The Grand Tour Ten Years On—A Third Continent

Growing up in the U.K. in the eighties, you absorbed a lot of knowledge about the U.S. through TV and film. Some of it eventually got erased in favour of more accurate information. Some of it didn’t. One thing that lasted until just about a decade ago was the idea that the Rocky Mountains were a narrow range running along the U.S. West Coast, part of the great Pacific ring of mountains. Well, that isn’t true. Wasn’t even close.

Leaving Oakland on the California Zephyr, I’d hit mountains quickly enough, but those would be the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, themselves further inland already than the Coast Ranges, into which the San Francisco Bay is tucked. I was setting out to cross the third continent on my trip, once more by train, and Amtrak was my carrier from embarkation at Emeryville to de-training in Boston.

A California Zephyr viewing lounge. Seats are first-come, first-served.

For a nation that was stitched together by rail, from sea to shining sea, the U.S. has largely moved away from rail as a way to move people in favour of road. It was a bit jarring in comparison to Japan, where rail is king, but the U.S. is a lot larger and emptier and is very much its own thing. (If you want to know more about why U.S. rail is the way it is, try this video.) Blame Eisenhower anyway. He’s a Republican who’s gotten away scot-free for too long. (And courtesy of a brief Wikipedia trawl, I now know that scot-free refers to being free of the need to pay royal duties or imposts.)

For purposes of my travelling plans, some longer rail routes still endure, mostly as draws for tourists, the curious, and the romantic. At least two of which applied to me back then. I’d visited the East and West Coasts before, as well as Chicago only a little while before this trip, but I’d never ventured far beyond city limits in each case. This train journey was an expression of why I prefer trains to planes: maintaining a sense of connection to the landscape while travelling, and ensuring that travel remains meaningful.

The landscape of the West. Which has its own more modern resonance for me.

On the California Zephyr, I spent most of the first few days ensconced in the viewing lounge. A specially designed car with curving panoramic windows and seats designed for sitting and watching the world go by. The seats in the lounge aren’t bookable, or weren’t then. Instead, people wander in and out as they please. Since I was just there for the travel, I settled in and over the course of the next few days I made a couple of new friends and had some fun conversations, mostly with Mormons, one of whom professed to be revealing the inner secrets of the church to me. Given that the first stop of my trip was Salt Lake City, this raised an eyebrow or two, but any weirdness was balanced out by perfect politeness in every case.

Cities with names as familiar as Sacramento and Reno fled by, but when the train hits the Great Basin between the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies, the scope and scale of the U.S. becomes apparent. It’s less vacant than the grand forested expanses of Russia but no less impressive. River-cut valleys, low ridges, tiny villages, huts in odd places. The history here is not written, but rather experienced. White settlers are newcomers. Even the native tribes have only two tens of millennia here. No time at all to write oneself into the story of the land.

Joseph Smith getting the Lay On Hands treatment.

The rhythm of night and day received a jolt with my arrival in Salt Lake City. The train crossed the Great Salt Lake Desert in darkness and skirted the shores of the Great Salt Lake itself with only the lights of the distant city as a guide. The California Zephyr leaves once a day and can be caught along its route once a day likewise. I’d chosen Salt Lake City for a stop, but the drawback was that I disembarked at around 4:00AM in the morning, knowing that I had 24 hours to explore, not sleep, and endure before I could take to the rails again.

Cue a very strange day. The larger of my two bags was safely stowed in the station, but all was still in silence and darkness as I wandered into the city. The broad, open streets of the city held almost no one else, and in the distance there was the blindingly white light of the Salt Lake Temple as a guiding star. It felt like I was in a mash-up of 28 Days Later and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Salt Lake City from above. The temple is a little less white in the daytime.

It wasn’t too hard to spend 24 hours in Salt Lake City. The first few hours were the trickiest, but once I’d found a tourist office that offered free Wi-Fi through its closed doors and an early-opening Starbucks, I was in decent shape. I’d climbed to the hill where the State Capitol sat for sunrise, but most of the rest of the day was spent in doing some religious learning in the form of Mormon (Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints if you prefer) history. There’s more to Salt Lake City and Utah than the Mormons, but it’s hard to avoid the church, and I had no particular reason to do so, being a temporary visitor.

So I kept my scepticism to myself and listened and learned as the day went on, taking suggestions as to where to go and enjoying the odd non-Mormon experience like the Public Library. Those non-Mormon experiences expanded when the sun went down, which I watched from the Capitol Hill again. Sunset over the Great Salt Lake is definitely worth catching, by the way.

Those sunset skies. (Oh to have had the phone camera I have now.)

Because I had to stay awake and active until 4AM again, didn’t I? Sunset being over, I headed for a bar. Despite what you may have heard, it’s perfectly possible to imbibe in Utah. The rest of the evening went approximately pub quiz, planetarium, Led Zeppelin laser light show, and late night movie. All of which brought me to a little after midnight, upon which I headed to the station for a few hours sitting in the dry cold until the Zephyr showed up again and I found my way to my seat to sleep through the remaining morning hours.

It was a weird, half-awake day that followed. Sleeping in a seat following 24 hours of not sleeping at all (and not having been in a bed since San Francisco) does not for a healthy mental state make. The fact that I was poorly shaved and showered probably contributed to the fact that I don’t really remember talking to anyone on the trip from Salt Lake City to Denver. But balancing this out was the view.

Glimpsed from the viewing lounge, up among the mountains.

This was proper Rocky Mountains stuff as we climbed towards the Continental Divide then descended throughout the rest of the day towards Denver itself. Proper American landscapes of the Old West school, looking half-untouched by human boot or horse hoof. As I had been on the Trans-Siberian, I was transfixed, with the bonus of proper panoramic windows for the view.

We pulled into Union Station in Denver as twilight was falling. Well, I say we pulled in, but we were actually dumped on a platform some distance from the station, which was in the midst of refurbishment. Luckily, I’d learned my lessons from California misadventures and had booked ahead. A short walk took me to a youth hostel, where I showered and changed, then ventured out into the darkness feeling like a new man, in search of pizza and beer.

Denver pizza and beer. So very gratefully received.

Like Salt Lake City, and for much the same reasons, I had exactly 24 hours in Denver. Of course, sleep was going to take up one third of that, but as it turned out a whistle-stop tour of the Mile High City was just enough to fall in love with the place. There was a cold, dry, crisp feel to the air, which left me parched a good deal of the time but was exactly what a wandering traveller needed to encourage exploration.

I found the Mile-High markers at the Capitol building (or rather the three of them, as they took a few shots to get it right), roamed through museums of art and archaeology to get a feel for the culture of the West, and generally enjoyed the vibe of a city that felt like somewhere I might want to live some day. I also came across something that I’d encountered a couple of times on the West Coast: a large “Occupy” protest in front of the Capitol, attended by the odd joker in a V mask and a “Don’t worry ma’am, we’re from the Internet” sign. Ah for more innocent days.

Much of Denver’s fantastic art is Native in origin and all the more worth seeing for it.

But 24 hours was a hard limit, and as the sun sank I was heading for the loose vicinity of Union Station again. It was time for the last leg of the California Zephyr, taking me across the Great Plains to Chicago, where I would be spending another night. Or rather I would have been if hotel prices hadn’t soared through the roof for some reason. I guessed some kind of conference taking place, but regardless, there was no possibility of finding a place to stay on a budget. This being 2011 and long before the world became properly aware of Airbnb.

So I did my best to sleep through the night as we crossed the former Western Interior Seaway, the vast open plains of the Midwest, and towns and cities like Yuma and Omaha. There was plenty of scenery but from the low perspective of a train it didn’t quite strike the eye in the same way as the heights of the Rockies. And despite my best efforts to keep an eye out, I spotted no farm boys racing trains on foot while passing through Kansas.

Corn? In the Midwest? Who knew?

So I landed in Chicago with plans to stay no longer than it took me to jump on a train that took me to my next destination. Missing out on the Windy City wasn’t as big a blow as it might have been, as I’d enjoyed a freezing trip there back towards the start of the year. I enjoyed a late lunch and made my way to the Capitol Limited, headed for the heart of American political power.

It was a shorter trip than the previous legs of my journey, save perhaps the hop from Salt Lake City to Denver, and it returned me to some proper landscapes, no small amount of them soaked in rain. I’d been lucky on the trip to that point in that I’d avoided inclement weather most of the time, and on this rail trip I got to enjoy some of the scenery while enjoying dinner in the dining car with a collection of folks heading for D.C. for reasons that were many and varied.

The train, it has to be said, was not always the fastest, but the view made up for it.

Washington D.C. marked an end of sorts to my third continental crossing. I’d continue to explore the East Coast of the U.S. for a while and eventually make it to the sea, but the Potomac was close enough to the Atlantic to count for me. It was also where I’d be hosted by yet another American friend. In this case Liz, who met me at Union Station (it’s almost always Union Station in the States) and proceeded to take me out for beer and burritos, and from thence to a D.C. United game, Liz being not only a craft beer expert but a leading figure in the cheering section for her local team.

Once again, having a base of operations and a knowledgeable local made Washington D.C. a special experience. While I worried a bit about outstaying my welcome, skipping Chicago had left me with an extra day to explore, and Liz proceeded to take me upriver for some park exploration, and then host me at her place with some home brewing. When I said she was a craft beer expert, I meant it.

One of those photos of yourself that’s way more flattering than you deserve.

As for D.C. itself, there was ample to explore. Unlike Los Angeles, D.C. has decent public transport (funny how it’s always good enough for the ruling classes, hmm) so Liz could just set me loose in the morning when she was off to work. I did a circuit of the museums around the National Mall, including the Newseum, the Air and Space Museum, and the Museum of Natural History. I visited all of the presidential monuments and peeked in at the White House and its pitch black squirrels. (As an aside, I also picked up a book on Thomas Jefferson that thoroughly punctured the admiration I’d held for him previously—being a talented and principled man is only of so much use when you limit on whose behalf you exercise those talents and principles.)

D.C. is also a surprisingly walkable city, and the monuments of the Mall took me to Theodore Roosevelt Island and its population of deer, who seemed as surprised to see me as I was to see them. There were canals to wander along and Arlington National Cemetery to roam through. Not all of which was done on a single day, but there was plenty to keep me busy, and I could have kept roaming for a lot longer had I wanted to.

I did peek into the Library of Congress too, though not solely for the purposes of ego reinforcement.

At length though I needed to keep on wandering, and I had things to see and do before I was homeward bound. I said my farewells to Liz and took one last morning spin around the sights of a cloudy D.C. before heading for that old Union Station. The time had come for the last leg of the journey, into the heart of the oldest part of the U.S.: New England in the Fall.

The Grand Tour Ten Years On—California Roaming

From London onwards, my travels across the world had been relentlessly solo. Even when I was hanging out with others, such encounters had been either brief or negotiated across the barrier of a language gap. It had been a liberating but alienating way to travel, and it came to a crashing halt when I landed on the West Coast of North America.

The author of this change was Colleen, a friend of a friend who I knew from Dublin and who insisted on hosting me for the handful of days that I’d be spending in Los Angeles. She did more than that too, introducing me to her family and friends before I’d been there an hour or two, and loaning me her car (the only sensible way to get around the city). In other words, she couldn’t have been more hospitable to a bewildered Irish traveller still getting his head around the 24 hours he’d regained, Phileas Fogg-like, by crossing the International Date Line.

Apparently I was singing. I’m not sure this was a good way to repay her hospitality.

It was as fulsome a welcome as I could have hoped for and way more than I had expected. Truth be told, I’d been a little wary of landing in Los Angeles, which is a notoriously unfriendly city for the non-car-equipped traveller. As it was, I wouldn’t pick up my hire car until I was ready to leave, and prior to that I would have one day of car-equipped journeying around the city and plenty of chauffeured experiences to bars, Mexican restaurants, and people’s homes.

Though where do you drive as a first time visitor to a city like this, so sprawling and so famous? There’s the beach at Santa Monica, of course, famous from Baywatch, and the Hollywood Hills to the north. I didn’t find driving in or through the city too tricky, and a scribbled pencil map from Colleen was enough to take me north to the Getty Centre, with its collection of spectacular art tucked away in the hills, and then to Griffith Observatory, long before La-La-Land and its dancing stars.

On this particular day, I was in the Getty, then I was looking at the stars.

Synchronicity worked in my favour as it had tended to since the trip had started. I joined a queue without knowing what it led to and got to look through the Griffith’s massive telescope at the craters and mountains of a dazzling moon, then enjoyed the sight of a nuclear orange sunset over the City of Angels. And despite the unfamiliarity of it all, I made it back across the city as my phone was dying and delivered Colleen’s perhaps carelessly loaned car back to her.

Company and care made Los Angeles a friendly city, and it even found me a bar in which I got to watch my first match from the Rugby World Cup. (I’d searched in vain for a viewing point in Tokyo, only to stumble across one as I was heading to airport.) But I could only dwell on others’ hospitality for so long, and despite an offer of backstage tickets to a Sting concert, I had to say my farewells and take to the road again.

Somewhat more stuck in one place than I was at the La Brea Tar Pits.

Still I lingered though. Once I’d grabbed my hire car, I paid a visit to the La Brea Tar Pits and the next-door grounds of LACMA with its warehouse-like store of modern art. Never having been much of a fan of modern art before, I have to admit that LACMA part-converted me. Perhaps there was something about Los Angeles, that city of artistry, commerce, and eternal newness, that particularly suited it.

In any case, I was overdue for departure, and after a final visit to the beaches of Santa Monica I headed out. Only to realise that I’d left things so late that I didn’t really have accommodation sorted. Cue some covert Wi-Fi hogging from a car park and the aid of Booking.com and I was finally sorted, but it was a weirdly disjointed start to the first part of my voyage to be navigated by car.

The Lord is less forthcoming on the topic of WiFi piggybacking.

The goal for the next few days was to follow Highway 1 north along California’s coast, and that’s more or less what I did. The first day was a bit of a washout, with some backtracking in torrential rain to explore Topanga Canyon near LA, then onwards through the rain to Santa Barbara with its moneyed mansions. I kept having to stop to take photos along the way, and the rainbows that cropped up between the intermittent rain showers added to the scene.

Grover Beach was the next stopping point, just down the road from the more famous Pismo Beach but close enough to make a visit for some fish tacos not just optional but mandatory. After more than a month of travelling by sea and rail, I’d hit a stretch of the trip where I was making the schedule as I went along. I liked it, and I had a chunk of coastal America to experiment with.

The wreckage of industry along the coastal way.

Highway 1 is an experience I’d recommend to anyone with the chance to try it. There are beaches aplenty if you like that kind of thing, but some of them are occupied by elephant seals and others have weird industrial relics clinging to them and oil rigs visible off shore. Further inland are relics of a different type: William Randolph Hearst’s castle at San Simeon is the gilded age in stone and memory, with art and architecture of the very best, much of it retrieved from post-war Europe, and haunted by the glitterati of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

The stretch of coast between San Simeon and Big Sur is perhaps the highlight of Highway 1, running as it does along crumbling cliffs, between sheltered coves and tree-covered hills. I had a restaurant recommendation for Los Angeles, and I enjoyed an overpriced meal in Big Sur, followed shortly by a double rainbow sighting across the forests nearby. Everything thereafter felt like I was travelling downhill, it was such a natural high point.

In San Simeon did Randolph Hearst, a stately pleasure dome decree…

Carmel and Monterey, just up the road, provided an opportunity for a dip in the Pacific Ocean as well as a sampling of some more industrial relics, in this case from the fisheries industry. But my goal lay on the north side of Monterey Bay, and I pulled into a motel in Santa Cruz late one evening for a two-day stay.

My goals for being there were three-fold. First, meet up with Kalin, a local friend who I’d met at a wedding in San Diego years before, and who’d visited Ireland only a few months earlier. Second, courtesy of her guidance, visit some of California’s redwood forests, which I’d been dreaming of since I was a child. And last, find a place to watch the Rugby World Cup quarter final between Ireland and Wales.

Your occasionally humble narrator, at home amid the redwoods.

All of this was accomplished with some pleasure, and I even got the chance to storytell some of my travel experiences and show off my collection of photos, which at this point numbered in the thousands. The redwoods were just as spectacular as hoped, and there was the bonus of exploring the Santa Cruz boardwalk in fine company. Sadly, the later quarter final (enjoyed in the company of a couple of professional caddies who had escaped from a tournament in nearby Pebble Beach) proved to be just the latest in a long line of disappointments for the Irish rugby team at that stage of World Cups.

San Francisco was only a short hop away, but there was a stop I wanted to make on the way. In Santa Cruz I’d logged on to discover the news about Steve Jobs’s death. I’d been a Mac user since the 1980s, so I’d experienced his wilderness years, triumphant return, and release of devices like the iPhone on which a good chunk of my photos were being taken. I’d planned to drop by Apple’s headquarters on Infinite Loop in Silicon Valley anyway and now it seemed even more appropriate.

The Steve Jobs memorial, just a day or two after his death.

Apple then wasn’t the world-straddling behemoth it’s since become, but it was on its way, and the old headquarters in Silicon Valley were a weird tie to the older company, the one Jobs had founded. I didn’t linger too long there, and not too long later I was driving along San Francisco’s narrow streets to drop off my rental car and head for the hostel I was staying in overnight.

I’d visited San Francisco a few years earlier, so my arrival felt like something of a homecoming. Synchronicity was definitely at work too, as I headed for the heights of the Coit Tower, only to find myself enjoying the sight of a aerobatic display from some navy flyers. After all the travelling, it was hard to avoid the feeling that all of this was meant for me in some way.

Reach for the skies, mister.

The rest of that day and the day after was spent in exploration. First the Ferry Building and Fisherman’s Wharf, then Chinatown and Nob Hill, as well as further strolls all the way to Haight-Ashbury, Golden Gate Park, and the Pacific Ocean. Chinese Food, craft beers, and sea breezes. It was an exploration that mirrored the one I’d enjoyed San Francisco’s Pacific twin, Vladivostok, even if I wasn’t planning to stay as long this time.

For there was a train awaiting me. Across the bay in Emeryville, the California Zephyr met its terminus, and on its next departure I aimed to be on board. I’d bought myself an Amtrak ticket to cross the nation and the continent, and this time I’d be making plenty of stops along the day. California had been an experience that had refreshed my love for other people as much as my love for travelling, and now I got to take that refreshed soul across an entire nation.

The Grand Tour Ten Years On—Past and Present

If Kyoto felt like a pitch-perfect blend of Japan’s past and present, the latter half of my sojourn in the Land of the Rising Sun saw those two elements divided and explored in isolation. I had four days left in Japan, and while Tokyo was the inevitable end goal of the experience, I still had a day to spend in a capital city of an older vintage.

Nara sits in a quiet valley south of Kyoto and east of Osaka. It’s something of a quiet adjunct to those major metropolises now, but back in the 8th century AD it was the capital of a nation that was still in the process of forming itself. Long before the age of samurai, Japan was developing its connections to China and Korea and absorbing influences like Buddhism. It was probably a chaotic, uncertain time, as can be seen in the fact that the Nara period lasted less than a century, but for me Nara proved a peaceful getaway in the midst of an overwhelming week.

Deer don’t care. And they will chase you if you have biscuits.

There was an element of familiarity to the layout of the smaller, older city. Like Kyoto, Nara’s city centre is small and manageable, and to its east lies a much larger temple complex that is probably the main draw for most visitors. Booking at short notice, I ended up in a hotel instead of the ryokan I’d enjoyed in Kyoto, but in both cities I ended up spending most of my time wandering and exploring.

The key memory I have of Nara is the deer. If the temple district is where most tourists go, then the deer are the stars. The deer know it too. Regarded as divine messengers, they have absolutely no fear of tourists, and when it comes to eating some of the biscuits that shops sell to feed to them, they will practically bully their way into your pockets to get at them—as I learned no more than 30 seconds after buying some of those biscuits. Lesson learned. For the rest of my wanderings, I contented myself with watching them rather than encouraging stampedes.

Overlooking Nara from the east.

There’s plenty to see amid the temples too, even discounting the deer. A massive statue of the Buddha and some pleasant country walks offering lovely views over the entire valley add to the appeal of the temples themselves, some of which were founded back in the Nara period themselves. (Although, given their wood construction, the odds are that very little of the material inside actually dates to that period.)

On the other side of the city centre, there are more solid remnants of Nara’s storied past, in the form of the keyhole-shaped kofun tombs from centuries earlier than the imperial period, and the remains and reconstructions of Heijo Palace, where the imperial family dwelt back in the day. Exploring all of that, as well as Nara’s restaurants and chilled out nightlife kept me engaged without being exhausted, and even if it didn’t have as much to offer as Kyoto, Nara proved the perfect addition to my exploration of that city.

Playing games in an underground bar in Nara.

Which left Tokyo. A short train trip took me back to Kyoto and a connection with the Shinkansen line. For the second time, I was hurtled at high speed through the Japanese countryside, on a packed train with tiny windows that created the feeling of being on an earthbound airplane. For the first time, I got a view of Mount Fuji, even if it was more limited than any that Hokusai might have enjoyed. I’d get another few before leaving, but I was short the extra day that I would have needed for a day trip from Tokyo to visit.

I’d actually managed to book my accommodation in advance this time, and while I’d considered going for a capsule hotel in pursuit of the true Japan experience, I ended up in a room that wasn’t much bigger and was definitely made for someone much shorter than a six-foot-plus Irishman.

A Tokyo hotel room in its entirety.

The great advantage of this hotel though was its location. I was just a short walk away from Ueno train station, which meant I was right beside the museum district and just a short stroll north of the famous Akihabara district. Despite being one of the world’s genuine megalopolises, Tokyo’s public transport system is amazingly efficient, so picking the perfect location for your hotel isn’t the most important thing, but it worked for me given my love of walking whenever I can.

Talking about the next few days could end up as a long and mostly boring travel itinerary. Not only would that not work for my hypothetical reader, but it would also entail a lot of work for me in terms of checking exactly what I did. And that’s against the spirit of these reminiscences, which are mostly about what I remember and how I felt at the time. And what I felt about Tokyo is that Kyoto had been practice, Nara a short rest, and Tokyo the real deal.

Cloud-wrapped Fuji from the Shinkansen.

To be clear, Kyoto was and is my favourite, but I’d budgeted the largest portion of the trip for Tokyo, spent most of my days there on my feet from early morning until after midnight, and racked up multiple experiences that have stayed with me through the years, and I still don’t think that I more than scratched the surface of this incredible city. It’s too much, no matter where you look, but it’s accessible for all that, and it’s only slightly behind Kyoto on my list of places to revisit.

Perhaps the best way to discuss Tokyo is to talk about its districts. I’ve already mentioned neon-drenched Akihabara, with its array of electronics and games stores and its maid cafes, but it’s just a tiny little sliver of the city as a whole. Closer to where I was staying, there was Ueno Onshi Park, where some of the country’s best museums offer an insight into how Japan came to be and how it sees itself.

An Akihabara store, open to all with electronic needs.

Efforts to view the Tsukiji Fish Market took me through the high-class Ginza district, though the market itself proved to be closed. Nearby were the peaceful Hama-rikyu Gardens though, and I passed a pleasant hour in a tea house looking over still waters and calming greenery. A few days later, I’d take a boat across the bay to the Odaiba Seaside Park, with its Ferris wheel, Hello Kitty store, and Toyota museum. From a glance at a map, a lot has happened to that area in the past ten years, but one of my favourite experiences proved to be walking back across the bay, on the walkway of the Rainbow Bridge.

Ignoring for the most part the imperial palace that lies at the heart of the city (as I tended to use it as a shortcut across Tokyo), we hop to the west and come to the districts of Shibuya, Harajuku, and Shinjuku. Shibuya is best known for the famous Shibuya Crossing square, which I viewed from a McDonalds after having a long and tiring walk from one side of the city to the other.

Shibuya Crossing, in its natural element—crowded.

Lest it be thought that I’m a complete savage, I did take the opportunity of a visit to Harajuku to try out some top class sushi and break my long-time dislike of that food before going for a ramble around the Yoyogi Park next door, with its massive Meiji Shrine still heavily trafficked by both Japanese and tourists.

Yoyogi sits on the doorstep of Shinjuku, which is almost a city within a city in Tokyo. Rail lines converge here and buildings reach for the sky. In particular, the massive bulk of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office, offers a view not only over Tokyo itself, but all the way to Fuji in the distant west. It was a bit too hazy to enjoy that view when I made my way up there, thereby fulfilling my habit of climbing to the top of the tallest viewing point in every city, but the view was good enough for me to return at night and take in the glittering view of Tokyo in the dark.

Tokyo from above at night.

Tokyo in the dark needs a mention all on its own. Back in Moscow I’d felt uncomfortable and out of place when the sun went down. In Tokyo, I felt free to explore in a city that felt safe and was more than welcome to keep running on a 24-hour basis. It probably helped that I didn’t drink much, though I did find my way into a hostess bar for an hour or so that thankfully ended when I ran out of the small amount of money I was carrying on me.

Tokyo never stopped welcoming me or showing me new things over the days that I spent there. And I never ventured too far beyond the loop line that connects all the districts that I’ve talked about above. So there’s doubtless far more to be seen and experienced. I haven’t even talked about streetside noodle bars, hidden shrines, or the odd architecture of the Asahi Beer Hall.

Asahi Beer Hall. Odd.

However, time runs out, especially when you’ve only assigned yourself a small amount. Eventually I summoned my bags, closed the door on my tiny hotel room, and jumped on a train to Narita airport. There I had one last new experience in Japan: a delay. It was handsomely compensated for with a dinner voucher, and before too long I was decanted onto one of Airbus’s great white whales of the sky, an A380. I had a long flight to look forward to, my first since landing in London, and an entirely new country and continent to cross.

Cancer Update

I said that I’d only provide these when I had news to impart, didn’t I? Well, there’s some news. The most recent of my regular scans spotted something untoward in my left lung, and a subsequent PET scan (one of those that leaves me too radioactive to be in the company of small children and pregnant women) determined that it was something that needed treating. So I’ve been referred to radiology for the purposes of thoroughly zapping said something via a tube poked into the host lung. All being well, it’s been spotted early enough to deal with it without too much trouble. I’ve done well out of treatment so far and hopefully that will continue.