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December 30, 2005

A cruel twist of fate

I realised that fate has not been on my side very much lately. For a short-time in 2003-4, Peet's Coffee & Tea, one of the very good US coffee chains, had opened stores in Tokyo. So good, that I was happy to go out of my way, sometimes adding 10-15m to my morning commute so I could have that prized first cup of the day.

Of course, all good things come to an end and Peet's eventually closed its Tokyo locations and moved on. What hurts is that in the time since then, my company moved office to the same building that Peet's was in. It has been replaced by a "cafe" that sells curry, hot dogs and coffee...(I would not go in there if it was the last thing open/at gunpoint etc - you get the idea).

It has been over a year since the office move, but it was only today when I went out to get a coffee that I finally realised what I have been missing. I could have been having it every day!

If you live in the Bay Area, you are spoiled for choice! If you have not been there recently, you should make an effort to try it again. Do it for me.

My life is all about bad timing.

Posted by Kirk at 04:11 PM | Comments (1)

December 27, 2005

A long overdue entry

This is for everyone that told me over the last few days that I need to write something.

Important things first: it is good to be home again. I am on my couch, listening to a CD...finally.

Unfortunately, all is not rosy on the home front as things continue to break down. First it was the laptop, then the coffeemaker (I still have to replace that!) and now...my washing machine. Well, technically it still works, but it took four hours to do a load of laundry on Sunday night and the lack of a spin cycle meant they needed two hours to dry!

I reported it to building maintenance and they came in on Monday to inspect the machine. Apparently this means they turn it on (empty) and time how long it takes to finish. Which they did three times. On that basis, they said it worked fine and, indeed, when I tried again last night it was much quicker. I am not sure what the whistling/grinding sounds were all about, but what do I know?

Which brings up an interesting point - I had lunch with Tokiko today and she thinks that people who are familiar with Akasaka could be able to figure out where I live from this blog. Combined with the fact I am always traveling, that could be a risk! I think she is right. In fact, it would explain why everything I own needs to be replaced. Someone is obviously coming in here when I am gone and breaking things. WHOEVER YOU ARE, PLEASE STOP IT. And if you can't, at least be kind of enough to take the trash out and water the tree. Sometimes I forget, you see.

I do not often spend the week between Christmas and New Years Day in Japan. There is not much to do at work and most expats use the opportunity to get back home. With my holiday plans in flux and having spent a month on the road, however, I was more than happy to get back here.

But the lack of foreigners is tangible. I went to watch the football on TV at the pub near my apartment (Hobgoblin Akasaka) last night and I was the only foreigner there. And it was crowded. Not only had the expats de-camped, but the Japanese took the opportunity to check out what they have been missing the other 51 weeks of the year. They seemed happy enough so that is OK.

And they were friendly enough. One of the waitresses at Hobgoblin also works at the Roppongi location. When I ordered my drink, we did the whole "oh yes, I know you from..." routine. When I last saw her two months ago at the other bar, she said she worked in Akasaka, so it wasn't a big surprise to see her there.

Actually it is funny, because the first time I met her I had confused her with another waitress that she works with. I was with Kaz and when we ordered dinner from her I said "Hello Hana", but she set me straight "No...my name is Tomo, not Hana. That is another waitress that works here." I introduced myself and have seen and spoken to her a few times since.

On that basis, I was very surprised when she asked me my name again. So I told her and said "and you are Tomo, right?"

And she said...(come on, you know what happens here)..."No, I am Hana, Tomo is the name of another waitress at the bar in Roppongi".

I do not know which one I will run into next, but I have learned my lesson on names. A simple "hello" should be enough.

Posted by Kirk at 05:45 PM | Comments (0)

December 25, 2005

Happy Christmas

Happy holidays everyone. I got back to Japan this morning...it is cold, but sunny. It is so good to be back!

I will write more once I have settled in a bit.

Posted by Kirk at 11:51 AM | Comments (0)

December 17, 2005

Blustery Germany

I finished the work week in Germany with meetings in Frankfurt and Dusseldorf before flying back to London. I am glad to have that behind me and can now look forward to a weekend of Christmas shopping...wait, can I work some more?

Anyway, I do not have too much to say about today. It was cold and drizzly in Germany and the icy rain was supposed to turn into snow at some point, so I am glad to gave got away. But my increasing aversion to flying is not helped by inclement weather at all.

These pictures are from Frankfurt. On the left is the opera house, which was very close to my hotel and a nice walk to start the morning. On the right is a sign from a coffee place - seems there are some Liverpool fans in Germany as I cannot think of any reason why this would help them sell coffee!

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Just to recap the week:
Monday - London
Tuesday - Oslo
Wednesday - Amsterdam, Rotterdam
Thursday - Brussels
Friday - Frankfurt, Dusseldorf

Makes me tired just thinking about it.

Posted by Kirk at 06:58 AM | Comments (0)

December 15, 2005

Amsterdam to start, and arrival in Brussels

We spent the day driving around the Netherlands. I put Amsterdam in the title, but we actually shuffled back and forth between Den Hague, Rotterdam and Amsterdam. One of the pictures below is taken in Amsterdam Port and will always be memorable to me for being very cold. And for having lots of shoe stores (long story). The other is taken on the road from Den Hague to Brussels, which is where I am now.

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The latter took about three and a half hours - this another part of the world where there are too many cars and too few roads, or both. Throw in a few accidents and Christmas celebrations in the center of Brussels and a barely tolerable drive turns into a marathon of monotony.

But it is good to be here. The aforementioned celebrations are excellent. The main square is chock full of old buildings with plenty of restaurants and bars. And there are some impressive Christmas tree displays and they lit up the old cathedral with a light show that was fun to watch. As always, my photography skills were not up to the task, so you have to take my word for it. But, I wouldn't mind having a day off to spend here (that is a subtle hint that this is indeed a working trip). In fact, we have a full slate of meetings before I head off to Germany tomorrow to finish the week.

Suprisingly, one of my colleagues Yoko is in holiday in Germany now, but it looks like we will miss each other. (Yoko, if you are reading this...it is all poor planning on your part).

Posted by Kirk at 06:59 AM | Comments (0)

December 14, 2005

Oslo...for now

I spent the day in Oslo, well at least part of it. Actually, I had to fly out at 7am from London, which meant leaving the hotel at 530am. Normally that would be a problem, but jet lag is working in my favor, so I was up at 415am after going to bed at 8pm the night before. That is pretty scary...

Even worse, I am on my way to Amsterdam now, which means I will have spent more time at airports and on airplanes that in Oslo itself. That is not really the ideal situation.

But it was quality time. The weather is not too bad (-4C...everyone keeps saying that is warm!) and there is some snow on the ground, so it is all very pretty. Here are a few pictures of the main shopping street - with only five hours on the ground here, there was not time for much else.

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Posted by Kirk at 12:33 AM | Comments (0)

December 12, 2005

Have my priorities mixed up

It is a balmy 2C in London this morning and the forecast is for drizzle, including some of the soot from that fuel depot fire that started yesterday.

This reminded me that I was in Singapore last weekend, where it was 30C and I could look at this:

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Probably this will be a long week.

Posted by Kirk at 02:32 PM | Comments (0)

And now in London

I am back in London now. It is a bit cold, but more to the point there was a huge explosion at a fuel depot here and the sky to the north of the city is filled with black smoke. We got a good look at it coming in on the flight...it is massive.

Other than that, everything seems normal for this time of year - lots of shoppers out taking care of their Christmas business and the like.

I will meet Glenn for a few drinks and dinner later and get the scoop on how life in London is treating him. That pretty much wraps up the weekend.

Posted by Kirk at 02:01 AM | Comments (0)

December 11, 2005

Oh no...Narita again.

I am back in Narita Airport, barely 48 hours after my last visit.

I am omy my way to Europe (again!). It is a busy week ahead: I will start in London on Monday, but travel on to Oslo, Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt and Dusseldorf the rest of the week. Whew...

I had a reminder of why it is important to check through your travel documents. Nothing too scary, but I arrived at Tokyo Station at 745am for my 8am train. Um, er, my 830am train, I mean. I tried to change my ticket for the earlier train but it was sold out. Yes...the 8am train on Sunday. I did not mind too much, because I had overslept and had to rush out of the apartment without a coffee or breakfast or anything, and I figured I could use the extra time to take care of that.

Anyone been to Tokyo Station on Sunday morning at 8am?

There is nothing open except convenience stores...no coffee shops, no chocolate croissant stands...nothing. It was a very long 45 minutes!

Posted by Kirk at 10:11 AM | Comments (0)

December 10, 2005

World Cup finals draw - good for England, tough for the US, awful for Japan

The groups and matches for the 2006 World Cup finals were announced last night. England should have an easy time of it in Group B, with Sweden the only real challenge in their group. The USA, in Group E, has a much tougher road, with Italy and the Czech Republic to advance past. Not only that, but Group E faces off with Group F in the knockout stages, so the runner-up will in all likelihood face Brazil. Here is the American view on that:

If the U.S. team advances to the second round, it most likely would play defending champion Brazil, Croatia or Australia. What will Arena do if the Americans get past the first round? "I'll be drinking in the hotel bar," he said

And that is why Japan has it tough...it is already in Group F and will play Brazil along with Croatia and Ghana - it would be surprising if they made it past the group stage. That rounds out the teams I have an interest in.

The tournament starts with host Germany and Costa Rica on 9 June in Frankfurt. That should be an interesting match...I wonder if it will be as surprising as France-Senegal at the 2002 World Cup finals. I hope so - Germany was lucky to get to the final in 2002 and I would like to see them knocked out early.

Here are the match-ups for England, the USA and Japan. I am really keen to see England-Sweden (I went to the same match in 2002 in Saitama, Japan), all the US games, and Japan v Brazil.

England matches
10-Jun-06 Frankfurt v Paraguay
15-Jun-06 Nuremberg v Trinidad
20-Jun-06 Cologne v Sweden

USA matches
12-Jun-06 Gelsenkirchen v Czech Republic
17-Jun-06 Kaiserslautern v Italy
22-Jun-06 Nuremberg v Ghana

Japan matches
12-Jun-06 Kaiserslautern v Australia
18-Jun-06 Nuremberg v Croatia
22-Jun-06 Dortmund v Brazil

If you are wondering where some of these places are, click here for a BBC guide to the venues. It has a map with the locations as well as facts on the stadiums, including trivia. For example, the ground in Gelsenkirchen has a 5km beer pipeline...what else do you need to know?

Posted by Kirk at 04:23 PM | Comments (0)

Paradoxical Beijing

We spent Thursday in Beijing. I would have liked to update the blog while I was there, but there is not full Internet connectivity there. Sometimes it connected, but most of the time it did not (seemingly whenever I considered creating a new blog entry).

In any case, it was below freezing the whole time we were there, which was not usually a problem as we were in meetings and not hiking through the city. But it certainly contrasted with Singapore earlier in the week.

I did not get out to see any of the city this time around, although I did notice that there has been a lot of construction over the last twelve months - Beijing rivals Tokyo for the number of buildings that are going up. They have the Olympics in 2008 and the government seems committed to making the city a showcase before then. I did take this picture from our car as we passed Tiananmen Square - it is the entrance to the Forbidden City and Mao is prominently displayed.

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Despite all the modernisation, one of the primary methods of transport is bicycle (although not nearly as predominant as it used to be). And this is where bicyclists go if they need tires, air, or whatever else it takes to keep your two-wheeled transport on the go. I do not think there will be too many of these left in 2008!

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By the way, one of the coolest restaurants in the world is in Beijing and we went there. It is the Red Capital Club, and never mind the teasingly irreverant attitude. It is the site and the food that are important. It is tucked away down an alleyway and impossible to find unless you have directions. There is not any walk-in traffic. As we went at night and I am useless with the camera then, there are no pictures.

We had a good dinner and tucked ourselves away in the bar for a few bottles of Chinese wine. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I had one of the all-time worst hangovers when I woke up the next morning (after four hours sleep, so maybe it is my fault). I was on my way to the airport and it was one of the longest taxi rides I had.

Posted by Kirk at 12:16 PM | Comments (0)

December 07, 2005

Hong Kong...it is cold!

We made it to Hong Kong today. I was very surprised to see the temperature was only 13C (56F)! That is quite a change from Singapore and (I think) unseasonably cold for HK. Of course, it is only going to get worse as the forecast for Beijing is -10C to 0C (18-32F). I suppose it is winter, so I should not be too shocked.

Anyway, we had a few meetings during the day (work stuff - boring) before heading off to the Felix restaurant in the Peninsula Hotel. Now this is an amazing restaurant and well worth a visit when you are in Hong Kong. It is a bit pretentious, but it reminded me of New York, so I was happy to be there. It was good enough that we returned to the hotel afterwards and did not even make it up the hill to Lan Kwai Fong for a nightcap.

We are staying at the Mandarin Oriental, which is one of my favourite hotels in the world. It is closing at the end of this month for a $140m refurbishment and will not open again until September 2006 (if that!), so I am glad we had a chance to stop by. This is the view from my super cool room on the 21st floor...on the left, Victoria Harbor...on the right, Central Hong Kong. Lovely.

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I tried to get some pictures from the Star Ferry of HK at night, but my camera is useless for night pictures. Or I am useless with my camera at night. Something like that.

Posted by Kirk at 12:29 AM | Comments (0)

December 04, 2005

A sunny day in Singapore

It was a really nice day today, so I spent the morning walking around to take pictures (the result is below). In the evening, we went to the Raffles Hotel for drinks and dinner. The Long Bar at Raffles is where the Singapore Sling was first made...we did not go there, but we did spend time in the courtyard bar before heading off to dinner at one of the restaurants. I have to say that I love that hotel, even though I am wondering where they could find space to put any rooms as there are so many shops there.

Anyway, here are some pictures...on the left is the Merlion, which is a Singapore landmark. It was looking very impressive today, as you can see. On the right is Cavanagh Bridge...it is only used for pedestrian traffic now - I thought the sign was cool so I took a picture.

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Posted by Kirk at 11:39 PM | Comments (2)

Singapore highlights

We have been recuperating from a week of meetings in Singapore. With 30 degree (86F) weather, it is not a bad place to spend the weekend.

On Friday night, we went out to dinner on Boat Quay at the Indochine restaurant at the Asian Civilisations Museum...this is a fantastic place and you should try it if you make it over here. Afterwards, we went to an Irish pub for a few drinks and then to their "sister nightclub" for a few more.

The photo on the left is the famous Singapore Sling...it tastes much better than Denki Bran. On the right is a girl dancing on the bar at the nightclub. She kind of flopped down soon afterwards, breaking a few glasses in the process. There seemed to be a lot of that...in the bar next to the restaurant, there was a kid that fell over at least twice...his friend did not seem to mind and we were enjoying the spectacle and wondering what he would do next. It was a strange night.

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On Saturday, we did the Singapore tourist thing: Sentosa Island and its beaches during the day and the Night Safari in the evening. At the latter, you were not supposed to use the flash on your camera, so you will have to take my word for it. It was better than I thought it would be, so I wish I had something to show you. Instead I have posted a picture with a view from our hotel. I want to say that was taken from my room, but actually it is taken from a window next to the elevators.

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Being in Singapore has been surreal at best, and surprising at least. The government executed a drug courier (Australian) on Friday morning that has generated a lot of press. I will leave the commentary to the Singapore blog community, but it has been in the background all weekend. As for suprising, I have not been in Singapore in four years and it is amazing how the restaurants and nightlife have improved.

Today is a free day and I will go to the pool soon, and later to Orchard Road for shopping (or browsing, maybe, as I do not really have enough room to buy anything). Then it is back to work...we have a week to finish up with Singapore and tour Hong Kong and Beijing before I get back home.

Posted by Kirk at 09:43 AM | Comments (0)

December 02, 2005

Singapore Airlines - why can't they all be like this?

We were up early today (530am!) to fly from Seoul to Singapore. We went from crowded roads and zero degrees to easy driving and 32 degrees - what a difference seven hours makes! More important, however, is the brilliant time we had coming down.

I love Singapore Airlines. The service was terrific, the food was good and the plane was comfortable. And all provided by the lovely Singapore girls flight crew. It was glorious. I may have to fly through Singapore to London from now on!

And compare this to your airline: the entertainment system was not working on our flight today. To start, they made sure to tell us before we boarded the plane. And for compensation, they gave everyone a US$200 voucher to use for duty-free shopping or upgrades. Yes, you read that right...$200. I was not even going to watch the movies anyway and I spent more time looking at the shopping guide than I would have watching movies.

I bought a watch and a few odds and ends. And the girl gave me a nice mobile phone strap too. Probably I will never use any of it, but there were so good about the whole thing, you had to be happy about it.

Posted by Kirk at 04:50 PM | Comments (0)

December 01, 2005

Seoul - cold and trafficy (is that a word?)

Seoul is a big crowded city. I have been here five or six times, but I can never figure out quite where I am. Also, there seems to be traffic jams no matter where you go...too many cars, too few roads, or something like that. I still like it, although I like it better when I am not in a car.

Anyway, here are a few pictures from the last couple of days. On the left, is the entrance to Gimpo Airport, which is actually the smaller (and older airport)...it benefits from being closer to the city. And it also has a kick-ass sign. On the right, is a picture taken in one of the business districts (looks cold, right?). I would have to look up the actual name of the location, but I am too lazy. This is in front of the Seoul Financial Centre. We had lunch there...it was good. There was also a Dunkin Donuts and I love donuts.

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Anyway - we are off to Singapore tomorrow and will be there for the weekend. It will be much warmer than Korea. Woo hoo.

Posted by Kirk at 05:50 PM | Comments (0)