicken. Seriously, first bit of hot food I’ve had here. I’m getting a little sick of just eating sandwiches from 7-11 or Lawson Station (a dairy). At least the dairies are open 24 hours. That’s handy. I also bought everyone at work their Japanese gifts. It’s always like revenge in a way, I purchase things for people that I would’t want personally myself. I won’t say what these are, but I won’t be eating them.

Speaking of uncomfortable things, I don’t remember if I mentioned I tried a bidet for the first time. A bidet for those who don’t know, is a toilet that squirts water up your bottom to clean it. I adjusted the water pressure to minimum since I was a virgin (so to speak), and let her rip. It was the first time I’d been up a one way street, and I can’t say I really enjoyed it to be honest. And then I was left with a wet bum.

Instead of heading to the aquarium (2000 yen, I’m spending money faster than my girlfriend does), I went to Suntory Museum. Suntory make drinks, much like Frucor in New Zealand. Coffee, fruit juice, all that jazz. Why they have a museum, I do not know. I do know it has one of the largest, if not the world’s largest IMAX theater. For 900 yen I got to watch Deep Blue in 3D. It was awesome, really good value for 1 hour. My handy tip, the 3D glasses don’t sit around the ears, but instead at the top of the head. If you look foreign, you’ll get a pass for wireless headphones that play the movie in English. It’s been a while since I’ve been to a 3D movie, and the first one that didn’t use red/blue glasses. It takes a while to adjust and is difficult on the eyes, but the images looked amazing. When the screen is so big, it’s a bit like real life – you can’t focus on everything so you just look at stuff in the middle.

After the movie, I popped outside and jumped on the Santa Maria (normally 1600 yen, free with the pass). The Santa Maria was made in 1990, and looks like an old fishing trawler dressed like it was a sailing ship. Either way, it goes for a cruise around Osaka harbour for 45 minutes. I really enjoyed being out on the harbour and seeing all the bridges and the port and boats. The bustle of Osaka is simply amazing, and really puts the port at Greymouth to shame. Seriously Greymouth, one barge a year? I’m not impressed.

After this, it was starting to get dark, but I thought I’d have enough time to buy a memory card reader and a power multiboard from Yodobashi-Umeda. Yodobashi is the Dick Smith of Japan, and seems to always exist by train stations (and is 9 stories tall full of electronics). I got a memory card reader that has two SD slots and one micro-SD slot for 1280 yen, which is how I uploaded pictures tonight. My digital camera only accepts memory cards up to 2GB, so that’s a pain. It’s even more of a pain since I only have a 1GB memory card. I do however have another 16GB memory card, so now I can copy files from my day to day memory card to a backup memory card.

The multiboard was 880 yen for a three point one, and a 3M cable. One thing I forgot to check or ask about was power in the room. The only power socket is on the roof for a fan, which is a pain. With this multiboard, I’m now able to finally charge my phone and camera and video camera.

After getting the electronic gadgets, it was time to head to the Osaka World Trade Center for a view at the top, 55 floors tall. The building is 256m tall, which is a quarter of a kilometre. That’s massive. Imagine the Hamilton City Council buildings times six, and that’s the height of this building. Simply massive. One of the most interesting things was the escalator from the 52 to the 55th floor. A three story escalator is impressive. The view was like a skyline, but at night.

Ended up getting lost again, and was running late for my internet date with my girlfriend. Instead of catching three subways for free, I caught a JR Express Train to Shin-Imamiya. Unfortunately, the ticket machine was all in Japanese. Thankfully I had ICAOCA (like a Snapper card), so using that I didn’t have to worry about buying tickets and working out the prices. It takes care of it for you. I still missed the internet date.

Big day tomorrow, leaving on a 6am train for Nagoya, Nagano, and Tokyo!

Being Naked in Osaka

So here I am in Hotel Shin-Imamiya just about to head out to an international party. But I suppose I should tell you the back story…

So caught Air New Zealand Business Class from Auckland to Osaka. Now this isn’t their Business Premier, with the lie flat beds. Their Boeing 767 hasn’t been fitted out with that, so they were really just big lazy boys. But it was still pretty nice. They really shower you with food and drink. Well I suppose for the $3500 more than a regular flight, you’d want a little something extra. For breakfast, I had toasted museli and I was full. Turns out that was just the starters, and there was the mains of an omlet. And the noise cancelling headphones were a treat as well. But probably the best part was being able to get a decent night’s sleep for a change. With the nearly full lie back seats, I could get to sleep, but shame the foot rests don’t go to the same level, so still had a bit of swelling in the ankles. But enough of the dirty talk.

Landed at Kansai International Airport, and there was no drama getting through customs and immigration. There’s a few different methods you can use to reach Osaka from Kansai, all with different prices. There’s a big push for people to use the Limited Express Haruka, at only 2400 yen or however much it is. But a little slower and a lot cheaper is the Rapid services for only 1160 yen to Shin-Imamiya. Remember you buy your tickets at the ticket machine, insert the ticket into the gate, grab it from the gate, and you’re away laughing. I suppose if no one’s ever told you to grab the ticket at the other end of the gate, you wouldn’t know. But then you have to explain it to the train guy, and that’s a pain in the ass.

Made it to Shin-Imamiya, and dropped of the bag in a Coin Locker for 400 yen. This time round I have a Lonely Planet Japanese phrasebook. It’s OK, and helps me make broken Japanese sentences. I told the train guy that I was arriving at 4pm, and how much was the coin locker. Turns out 400 yen is good for probably 24 hours which is good. Since I didn’t exit the station, I caught the Osaka Loop Line to Osaka station.

Osaka station is an order of magnitude bigger than Hamilton station. Hamilton station has one platform, and two trains a day. Osaka station has about 14 platforms, and two trains every minute or so. It’s pretty confusing trying to find the Midori-no-madaguchi or Reservation Office. This is where you can exchange your Japan Rail Pass Exchange Voucher (funnily enough) for a Japan Rail Pass.

Tips for this:

  1. You need the Exchange Voucher, and it must be in your (correctly spelled) name;
  2. You need your Passport and there must be a temporary vistor sticker in it (not just a photocopy).

That’s it, it’s pretty bloody simple. I saw some Australians that failed at this, and were not pleased with their JR experience. Turns out they just brought photocopies, and were denied a JR Rail Pass. Seriously, follow the instructions and there are no problems, but a she’ll be right attitude doesn’t work in Japan.

At the same Reservation Office, I booked all my Shinkansen tickets. More useful tips for you:

  1. Have an itinerary, and it must be detailed. No I want a train around Tuesday. Be more specific. Use http://www.hyperdia.com to pick the exact trains.

Seriously, this bit of planning made my life so much easier. Only takes an hour or so, and then at the Reservation Office you can just show your planning, and the tickets are booked, and there are no dramas. One train had sold out, so I booked a later one, but no stresses. Most of the time you wouldn’t really had to book a Shinkansen but since it’s so close to New Years, it makes sense to do so.

From there, spent ages trying to find the Osaka Visitors Center. There’s one in Tenoji Station, a few stops on the Osaka Loop Train. Made it, and found the Osaka Visitors Center. It’s a pretty good place, and where you can buy an Osaka Unlimited Pass. For 2700 yen, you get two days of unlimited subway and bus rides, and also free entry into 25 attractions, that would normally cost a lot more than 2700 yen.

I only went to two attractions today, the Tenoji Zoo for 500 yen, and some tower thing for 600 yen, but either way, that’s 1100 yen down, only 1600 more yen tomorrow and I’ve broken even.

Tenoji Zoo is a bit heartbreaking. I mean there’s soo many cool animals there, but most of them are locked up in little cages. It’s sad to see Cougars pacing backwards and forwards in a little cage making the sounds of a dying Giraffe. It looks like they’re so bored that they’re slowly going mental, and that’s probably what’s happening. Still, there are a lot of cool animals, and the place is pretty close to the center of town. For 500 or 600 yen, I still recommend going. At least then you’ll probably appreciate your zoo back home.

This tower I went to (says Hitachi on the side) is a bit of a famous landmark in Osaka. At the top there’s a view of all of Osaka. It’s pretty much buildings as far as the eye can see (which wasn’t very far because of the smog). The area around the tower’s pretty interesting, and features drunk men, pachinko parlours, and lots of people screaming at you to come into their restaurant. I had a splitting headache at this time, and so went to a phamary and said “Atama Itai” or “Head Hurts” to which I was directed to the Panadol section. 500 yen later, I was all drugged up which was great. Still after a long day walking around, it was still only 1pm, and I had to wait until 4pm to check into Hotel Shin-Imamiya. So I went to Spaworld.

Spaworld is great. They’re having a special at the moment, only 1000 yen to enter until the end of the year. So you buy a ticket, and then give the ticket to the guy, who exchanges it for a bracelet. Then you need to immediately take off your shoes, and put them in the shoe coin locker (100 yen, but you get it back). Luckily I was wearing odd socks. Then you head to your respective floor (males 4th floor, females 6th floor). On your floor, you then strip naked, put all your gear into another coin locker (100 yen deposit again), and get a small orange hand towel to hide your modesty. And then you go balls deep (not literally) into the spa. There’s about 7 different rooms, all modeled around Europe, so a Roman Spa, and Finnish Spa, etc. It’s all a little homoerotic, especially surrounded by naked men. But it’s all harmless fun, and quite normal for Japan. Would be damn bizzare in Hamilton. It was so peaceful, especially the really hot water, followed by really cold water. I ended up falling asleep for a couple of hours on a deck chair, I was so relaxed.

After that, a quick walk to Shin-Imamiya station. Turns out Tenoji Station and Shin-Imamiya station are pretty much right next to each other (10 minutes walk). Went inside, paid 120 yen to get into the station, picked up my bag, and then headed to Hotel Shin-Imamiya.

I think the word Hotel is a bit of a stretch, more like a building where capsules happen to be located. But still, is clean enough. The area of town is a little rough by Japanese standards, but is pretty pleasent by New Zealand standards. I’d still rather walk around here at night, instead of Hamilton. 14,400 yen later, I had a place to stay for 8 nights, so that was cheap as chips. My capsule is tiny, but it is a private room, so there’s a table and a wardrobe. I wish there was a power point to be honest.

Anyways, time to head to Nagahoribashi for an international party. 2500 yen for all I can drink and eat for three hours. Beats sitting around not talking to anyone else I guess.

The Air New Zealand Business Class Experience

I recently purchased a return flight from Auckland to Osaka on Grabaseat for $999 return. That in itself is a pretty good price, considering that a Jetstar return flight is around $1200. However, because this was a Grabaseat flight, it happened to be Business Class.

Awesome.

Overall, a lot of people have said the Air New Zealand Business Class longue isn’t that great – I disagree. I think it’s awesome, and a great way to relax. My tip of the day – go early. You can check in before it says check in on the departures board, but heading to the exclusive check-in lounge, skipping where all the economy people check in. This longue is also for Pacific Premium Economy, if you’re wondering. After checking in, take the exclusive elevator through to Airport Security. Did I mention an exclusive officer just for Business Class? That’s right, skip the line for the masses, and head straight through. From here you return and go through Customs the same as everyone else. Then make a right for the Air New Zealand longue…

So here I am in the Air New Zealand Business Class / Koru lounge enjoying the services. As soon as you walk through the door and flash your credentials, you’ll see what’s pretty reminisent of a hotel lobby. Wide open pastel spaces that are very much the beige and greys of the Air New Zealand uniform are everywhere. There is a food and drinks bar pretty similar to that at Valentines. Sure, the Ham was only shaved ham instead of Champange Ham, but there was Method Traditionalle in the fridge, as well as Steinlagers, Macs Golds, and a bucket of ice with Smirnoff, Sambuca, and some pretty fine Whisky.

Free Wifi (well hardly free, but ya’know), free computers, free meeting rooms, photocopiers, big screen TV longues with lazyboy recliners, and lots of books and magazines to read.

Closed for Christmas and New Years, there’s also a massage lounge and relaxation room which looked pretty sweet. I’d like to do that again sometime.

All in all, an awesome experience, and I’m not even on the plane yet. With all the free orange juice, light meals, relaxing TV, and reclining seats, I’m already relaxed and ready for travel, and not sweaty, smelly, or stuck with no where to sit because the Samoan Rugby Team has been delayed five hours and is sleeping on all the lounges outside Burger King.

Just bliss. I wonder what the plane’s like?