This is the tale of late planes, mild panic and punctuality.
This particular adventure started, as per our usual MO, with a cheeky G&T whilst waiting for the bus from the hotel we were using for parking, not so far from Heathrow. We were due to fly from London to Beijing, where we would pick up a connection 1 hour later (pay attention to this number, it will be important soon) to Tokyo, where we would start our tour of Japan before flying back to Beijing for a few days and then flying back home again.
We arrived at Heathrow in plenty of time and minced about for a while until our flight was ready to board. Unfortunately there was a delay of 30 minutes, which would cut into our already tight transfer window in Beijing. We crossed our fingers that the pilot would get a tailwind and make up some time.
We flew with Air China and despite the many horror story reviews that I’d read, it was OK. Sure, the plane was old, a bit frayed around the edges and a lot of stuff didn’t work but the service was fine. The wind blew favourably for us and we made up our delay. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to us, Beijing were having runway issues and we did a couple of loops as we waited to get a landing slot. I was starting to get twitchy about catching our onward flight so I asked one of the flight attendants if we could get disembarked quickly to give us a chance. He looked at my boarding pass for the flight to Tokyo and told me, quite bluntly, that we wouldn’t make it.
So in an effort to help, he moved Mrs A and I up to business class for the last 1/2 hour of the flight. I spent my time fannying about with the electric reclining seats, Mrs A spent her time worrying. Eventually wheels hit tarmac and we began what felt like the longest taxi across the vast expanse of Beijing’s runways. Time continued to tick and tock.
The doors opened and we set off at a dead run to try and beat the odds of making our connection. Through several sets of very officious security, one confiscated bottle of duty free gin and numerous colourful uses of language later we hit our check in desk, sweating, out of breath, and far from the relaxed travellers we aim to be.
The cheerful man behind the desk told us the flight was delayed by at least an hour.
After getting our shit together again, we boarded the final leg to Haneda, arriving uneventfully in the early hours. A bit more fannying around in airports and in the early hours we finally arrived in our Tokyo hotel and crashed.
We only had a day in Tokyo so we crammed in as much as we could. We saw temples, Royal palaces, a local Samurai reenactment society practicing in a car park, shopping districts and a very serene shrine on the rooftop terrace of a department store before evening fell.
And then, for me, Tokyo came alive. The already impressive cityscape of the Ginza district (location of the rooftop shrine) just stepped up several notches as the sun went down. Neon was everywhere, taxis lit up and the famous Tokyo car scene started to make an appearance, with automotive exotica tooling around the streets.
We hit the metro and headed out to the Tokyo Tower (pretty much a carbon copy of the Eiffel Tower) and were rewarded with the most stunning nighttime views I have ever scene over a city. High-rise blocks and towers as far as the eye could see. It felt like stepping on to the set of a movie.
The following day we headed out of the city to see Fuji-san. We stopped off at lake Aashi and took the Hakone Ropeway to get the best view of Fuji. We were incredibly lucky with the weather and had incredible views of the mountain, clouds just clipping the snow-capped summit. After a detour to stand on Fuji for a few minutes we headed off to an overnight stop at a Japanese country club. We had a traditional meal and I had a traditional Japanese bath (Mrs A wasn’t for getting nekkid in the company of strangers, I have no such qualms). The hotel was traditionally (and hilariously) ’70s in decor.
Next morning we headed to Kyoto. A totally different feeling to Tokyo, much more serene and low-rise. We saw a ferocious amount of temples, palaces and gardens. I’m not usually arsed in the slightest about a garden (the National Trust doesn’t get bothered by my presence very often) but the attention to detail of Japanese gardens really was breathtaking. Highlights included the ‘nightingale floors’ of the Samurai’s palace and, from a comedy point of view, the elderly British lady’s complaint that the Ryoan-ji rock garden was a lot smaller than expected until another (better informed) traveller pointed out that she was looking at a model and the real garden was outside.
But the absolute highlight of Kyoto for me was the Silver Pavilion, with its Zen sand structures and beautiful layout, followed by a walk along The Philosopher’s Path (the route that the original owner of the silver pavilion used to take to get to the university). It ran alongside a stream, the last of the cherry blossom was on the trees and we had the path almost to ourselves apart from the occasional local, a few tourists, and a young Japanese couple (she in geisha outfit, he in traditional dress too). It was aces.
After a good night’s sleep in a very nice hotel we headed for the airport, next stop Beijing.