Tag 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.

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).

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

Highlights of Vietnam – Hanoi

The second place we visited during our stay in Vietnam was Hanoi, the country Capital that is some 2,000 km north from Ho Chi Minh City. Hanoi is a 3 million people city placed on the right bank of the Red river that flows from china and end in the Gulf of Tokin in the South Chinese Sea.

Formerly capital of French Indochina, became the capital of North Vietnam after the independence of the latter and after the North’s victory of the Vietnam War became the capital of a reunified Vietnam. It is the city of Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the North’s forces that lived and ruled from Hanoi the war against the French first and Americans later. The things to see in Hanoi are few and could be easily visited in one/two days stay.

The first thing your tour operator or your travel guide will suggest you to visit is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. A big building built in a dedicated plaza where the embalmed body of Bac Ho rests. We had to wait a while before entering the room because of the long line of tourists that wanted to see the body. We did not be surprised when our guide told us that even though the official propaganda says that the body is original, rumors among the local population state that the body is just a perfect replica and the real one is hidden somewhere else. True or fake, inside the room it is not allowed to take photos, talk, keep the hands in the pocket and the body is 24h per day, 7 days per week under surveillance of armed soldiers in deep adoration.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum - Hanoi by AndreaDetto

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – Hanoi

Adjacent to the Mausoleum there is the Presidential Palace, a beautiful French style building that was used as house by the French Governor-General of Indochina until North Vietnam gained independence in 1954. The legend says that Ho Chi Minh refused to live in the grand structure for symbolic reasons, preferring to build a traditional Vietnamese stilt house and a carp pond on the grounds close to the building that he nevertheless continued using as meeting place where he received state guests.

The stilt house is composed of two rooms, both of which are no bigger than 10 square meters and contains Ho’s legendary personal effects. The house does not have even a toilet being Ho supposed to have scrapped them from the original design. He used to receive food and other necessary things from the residential building placed nearby.

After the visit to the Ho Chi Minh complex, we went to the Temple of Literature, a temple dedicated to Confucius and place where the first Vietnamese national university (the so called Imperial Academy) was settled. The “Complete Annals of Đại Việt” describes the foundation of the temple as: “In the autumn of the year Canh Tuat, the second year of Than Vu (1070), in the 8th lunar month, during the reign of King Ly Thanh Tong, the Temple of Literature was built. The statues of Confucius, his four best disciples: Yan Hui, Zengzi, Zisi and Mencius as well as the Duke of Zhou, were carved and 72 other statues of Confucian scholars were painted. Ceremonies were dedicated to them in each of the four seasons. The Crown Princes studied here.”.

The place is very peaceful and meditative even though the hundreds tourists constantly wandering around, leaving the visitors to feel the contemplative atmosphere created in centuries of studies. Among the various gardens there is one particularly interesting where the Steles of Doctors were built in 1484. Those steles are a valuable historical resource for the study of Vietnam culture, education and sculpture but unfortunately out of 116 steles erected, only 82 remain depicting names, birth places and graduation date of the 1307 students graduated in 82 triennial royal exams.

In the fourth courtyard there is the “Dai Thanh sanctuary” where the altar of Confucius and his four best disciples are honoured. A dedicated orchestra plays traditional Vietnamese songs in an adjacent building to honour Confucius and the royal founders giving the chance to the visitors to enjoy a rare moment of tranquillity and admiration for the skillful use of the Vietnamese traditional instruments.

Temple of literature - Hanoi by AndreaDetto

Temple of literature – Hanoi

After the temple, our guide brought us to the ‘Vietnam Museum of Ethnology’ that is a must see for those who like to delve into the history and habits of the 54 ethnic groups that live in the country. Well the items provided in the museum are not exactly of the same historical value as Rome , Athens or other ancient cities but it gives to the visitors a good chance to understand the different habits and cultures of the various groups. Out of the 54 groups one is predominating the others: the Kinh also called Viet that represents almost the 87% of the population. The remaining 13% is represented by the others 53 groups that therefore are a very small minority. Outside the classical museum there is a nice courtyard where ancient houses and constructions have been reproduced for the visitors satisfactions.

Vietnam Museum of Ethnology - Hanoi by AndreaDetto

Vietnam Museum of Ethnology – Hanoi

During the day and half we stayed in Hanoi we had some spare time to visit the lake and the surrounding of our hotel (see the Vietnam Hotel Review post for more details). The city is very quite and nice and totally different from Ho Chi Minh City. The Tuc Tuc ride we had in the late afternoon of the last day in Hanoi was really interesting. It is curious to see how million of motorbikes could manage to drive everywhere without any particular limitation without crashing one in each other. Just like the fish in the sea. It seems to be very famous also the “Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre” for which you should book well in advance.

The show is very interesting even though is in Vietnamese and the seats are for small people, probably children. I am 193 cm and had a lot of problem to accommodate somewhere my legs.

Once finished the tour, we headed to the train station because the next step of our holiday was waiting for us: Sa Pa!!! 🙂

Highlights of Viet Nam – Ho Chi Minh City

From Dubai there is only one direct flight to Vietnam and it is an Emirates flight from Dubai to Ho Chi Min City (formerly known as Saigon). Our two weeks holiday, therefore, started and ended in the former capital of South Vietnam that still has the “capitalistic” influence of the Americans and the architecture of the French. HCMC in fact is more complex and westerly structured than the current capital Hanoi placed some 2,000 km up north and that is still a traditional socialist city.

The first thing that we noticed in surprise was the huge amount of motorcycles wandering around as fishes in the sea. We have been told that out of 9 million people living in HCMC, around 5 million use exclusively the motorbike for moving around. Most probably, the reason of this choice is the existence of a 200/300% tax applied to the car sale that makes this mean of transportation very expensive for people that averagely earn 1,500 USD per year.

The city was called Saigon but it was renamed in Ho Chi Minh City after the conclusion of the Vietnam War in honour of Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the socialist party that fought against the French first and the Americans later. surprisingly enough, we met many tourists coming from the States that wanted to visit the place where the US Army had such an hard time and caused many victims expecially with the use of chemicals weapons.

During our stay in HCMC we visited many places out of which I would recommend few that should not miss in your list as follows.

Ho Chi Minh City attractions map

Ho Chi Minh City attractions map

Notre Dame Cathedral: a Romanesque style church built during the 19th Century to support the French colonials after the conquer of Cochinchina. All the construction materials were brought directly from France. In 2005 the Virgin Mary statue was reported to have shed tears.

Central Post Office: built in the early 20th century in a neoclassical architectural style, it was designed by the famous architect Gustave Eiffel in harmony with the surrounding area.

Reunification Palace: it was the home and workplace of the President of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War and became the symbol of North Vietnam victory when on April 30, 1975 a North Vietnamese tank bulldozed the main gate and occupied the Palace. From November 1975, Ho Chi Minh changed its name to Reunification Palace in order to celebrate the victory in the long lasted war.

War Remnants Museum: a must see museum in Vietnam with a lot of exhibits related to the American part of the war. Even though with a bit of ‘propaganda’ added here and there, the museum could help the visitor to understand the horrible atrocities committed during this ideological war that was actually started by the French.

Photos from Ho Chi Minh City by AndreaDetto

Photos from Ho Chi Minh City by AndreaDetto

 – Jade Emperor Pagoda: The Jade Emperor is in the Chinese culture the ruler of Heaven and it is one of the most important Gods in the Chinese traditional culture. It is also worshipped by Taoist and represents the Cao Dai for Caodaism. Other than the Jade Emperor there are also a fertility goddess, the Lord of Hell and even the Buddha of the future. The entire collection is somewhat of a fusion of Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian mythologies.

Saigon Opera House: a clear example of French Colonial architecture in Vietnam.

– Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee: formerly a luxurious French hotel, after 1975 has been assigned to the people’s committee. It is not open to public for visit but it is an astonishing example of French colonial architecture. In front of the palace there is the Bac Ho statue (Uncle Ho).

Cho Ben Thanh: If you seek for a local market where is possible to find some present to bring back home, you might want to visit this market (cho in vietnamese). Just be informed that there is no air conditioning inside and most of the time you can get a 75% discount after a very minimal bargain. I remember that my partner asked, just for curiosity, how much was a giant dead scorpion in a glass box. The guy replied 5,000 dong. She politely thanked the guy and walked away. “4,000 – 3,000 – ma’am 2,000 – ok, for you 500 dong” . . . everything in less than 20 seconds.

Photos from Ho Chi Minh by AndreaDetto 2

Photos from Ho Chi Minh by AndreaDetto

We managed to visit almost all the attractions by walk, however Jade Emperor pagoda is quite far from the centre and we needed to take a Taxi. We have been told that it could be risky to take a taxi in Vietnam unless it is a respectable and trust-able company as Visasun or MaiLinh. We took a Visasun taxi and even though the driver did not speak a single word of English, we managed to show him a local map and he dropped us just in front of the Pagoda. Just take note of few suggestions: ask always to have the meter on, ask someone else how much should be the fee to be paid before getting into a taxi (we asked to a waitress in a restaurant before taking the taxi) and how long it will take the journey, just to avoid any possible scam that apparently is not that uncommon.