Sunday, April 22, 2012

Rio? Ja!

The campsite

Here, as promised back in November, is the ‘warts-and-all’ update about Rio after half a year.

Beloved Wife made positive, albeit feminine, remarks along the lines of “Cute,” and expressed further unkind opinions involving hairdressers. But she had to acknowledge the efficacy with which Rio provided sufficient shoulder and elbow room, and carried three adults and their luggage. Rio is also easy to park, being only 4.1m long and with a 10m turning circle. Such a shame that after six months, she’s already showing wear and tear courtesy of inconsiderate sods who open their adjacent car doors with reckless abandon.

Rio, in bright red, looks not entirely unlike one of the Lekhwiya (Internal Security) cars that somehow shrank in the wash.

Around town, the automatic gearbox is prone to getting confused as it hunts for a suitable gear. Over the first thousand kilometres, while the Goat was under strict instructions not to exceed 4000rpm, this was less of an issue as he was being very gentle. Now that running her in is over and the first service has been completed, a less gentle right hoof has the 1500cc engine spinning thrashily away from the traffic lights. The important thing to remember is that the engine should be fully warmed up before doing anything stressful. This is the same advice given to motorcyclists, and with chain-driven DOHC and sixteen bucket-and-shim valves, the Terios engine is very like one from a Japanese motorcycle. Basically, warm it up first, don’t over-rev it, use decent oil and change it regularly, and the motor should be pretty much indestructible. The rather short gearing makes cruising at over 120km/h a rather noisy process, but not so that listening to the in-car entertainment or conversation actually becomes difficult. Especially at speed, the cabin is nowhere near as quiet as a BMW 528, but what is?

Around town, Rio can be a lot of fun. What is lost in outright performance is won back in roadholding. Full-time 4WD helps her to stick to the corners, even on rare wet occasions. The suspension is rather stiff and bouncy, especially when there’s no luggage on board, so bumpy corners can be a little bit interesting with Rio’s rather basic solid axle and Panhard rod rear suspension. One problem is that Rio stood in the showroom for over two years before purchase, and all four road tyres have developed flat spots that cause a vibration at 100km/h. Wheel balancing didn’t solve the problem, and when each wheel was on the balancing machine the wobbly tyres were obvious. If these don’t sort themselves out by the 5000km service, the Goat will be aiming for replacement tyres under warranty.

Fuel consumption is rather disappointing. Within Doha, the Goat generally achieves around 11 litres/100km (25 miles per imperial gallon). Extended stops at red traffic lights followed by harsh acceleration are largely responsible. On the open road, rather better 8 litres/100km (35mpg) is realistically achievable. Not that the Goat really gives a stuff about the cost of motor fuel. It’s 85 dirhams a litre; equivalent to UK 15p/litre or $0.88 per US gallon. Fuel consumption is only of interest when considering the tank range of between 450km and 625km.

The Goat reckons that the air conditioning could be better. Plenty of cold air gets squirted into the cabin, but it takes a while for the interior to cool after being parked in the sun for several hours. The black upholstery probably doesn’t help to keep the temperature down. But it does help to show the dirt.

There’s a reasonable number of whistles and bells to entertain the driver. The basic radio and CD player will only do one CD at a time, and there’s no short wave band and no cassette player. A useful socket provides a convenient place to jack in the iPod. Twin trip meters and clock, plus fuel computer and outside temperature are all available in the instrument panel. Unfortunately there’s no temperature gauge; just a blue light when the engine is cold and a red one if it overheats. Electric windows, central locking and keyless entry all come as standard, as does a pathetic, weight-saving 35dB mouse-fart horn. There’s fag-lighter socket in the front and another just inside the tailgate to power camping accessories. Maximum 120W, according to the owner’s handbook.

Desert Terios
Now on to the subject of camping, and the Goat went down to the Inland Sea last weekend. Rio performed very much as advertised, dancing on the sand despite being full of camping gear. The central differential is locked by punching a button on the dashboard, and a fair amount of revving is necessary to release all 105 ponies. She even successfully scaled a couple of steep dunes without fuss, where a younger and less experienced Goat sometimes used to have trouble in his old Galloper, Cherokee, and occasionally Patrol. The Goat suspects that this is the experience of years showing, rather than a Terios being the best dune car in this list. As the Goat actually arrived at the campsite after dark, he’s pleased to note that the headlights are excellent.

With both sides of the asymmetrical rear seat folded, the load bed looks cavernous. It’s significantly larger in all three dimensions than a Jeep Wrangler’s with the back seat removed.  Of course, the load area isn’t a patch on those in bigger 4x4s, but there was room for all the Goat’s camping gear and provisions and plenty of space left over.

Where the Terios falls down is in build quality. Everything fits, and everything works, but it all feels thin, plasticky, and apt to break if it’s Goathandled roughly. So “Gently, gently” is the motto. Gently with the interior fittings, and the Goat must remind himself that this tiny car, notwithstanding its delusions, is not a Land Cruiser.


Thursday, April 19, 2012

Sumimasen, gomen nasai, wakarimasen

Is it unreasonable to suggest that the Japanese and the English are similar? I rather think they are in certain ways, and I suspect that this is borne of both being island nations. Both cultures developed independently on relatively small, crowded islands, and this resulted in cultures that are desperate not to offend. Kate Fox, anthropologist, in her book Watching the English, noted the frankly bizarre way in which English people will immediately apologise after being bumped into. Most other cultures would respond with some variant on a theme of “Oi! Watch your step, buddy!” but not the English. Nor the Japanese. “Gomen nasai,” (“I am so sorry…”) is very common in Japan.

It’s a consequence of living on a small and overcrowded island. To fail to defuse tensions after offending someone is a great way for fights to break out. The Japanese were rather better at that, with an entire level of society devoted to wielding murderously sharp swords at anyone who wasn’t sufficiently apologetic.

The other ‘Englishness” of the Japanese is the resistance to learning foreign languages. English language is pretty widespread, but it was extremely easy to encounter people who had no English, or French, or German. My absolute inability with the writing system didn’t help either. I can now identify “Tokyo”, “Ladies”, “Gents”, “Kyoto”, “Fire”, “Forest”, and “Forbidden”. And that’s about my lot. How useful, provided I only want to write a note about how smoking in forests in Tokyo is not allowed. We were able to get by, through a mixture of very broken Japanese, apologising, sign language, bowing, and apologising.

Ah, the bowing. Everybody bows. I greeted the chambermaid as we checked out of one of the hotels, bowed, and she returned by almost prostrating herself, much to my embarrassment.

Left-handed chopsticks actually do exist
In other respects, I found Japan and the Japanese extremely foreign unto the point of being almost alien.

Beloved Wife was in Japan a year or so ago, and she’d reported to me that in Tokyo's Electricity Street there was a multi-storey adult store. Now returned with her lawfully-wedded husband, we could explore all the floors. Basement and ground were merely videos and books, with selected movies shown on small screens to tempt the purchaser. Presumably, the purchased product would not feature pixelated images. Higher floors got progressively kinkier. Marital aids were followed by costumes, and then the S and M stuff. I spotted these, that might provide an amusing diversion on St George’s Day.

Fun and games on St George's Day
Muggins was blundering around this small but rather crowded emporium wearing a backpack. And being a bit of a lardarse, I kept blundering into the shelves and sending stock asunder. I can confirm that I was nearly thrown out of a sex shop for being too big. "Gomen nasai..."

Back outside, and  another Tokyo delight is the vending machines. Almost anything can be and is dispensed by a vending machine, including change so there’s no worry about not having the right money. Hot and cold drinks, chocolate bars, and crisps are easy. Rail tickets similarly. Used undergarments are now a memory following government efforts to clean up the industry. But what about the coin-op restaurant? That’s just beyond weird. 

And now we get on to the main point of this blog post: the food.

A proper restaurant. Order food and drink by referring to
the useful labels hanging around
In a normal restaurant, you enter and sit, and the waitress takes your order. You eat; you pay; you leave. Sometimes it was a culinary mystery tour of wondering what we’d just ordered. Al least “Birru” sounds like “Beer”, so that’s easy to remember, and I like “Sake”. In MuckDonalds (where I never eat), you order; you pay; you eat.

Cooked to order
In a coin-op, you make your selection from a vending machine. It takes your dosh, spits out a ticket, and you hand this over the counter and receive food from an actual person. Except that each of the fifty or so buttons on the machine only has a Japanese character (no, not Ponyo nor a Power Ranger).

Comprehensive choice of, erm, food

Vending machine in the corner, and food cooked to order
Time to accost a restaurant patron: “Sumimasen, gomen nasai, erm…breaded pork cutlet?” (Bow, apologise some more, etc). The only really important thing was to avoid seafood. Beloved Wife even set her husband up with a traditional Japanese breakfast one morning. A big rectangular room with tatami mats, low tables, and a whole selection of pickles, tofu, soup, vegetables, and fruit. The raw fish fillet was easy to identify and avoid. “Fish are friends; not food.”

Street food. Steamed, stuffed buns offer something that is
not entirely unlike steak and kidney pudding
Not that any of this put us off eating the local food. I recall the only really non-Japanese meal we ate was on the last day. We were waiting for our train to the airport, and a German-style restaurant was offering Bavarian lager and a big pile of assorted sausages.

Okonomiyaki. Anything you want here,
provided it's this one thing
My final Parthian shot was to buy a box of wacky Japanese sweeties to treat my colleagues back in Doha. When I got back, I was reliably informed that mochigashi are easily available from trendy shops in Doha.


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Clockwork trains

Beloved Wife and Goat didn’t go to Paris for BW’s birthday treat. Instead, she spent her birthday surrounded by immature children of all ages, screaming: “He’s behind you!” at the Doha Players’ pantomime, in which production the Goat had a part.

So when BW’s employer decreed a two-week holiday on the run up to Easter (so that it wouldn’t clash with the Easter holidays and allow parents and children to have the same fortnight off) the Goat booked a week’s annual leave and set about finding flights to and from Japan.

Beloved Wife used to live and work in the Land of the Rising Sun, way back in the previous millennium. She loves the place, and assured the Goat that he would too. A quick surf of the interwebs revealed that Qatar Airways would be by a huge margin the cheapest way to get between Dubai and Tokyo. That’s Qatar Airways; the airline that uses Doha as a hub. If the Goat simply booked Doha to Tokyo, his ticket would be almost double the price. That’s right: $1700 as opposed to $900. The airline pays each passenger $350 to fly between Dubai and Doha. It was therefore cheaper for the Goat to buy a separate Doha-Dubai return and spend a day in Dubai at each end of the holiday, and to hell with the carbon footprint.

The hop across the Gulf left Dubai on time, but the plane was left hanging in the air by Air Traffic Control for half an hour. By the time the passengers had disembarked and been driven around the airport in the slowest shuttle bus ever, the connecting flight to Tokyo was due to take off. Beloved Wife and Goat ran the entire length of Doha Terminal 1 (because the flight left from gate 37, which is naturally as far as possible from where the bus stops) and then everyone sat for a further half an hour in a packed Boeing 777 to await the leisurely transfer of checked bags. There was such a rush that airport security was completely bypassed. 

The Qatar Airways flight doesn’t go straight to Tokyo. It stops first at Osaka, where all passengers disembark, go through airport security, walk around the block, and then re-board the same aircraft for a further hour of air travel. The ticket costs more for anyone who wants to get off at Osaka. Or else the airline pays people to fly KIX-NRT.

Narita International Airport, at last. And there are trains to Tokyo City Centre. Beloved Wife had applied for a thing called a JR Pass, issued by Japan Rail. This entitles the bearer to a week of unlimited rail travel anywhere on the JR network. But in order not to have it expire a day early, BW decreed that separate Narita Express tickets would be purchased for the trip into Tokyo. The Goat doesn’t generally do rail travel; he’s been conditioned by UK rail practices that include missing a train where the ticket cost a fiver, catching the next one ten minutes later and being fined because he didn’t have a valid fifty-quid ticket.

The railway station was spotless; the train – with allocated, pre-booked seats, no less – was likewise, and it left to schedule. On the dot. To the second. The Goat was impressed.

Metro at Speed

Less impressive was a map at the destination that failed to show the hotel. An embarrassingly short taxi ride later (in the rain and in the dark), and it was time to hit the world’s narrowest double bed and become unconscious.

Travelling around Tokyo by train is eminently sensible. There is a comprehensive metro network. Confusingly, several metro companies operate in the same area, and Japan Rail criss-crosses too. Irritatingly, the JR Passes didn’t work on the metro, and it was necessary to decipher the Japanese script to figure out how much cash to stick into a machine to get a ticket. Of course, it had to be the machine appropriate for the metro system to be ridden. Some, but not all, maps had English as well as Japanese, and some, but not all, trains had video displays to let passengers know the current and next station.

Orderly Queue

To the Goat’s delight, not only do the trains stop at marked positions on the station platforms, but at each one an orderly queue forms. And yes, everyone does let passengers off first. Inane electric glockenspiel jingles play. When the music stops, someone will snap the doors shut and take the train away.

The primary purpose of obtaining JR passes was to use the Shinkansen. This is the famous bullet train that gets between Tokyo and Kyoto (which is near Osaka) rather faster than an aircraft once security and being at the airport at least two hours before your flight are taken into consideration. The Shinkansen belts along at 300kph or so. Sadly, Mount Fuji was obscured by low cloud. On the return journey, night had fallen.


Once again, pre-booking at no additional cost produced allocated seating in a quiet, clean carriage. And by now it goes without saying that the trains do indeed run on time. Not so much like clockwork; more like an atomic clock. The only really tricky bit is in deciphering the scarily alien information boards.

Alien Sign

A slower express from Kyoto took Beloved Wife and Goat through the mountains on a picturesque journey to Kinosaki Onsen, a hot-spring spa town just inland from the Sea of Japan. “Slower express reads like oxymoron, but after the Shinkansen, everything seems slow.

Near Kinosaki

A day later, amid the foul windy and rainy tai-fun weather brought on by a low-pressure weather system, Beloved Wife and Goat headed back to a very wet Kyoto. As it turned out, the hotel was literally (yes, really literally) a stone’s throw from the railway station, and there was a lot of embarrassed apologising to the taxi driver. According to the local news, some trains were actually delayed. Being less than absolutely punctual appears to be outwith the Japanese psyche. One can only imagine the shamefaced bowing and apologising being repeated umpteen times all over Japan.

As the weather had cleared up by the following morning, the Goat decreed that a trip to Osaka Castle was required. Yet more rail travel. What a splendid thing is the JR pass!

Osaka Castle

And more sightseeing back in Kyoto later that day, specifically Kiyamizu-Dera temple followed by Culture in Gyon. The bus trip was extremely crowded, and as it was Pay On Exit, the Goat can only imagine some destitute beggar starving to death and unable ever to get off. The bus system was exactly the opposite to other bus systems. In Kyoto, you get on at the back, and off at the front, paying the driver upon exit. It was a single standard fee. Frankly, the metro back to Kyoto Central Station was a lot more comfortable, and at least the maps showed where the train was going to go. Unlike the Magical Mystery Bus Tour.


Gyon illuminations

Having got some idea about how the bus system worked, on Thursday the Goat obtained “ride as many buses as you like for one day” passes, mainly because the Golden Temple of Kinkaku-ji is nowhere near a metro station. Just as well, really, for the weather turned cold and wet, and buses were all packed. It really was a case of grabbing the first one and riding it until it ceased to go in a useful direction. The bus passes made getting off without fumbling for change so much more convenient, and cheaper to boot.

Golden Temple of Kinkaku-ji

When it finally became necessary to head for the airport, it occurred to Beloved Wife that the JR passes could buy tickets for the Narita Express, and having got to Narita, it was even possible to obtain a refund for the unused return N-EX tickets. Only at this point was it revealed that the cards handed over a week previously were pre-credited smart cards that could have been used all over the Tokyo metro system, instead of rummaging for change. D’oh! But Japan Rail was quite happy to refund the unused metro rail credit, much to the Goat’s astonishment.

As for the return flight, it took off to schedule. Additional passengers boarded at Osaka so the aircraft was packed back to Doha. And guess what. The flight was delayed in the air for half an hour, so there was a huge mad rush to go through transit security in order to catch the flight to Dubai. Unlike on the outbound leg, this time Beloved Wife and Goat were obliged to remove all their metalwork and be X-rayed. It would be unthinkable to allow anything illicit from a Qatar Airways flight into the transit lounge of Doha International Airport.

Fair enough that Qatar Airways held flights for incoming connecting passengers and their checked bags, but it’s not a patch on the precision ballet of rail timing that seems to occur all over Japan, tai-fun excepted.

This blog post has dealt mainly with Japan's generally impressive public transportation systems. More will follow once the Goat has further meshed his detritus.


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