Category Archives: Asia

Japan Public Transportation System and the JR Pass – TIPS

Visiting Japan is one of the easiest things to do. Either you want to visit a single city or travel around the Country, you have a countless number of transportation options that sometimes could seem even embarrassing.

The railway network is impressive. Compared to the old one I have back home, a single line railway from Ventimiglia to Genova built around the end of the 19th Century, it seemed to me to have landed on an alien planet. Tokyo is probably the most densely populated city in the world and it would have been a collective suicide to force 30 million people to use their cars and motorbikes to commute every day.

For this reason, Tokyo has a capillary public transportation that easily connects each and every part of the city. There are several levels and options available for citizens and visitors: subway lines, railways, boats trips, monorails and more. The main railway that you are going to use during your stay in Tokyo is the JR Yamamote Line. It is a loop line that connect Tokyo Station with many tourist places and network nodes such as, but not limited to, Akihabara, Shinjuku, Hamamatsucho (the connection with the airport monorail), Shibuya and more as shown in the below photo.

JR Lines in Tokyo

The capillary JR network in Tokyo. In green at the centre, the Yamamote Line. In red the Haneda Airport monorail.

If you would like to explorer Japan further, maybe adding Kyoto, Hiroshima or other cities to your itinerary, you do not have to worry. Japan is famous for the JR Shinkansen lines, particular railways where special trains (known as bullet trains) can travel at almost 300 km/h, rendering a trip Tokyo/Kyoto of almost 470 km a pleasant journey of less than 2 hours. It connects all Japan in a efficient and comfortable way, making your exploring the whole Country really easy.

Japan Rail Pass Map

The JR group is the biggest in the Country and serves all the major cities.

The next question is: How much does the public transportation cost in Japan?

JR Line Tokyo Fares

In all the stations you will find signboards with the fare to pay, if you do not have a JR pass.

The answer is very simple:a lot since they are very expensive, especially the Shinkansen rides. In the train stations you will find sign boards with the fare to pay for a single ride from the current station (in this case Tokyo Station) to your destination.  As shown in the photo, a one-way ride to the next station, costs in average some 130 Yen (more than 1 USD at today’s rate). There are daily passes available for the JR lines only (the Tokunai Pass – 700 Yen) or for all the lines (the Tokyo Free Kippu – 1,590 YEN). We took an average of 6 rides per day in Tokyo, in order to visit different districts in one day and without the JR Pass, getting the daily pass would have been a wise idea.

The Shinkanses is quite expensive, with a ride from Tokyo to Kyoto at around 14,000 Yen (almost 120 USD) and a train trip from Nagoya to Takayama is almost 6,000 Yen (around 50 USD) just to mention two popular destinations that we have visited. Just to have an idea, during our stay we visited Tokyo (4 days), Nagoya (2 days), Kyoto (2 days), Nara (1 day) and Katayama (2 days) inclusive of all the Shinkansen connections we had to take. We estimated a total transportation cost of more than 65,000 Yen (around 540 USD) in order to visit the mentioned cities.

Luckily enough, the Japanese government gives to foreign visitors the possibility to get a JR PASS valid on all the JR lines at the cost of 29,110 YEN (242 USD) for 7 days and 46,390 YEN (386 USD) for 14 days (regular class, seat not reserved). It is not valid outside the JR circuit that, however, is enough to allow you to visit Tokyo and Japan without trouble, limiting at few times the need to use a subway or a different way of transportation.

With the JR PASS we saved some money (around 160 USD each) and a lot of time. In fact, the pass holders are just requested to show it at the gates, without the need to continuously go to the tickets office and buy a ticket.

Note: The JR PASS shall be bought before going to Japan because it can be purchased only outside the Country by foreigners that will be enjoying a temporary Visit/Tourist Visa only.

JR Exchange Order

The JR Exchange Order shall be bought outside Japan and converted with the Pass at a JR point.

The process is very simple. You shall buy a JR Exchange Order (see photo) either online or from an authorized travel agent. There are many website offering this option, the most complete of which is definitely www.japanrailpass.net/en/ where all the possible information you might require are available. Once you receive the JR Exchange Order, you shall exchange it with the actual Pass that can be obtained in the Airports and in the major Train stations. Just note that the appointed JR offices close at 18.30, hence you might be prevented to get your pass if you land after this time.

JR Pass

The JR Pass you can get once in Japan. It will allow you to use unlimited JR trains inclusive of the Shinkansen.

We landed at 23.35 at Tokyo Haneda Airport and had to buy a monorail ticket to reach Hamamatsucho Station (the first stop and also where we booked our hotel Bayside Hotel Azur Takeshiba). We were then forced to go to Tokyo Station the day after (paying again the ticket) and finally get the JR Pass issued.

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Airport Review – Haneda International – Tokyo

If you are planning to visit Tokyo and from there visit some other areas of Japan, you might be asked to chose between two possible airports: Narita and Haneda. Narita is the new international airport and it seems to be exceptionally designed. I have a couple of friends that flew to Narita and they all said the same: great airport but it is 40 minutes by train from the City.

By chance we had to fly to Haneda, the former principal airport and now the reference point for domestic flights and some selected international ones. The airport is extraordinarily close to the city that could be reached in 10 minutes with the available monorail, which links the airport with Hamamatsucho Station where the Yamamote Line (a circular JR line that connects almost all Tokyo neighborhoods), other JR Lines and subways are easily reachable.

We flew from Dubai to Tokyo with Emirates and landed in Haneda whose arrival terminal is very minimal but efficient. Indeed, we landed, passed through immigration and collected our baggage in less than 20 minutes. A high speed WiF is also available, which I successfully used to call home with Skype without any trouble.

The Airport staff are very polite and available to offer information and indication and almost all of them speak English in a suitable way (rare thing in Japan).

Haneda airport facilities

Haneda airport doesn’t offer the entertainment that Narita does, but it is very efficient. – photo from http://www.haneda-airport.com

The departure terminal is al-right with a check-in process efficient even though not really as fast as expected. Compared to Emirates Terminal 3 in Dubai, Haneda seems really small, however,  it offers enough souvenirs shops and restaurants to spend easily 1 or 2 hours while waiting for boarding. just note that some shops close at 10 p.m., hence you might miss that nice bag you wanted to buy “after a quick bite” as we did.

The monorail is perfectly integrated in the airport and is easy to reach. Note that since it is operated by JR you can use your JR Pass to access it. However, if you have bought a JR Exchange Order in advance and need to exchange it with the real Pass, remember that the JR office in Haneda Airport closes at 18.30 Tokyo time and you will be asked to pay for the monorail ride if you land after that time.

The use of the JR Pass can seem quite complicated and its high cost can discourage from buying it but it is a valuable tool if you plan to visit more than Tokyo. This detailed JR Pass guide shows you hot it works.

Hotel Review – Bayside Hotel Azur Takeshiba – Tokyo

When we decided to travel to Japan and to spend few days in Tokyo, most of the best hotels in town were already fully booked or with only super expensive suites available. Among the ones with rooms available at an affordable price, we opted for Bayside Hotel Azur Takeshiba hotel that is conveniently located at 7 minutes’ walk from Hamamatsucho Station, which offers links to the major JR Lines (Yamamote in first place), the airport monorail and subway system.

It’s location is superb if you land at Tokyo Haneda Airport, especially at night, since the hotel can be easily reached in 20 minutes from that airport. Moreover, the hotel  is close to Tsukiji Fish Market and Hinode Pier from where you can get a boat and explore the bay or cruise the river up to Asakusa district.

The hotel is a bit anonymous, with very little decorations and the main entrance is tricky to be found. Just remember that the lobby is located at the 4th floor, hence you need to get the elevator from the 1st floor (note also that the ground floor does not exist in Japan. They start counting from 1).

Bayside Hotel Azur Takeshiba

The hotel is conveniently located close to Hinode Pier and Hamamtsucho Train/Metro Station – photo from Google Images

The hotel staff was very helpful but no one speaks a fluent English. However, they managed to handle a simple discussion about timings, rules and basic information.

As common in Tokyo, the room was very small with enough space for the bed, a tiny desk with chair and very few amenities. We had issues in managing our luggage since there was space to open only one bag at a time. We are 1.90 m tall and found the space just enough to survive even though the bed was surprisingly big enough.

The bathroom was minimal with a smart toilet, sink and shower. A hair drier and some toiletries were available as well as towels. Both bathroom and room were always very clean and in order.

When I booked a standard double room with city view, I was optimistically hoping to have a superb view of Tokyo. Unfortunately, our room no. 715 offered only close buildings and the elevated train rail.  The room is perfectly sound-proofed and we did not get disturbed by any noise coming from outside. However, you might prefer to try a bay view room for a hopefully better view.

The hotel offers a free WiFi connection that works perfectly in the lobby but has sometimes problems in the room. We did not have any meal at the hotel, therefore I cannot provide any comments.

The hotel accepts credit cards (useful to specify in Japan, since many commercial activities accept only cash).

5 Indisputable reasons to visit the Maldives

Almost 2 years had passed since we visited Maldives and our memories are still vivid on our eyes and heart. Maldives are simply a dream destination that you shall visit at least once in your life.

We flew in Maldives from Abu Dhabi with a superb Etihad flight and reached Male’ Airport in few hours. From there we took one of those fast boats that in less than half an hour brought us to our island: Lhohifushi Island, located in the North Male Atoll. Simply a piece of paradise. However, if you still need some further facts to convince you to visit Maldives, here you have 5 indisputable reasons to do it.

1 – The Superb Beaches

We all know that Maldives are very popular for their beaches made with fine white sand, but do you really know how beautiful they can be? Natural sand, great vegetation with palms and mangroves and the astonishing color of the water create an unique environment that you cannot miss.

The superb beaches in Maldives

Our island had superb beaches and vegetation.

2 – The turquoise sea

If the beaches are really beautiful, they are not even comparable with the variety of colors the sea water in the Maldives can offer. Light blue, dark blue and sometimes turquoise that perfectly match the clear blue sky.

Maldives colorful water

The sea water is crystal clear and offers a variety of blue/greenish colors that are astonishing

3 – The lovely accommodation and the peaceful surrounding

Our tour operator opted for a resort organized in beach villas. We thought it was a good idea to have some more privacy and an unique but we didn’t expected to have such a great stay. A few steps from the beach but immersed in a very rich vegetation. The island doesn’t have roads, hence cars passing by. There is no noise at all and after the sunset it is really peaceful and quiet.

Beach villas in Maldives

The beach villas where we stayed were lovely located and beautifully furnished.

4 – The amazing wildlife

If you are one of those people that think Maldives are only sand and beaches, you are completely wrong. There are many different species that live in each and every island. We encountered Hermit Crabs, birds, flamingos, and many fishes that populated the coral reef.

Hermit Crab in Maldives

Hermit Crab in Maldives

Maldivian flamingo

Maldivian Flamingo patrolling the sea

Threao Fin Butterfly Fish in Maldives

Snorkeling is an amazing experience in Maldives. Here with a Threao Fin Butterfly Fish

5 – The perfect sun for a long-lasting tan

Yes, of course you might want to go to Maldives for the beaches, the sea and the wildlife but definitely you want to bring home a nice and natural tan that will make all your friends, colleagues and bosses frustrated with envy. Maldives is the right place to achieve that. The sun is very strong and penetrating and, if your skin is protected in a proper way, it  turns your pale grey-yellowish-city-color in a even and healthy brown one.

The perfect tan in Maldives

The perfect tan in Maldives

The slow but scaring propagation of MERS-CoV in Middle East and Asia

More than one year ago, in March/April 2014 to be precise, I was living and working in Saudi Arabia and was discretely preoccupied for the MERS (Middle-East Respiratory Syndrome) virus that was spreading in the Kingdom. It wasn’t a real breakout, since the daily cases were few, sometimes 1 sometimes 4 or 5. What scared me the most was the fact that the new cases reported were constant, meaning that the virus had a suitable carrier that was perfectly working.

Many associated the Virus with the camels new born season that in effect had caused the previous spike in the daily cases census. The spike had alarmed the international and local authorities that intervened to contain the infection. Saudi Arabia was the origin of the new Corona Virus and it was the Country with the highest number of cases reported.

After several weeks of general hysteria, the situation seemed becoming normal, with very few and isolated cases that seemed to happen just to remind us that the MERS Virus was still among us.

 After a period of relative tranquility, the MERS-CoV suddenly and powerfully appeared in South Korea where it spread and killed many people from May 2015 as reported by BBC News at the beginning of July 2015.

MERS CoV Global Situation Map by World Health Organization - photo from www.who.int

MERS CoV Global Situation Map by World Health Organization – photo from http://www.who.int

After the most recent outbreak, South Korea became one of the most severely hit Countries with hundreds cases that brought the local authorities to preventive quarantine measure for almost 7,000 people (as of end of July) and  provoked a collective fear of a pandemic in the population.

south-korea-mers-scare-wedding-photo

The level of alert in South Korea is so high that this wedding photo was taken with mask. – photo credit in the right corner

Surprisingly enough, concomitant with the recent outbreak in Korea, there has been a re-awakening of the virus even in Saudi Arabia with 22 new reported cases in the past 4 weeks. But while in Saudi we could have linked the presence of the virus to the camel farming activities, I am quite puzzled about its persistent presence in Far East. World Health Organization is strictly monitoring the evolution of the situation.

Vietnam Holidays – Sa Pa

After the long train trip from Hanoi as described in one of the previous posts, we eventually arrived at Lao Cai Train Station, the nearest station to Sa Pa, which is at some 4 km from the Chinese border. Once arrived there, we realized that almost all the people on the train were tourist and the station was filled by tourist guides patiently waiting for their guests. We took a while before spotting our local guide, Miss. May Cham belonging to the Red Dao ethnic group, who immediately started briefing us about the plan of our stay and anticipating the singularities of the place, its cultural back-ground and history.

SaPa from different angles by AndreaDetto

SaPa from different angles

Sa Pa as an unique climate that changes during the day in what looks like a predetermined fashion. A tourist information panel in the town reads: “there are four seasons a day: cool spring in the morning, sunny summer in the noon time, cloudy autumn in the afternoon and cold winter in the night time” and I can assure that it is true.   Sa Pa was a very small village inhabited by local tribes that moved from north to find arable land and conducting a very simple life based on rice and other vegetable cultivation. For this reason the village remained basically unknown to most of the people living outside the Lao Cai province for centuries. Only when the French came in this part of the world and conquered Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia creating the so called “French Indochina” in the late 19th Century, SaPa started being known to foreigners because of its favorable and curative (the French thought so) climate. For this reason, soon Sa Pa started appearing in the national maps and became destination for those people affected by chronic illnesses and bad health conditions. The WWII and the three sino-vietnamese wars mined Sa Pa ability to attract people, condition that remained unaltered until the ’90s when the doors to international tourism were definitely opened and thousands tourists started flowing in the little city to enjoy the particular weather, the breathtaking landscapes and wonderful trekking paths between the different tribes’ villages and rice paddies.

Once we arrived in the little lovely town, we were literally ‘assailed’ by many Hmong women colorfully dressed greeting us with a ‘Xin Chao’ (Hello in Vietnamese) and a lots of questions like “Do you buy from me?”, “Maybe Later?”, “Maybe Sure?”. Our local guide told us that the women work represent the major source of income in the household and they soon learnt that tourists have money and they are pretty much willing to spend it in souvenirs. For the local minorities used to work the land and not having electricity at home, even few dollars could be a significant amount, allowing them to buy some goods from the neighboring cities.

The women community in SaPa

The extraordinary women community in SaPa.

With this crowd of Hmong women following us (see the photos above) and continuing begging to buy something from them, we visited Sa Pa town first and then Cat Cat (Black Hmong) and Ta Phin (Red Dao) Village by amiably trekking through the rice paddies. During our stay we noticed that only women were around with their colorful dresses, different hats (red, black, big, small), some with black teeth (they believe it is sexy) other with big earrings. All dedicated to the fields work, taking care of the children and the household, selling products and souvenirs to tourists . . . we were told, indeed, that men are quite lazy and willing to drink and relax only.

We had the possibility to visit some houses in the mentioned villages and found them very different from our comfortable-provided-with-everything modern apartments. They have a big room where they cook, enjoy their meal, store corn and rice and take a rest. The proper bed room is in another space well isolated from the ‘common’ area. The various minorities follow Confucianism, Buddhism and Catholicism (imported by the French) but the majority of them believe in the Ancestors that continue living in the same house protecting the families.

saPa Market by AndreaDetto

Sa Pa Market – live fish, chickens, pork, spices and herbs, vegetables

The environment is quite in danger being a common practice to burn the forest in order to increase the arable area to grow rice and corns. We were told that the Government started implementing adequate information campaign with the hope to stop the deforestation in progress. Another curious thing is that the government has provided each and every local community with a clinic with qualified nurses to guarantee an adequate first aid and medical coverage but the local people do believe in the traditional Chinese medicine (based on the use of roots and other natural products) and for this reason the clinic are always empty.

The restaurants available in Sa Pa are generally very good, being the ingredients very fresh and directly available from the local farmers. However I would recommend you to enjoy a dinner at Little SAPA Restaurant where the massive presence of Vietnamese people indicates the food is really Vietnamese. The simple life that the Vietnamese have is a kind of assurance that each and every food you are going to enjoy, either it is a local pig or vegetables, it is made with 100% organic products.

A glimpse of SaPa's life by AndreaDetto

A glimpse of SaPa’s life