Isehara Camping during Rainy Season

It’s fair to say that I like to get outdoors. Although I’m not a frequent or avid camper, now that the kids are sort of old enough, I think it’s important we all get out and get some outdoors and tent time in.

We first went together in 2012, but for a pile of reasons we missed last year, and so this year we’re trying to make up the trip count. June is  part of Japan’s rainy season, but undaunted I booked a spot at a place I hadn’t camped at before up in the mountains, near a river,called Yamagoya.  It’s only a bit over an hour  from the house, so I thought that if it turned into a complete disaster I’d just have to up sticks and it would be a short drive back.

As the date came up, it was clear it would rain at some point. On the day we drove up it was raining, and when we arrived, I expected the kids to complain, but actually they loved it, and I have to say, they didn’t complain once during the whole weekend.

The site is small, running about 100m along a small river bank. Come the real summer they’re mainly set up with family sized BBQ sites, but right now they just had a few tarps up covering about half of them. They actually only have 3 designated tent pitches. This was the first odd point  - the pitches were away from the river, and broadly flat, but they’d put several layers of stones there, which may have helped run-off and drainage, but made getting the tent pegs in quite a bit harder, and of course the rain makes everything more slippery.  Like the previous camp though, I set up my GoPro on time lapse, and afterwards made a video from it – the kids love watching the tent go up at high speed!

The stones could have been a bigger issue, had I not brought our Thermarests, of which I’ve become a bit of a fan over the last few years, meaning for the kids especially, they could get comfy in their sleeping bags on one of these mattresses, and get some sleep.

Once the tent was up we went in to the adjoining cafe for some lunch. They only have a small menu, very Japanese oriented, which is fine, but not much for the kids. That said, the tofu salad and udon we ordered was excellent, and we could divide it between the three of us. They also do desserts and kakigouri (shaved ice with some fruit cordial), which obviously did go down well with the kids. It wasn’t expensive, given they’re serving a relatively captive audience, but marginally more expensive than a family restaurant.

Tenting in the Rain

As the rain came down gently, it was actually quite picturesque, looking down the river, and off a slight cliff down the valley. The kids were happy with my decision that since they were wet anyway, paddling into the river a little wasn’t going to do any more damage, so we passed quite a bit of time just exploring the riverbank and the site.

One of the best things about camping is cooking outside though, and it’s something my kids like too. For normal meals at home they can sometimes be picky, but when it comes off a BBQ or the camping stoves, there are no arguments. The drizzle had let up a little, so I broke out our two stoves – one is my normal lightweight backpacker stove, the other is a domestic ‘cassette gas’ burner. I found one of the set out tarps which was anchored quite high up, and set up just below and to one side of it – you don’t want to be melting or setting fire to tarps – so we got some rain shelter and played safe. I do like cooking outdoors, and with two stoves, got some spaghetti bolognese going.

One thing I was glad I brought is my Gerber multi-tool – I somehow bent one of the guide lips on my camping stove, and had to gently bend it back into shape with my pliers.

There wasn’t any showers that I noticed, but the toilets were clean enough for a camp site, and part of a concrete building, so the kids weren’t too fussed about it. It’s still odd to me that the same kids who complain about a small mosquito at home, don’t seem bothered by much bigger insects when they’re camping.

Let’s talk about insects. I don’t really have a problem with insects when I’m outdoors, with the possible exception of the midges in Scotland. Insects live outside, it’s what they do. However, twice over the weekend, I must have looked like a tempting and tasty target to Yamaburi, which are Japanese mountain leeches, and I had to remove them both forcefully, but safely (well, safe for me, not so much for them). They’re hardy things I can tell you.

I should probably discuss something about the staff at the site too. They’re very nice and polite, but a little slow, and aren’t entirely intuitive. I noticed this when I booked the site as I booked over a week ahead, confirming everything down to kids ages, arrival and departure times. When my wife called a few days before to check on things (if they rented towels etc.) she got into a weird conversation that the booking was somehow not complete. Finally she got confirmation that actually it was all booked. We still don’t know what the story was there. If it wasn’t complete, why hadn’t they called the mobile number I’d provided. I wonder if they’re the off-peak part timers?

All in all then, a good, simple one night camp. I think we’ll go back later in the year, and take advantage of one of the BBQ spots, as well as the tent pitches, as that would be fun. All that remains is for me to find out how to dissuade the local leeches, or a better way to remove them (if you have any ideas, please add to the comments).

New Arai Astro IQ helmet!

After probably too long with my old faithful Arai Rapide Or matt black helmet, a couple of months ago I got around to getting down to NAPS and getting myself a new helmet. After trying on quite a few, as always, I actually went with another Arai helmet, the Astro IQ in a matt white going by the seductive name of ‘silk white‘. I went for the white as my current bike is black and quite a lot of my gear is, so for the sake of visibility, I’ve gone for the lighter coloured helmet. That said, the one thing to remember about helmets: fit is everything. My fit apparently is XL, due to the size of my cranium or something.

This model forms part of Arai’s R75 technology range, making a rounder helmet, which along with the Facial Contour System should make the helmet safer in crashes, and more comfortable in use, including making it easier for emergency services to get the helmet off after a crash. Lot’s of marketing talk, but how does it feel out in use?

Astro IQ

I have to say that I wasn’t expecting it to be that much different to the old helmet, but after a few hundred kilometres around town, on the expressways and into the mountains, I was really impressed – more comfortable, quieter, and much easier to turn my head in at speed to check behind.

Some of this I’m sure is the new design, but some I suspect is how worn and settled my old helmet was, and whilst it’d never had an impact, the padding especially had settled a bit.

The IQ does indeed feel rounder, and lighter too, and I take it as a great sign that I began to wonder why I hadn’t bought a new helmet sooner. The ventilation is impressive, with a good selection of vents made of solid slides and switchers, which are broadly adjustable with your bike gloves on; this is definitely an improvement over the old helmet – the ventilation wasn’t bad, but it couldn’t be practically adjusted with gloves on.

So that’s it, I’m very pleased with the new helmet, and the only real downside is that huge Arai logo on the front.


Simple Utilities Round-up

It’s been a long time since I wrote anything about computer stuff, so I thought I’d put a post together about those  those utilities we don’t really use that often, but when we do, they’re a real life saver, so in no particular order:

Heidi Eraser (Windows) -This is a solid disk eraser allowing for a variety of different types of wipe, so whenever I retire an old disk, or it’s failing, I give it a thorough erasing using this.

Putty (Windows/Linux/MacPorts) – if like me, you do a lot of SSH, Telnet or even COM work, you should get this – it’ great for setting up bookmarks of commonly accessed machines, and keeping your own local log of each session.

Universal USB Installer / YUMI  (Windows) – if you need to create a USB stick installer for a Linux distro on Windows, you should get one of these apps. The difference is that YUMI lets you put several distros on one stick, and then select from a boot menu, whereas the Universal installer allows you to make a bootable stick to install one from.

Win32 DiskImager (Windows) – This utility is used to write disk image files to and from SD and USB cards. I use this a lot for backing up my Raspberry Pi. A niche need I know, but priceless when you can.

Exact Audio Copy  (Windows) – as it’s name might suggest, this is a CD ripper. Why use this instead of iTunes? Well, for one I tend to rip to FLAC, and I like to make sure I’ve got a good rip. The only issue I have with this is sometimes it gets the Japanese text encoding wrong.

Hugin  (Mac/Windowsa) – This is a Panorama stitcher, and though there are plenty of these around, I’ve not seen one do such a great job. A warning upfront, the UI is convoluted, but it really knows it’s business about joining photos.

keka  (Mac) – This is a file compression especially 7zip, which is really helpful if you have a few things using that format. The app icon is a little creepy though.

mp4 tools (Mac) – This is a lossless video cutter/splicer which is really helpful for me to cut up GoPro videos, which otherwise would have long unneeded sections, without re-encoding.

xld (Mac)-Built on top of OS X core audio and some open source elements, this is audio converter & ripper which fits well with my FLAC audio files to make compressed version for iPods etc..

testdisk & PhotoRec (all platforms) – A couple of great data recovery tools which work well on SD cards etc..

rsync (all platforms) – a powerful but simple command line file copy and syncing tool.

Nexus 7 as a laptop?

Over the last couple of years, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of my Nexus 7. Recently I wanted to do more writing on it, so I picked up a cheap BlueTooth keyboard from Anker and yes, I know it’s chunky, but it’s very decent to type on, and gets a lot from its two AA batteries.

This made it much more usable as an input system, but somehow I now wanted to use a mouse as a pointer instead of leaning in to touch the screen from the keyboard sit-back position, and then I remembered I bought a USB OTG cable a while back to play with USB stick file systems on a rooted system. On a normal Nexus 7, you can’t use it for bulk storage, but it does work for a mouse, even an old Microsoft mouse you bought a decade ago in a bargain basement in Akiba.

The Android system is surprisingly navigable from a keyboard, and the mouse makes it pretty much like a laptop, albeit with limited right-click. Yes, I know I’ve negated much of the point of having a tablet over a laptop, but this was a cheap conversion, and I only need to take the parts I want.

Nexus 7 as laptop

For those who are interested, a note that I’ve changed host … slightly.

For a while the site has been on Pairlite, which is a hobby focused product from Pair, but now Pair has a new lower cost offering so I’m moving back. With the exception of a year or so on, Pair has been the main home for most of my sites for over a decade I think, maybe longer.

Anyway, back on Pair, and no longer getting a random error on the WordPress news dashboard panel!

Enoshima on Shonan Press

A few of us who live in this area of Japan (Shonan) are putting together a small blog about the place, and write some bits about locations, shops, foods, festivals and all of that and we’re calling it Shonan Press. I put my first piece up on there regarding Enoshima – it’s a great place to visit, and I’ve included a decent variety of photos from the place. I’m looking forward to getting more content up there! Feedback appreciated.

Fuji from Enoshima
Fuji from Enoshima

That Old Skyline Again

Whenever I get a half day to take a run out on the bike, there’s always the decision to be made about whether I should go somewhere new, take some random turns, get off the beaten track, or go somewhere I know, tried and tested. Not always, if ever, an easy decision.

Earlier this week then, when I got that time, I went conservative and decided to do a run I know I can get through in about 6 hours, even with some vital stops for tea: down the Pacific coastal route 134, then up to the Dammtrax Cafe near Hakone in the mountains, then down the toll based Izu Skyline. Then back pretty much the same way.

I’ve written about this route before simply because I really like it – I even did a video for it over a year ago:

A Quick Run to Izu in the morning from Nanikore on Vimeo.

For me it kicks off with some nice straight and fast roads down towards the beach with great head-on views of Mt. Fuji in the morning mist, then out along route 134.

At 7am, there’s not usually much traffic, but since they’re widening the whole thing right now, there were some road works, but those of us on two wheels can usually get down the sides without too many problems – it’s worth noting that the vast majority of Japanese car drivers are quite happy to stay away from that left hand curb and give riders some space. Unless you’re being really obnoxious anyway.

It’s a mix of toll roads – none of them too expensive – until this point, but I usually take them over the free local routes to get that nice elevation above the beach and ocean. You can ride along, see the early morning fishermen on the piers and the beach, the waves coming up the beach – it’s very relaxing. Along this section there’s a service area often used as a meeting point for bikers, so if you’re looking for a quick drink and a chat with like minded individuals, it’s great. I remember stopping in early one February, the kind of morning where ice was forming on the front of bikes – chilly. Unlike on those spring and summer days when the place is packed, there were just three of us, all out on our own, clutching hot drinks next to the bikes, generally not understanding those who don’t ride year round, and also realising it was likely us that were a bit nuts

That beach section, like most roads here, is in good condition, but as it’s been assembled in concrete sections, you get that rhythmic bounce at each join, like a train on it’s tracks.

There are a few routes into the mountains, but the two I usually choose between are the Toyo Tires Turnpike, and the Hakone Pass. The latter is free, but the Turnpike takes you straight to the cafe, and I think is a more entertaining ride up.

Either way, from here on out, it’s twisties, twisties and more twisties.

The Dammtrax cafe is a part of a general service area – it would like to be the smaller sibling of the famous Ace Cafe near London – and has a lot of photos and memorabilia from that place, but it’s not, it’s a corner of a food hall which also offers ice cream and ramen. That’s not to say it doesn’t have the idea – the staff are great, you can buy random biker items, and on most days, you’ll be sat with a bunch of bikers. The car park is huge though, and in the spring and summer months, owners clubs, manufacturers and other motor vehicle related vendors set stands up to sell their products and often have giveaways. In peak season you could probably spend a couple of hours just looking around at all the cars, bikes and talking to the people.

From here though, it’s a short run down route 20 to the upper entrance to the Skyline, and from there, it’s just over 40Km of fun. There are places to stop along the way, and at the halfway mark there’s a service area which sell the usual Japanese selection of gift foods and vegetables and food.

One odd thing along the route, a few kilometres from the beginning is an abandoned building, claiming to be an Energy and Environment Building, if you’re into abandoned building (‘haikyo‘) then this one might want to go on your list. I didn’t go inside, just walked the perimeter; I like the design, and that there’s a drive in ramp (though not I suspect for vehicles really). I’ve ridden past it so many times, but never stopped. Next time I’m up there I might take a closer look at the ramp.

The Skyline is a great road though, good surface, plenty of slopes, turns and enough straights that you can escape slow cars and buses if you get unlucky enough to be behind one. Don’

There’s also a lot of places to pull over for photos, since the road gets you great views of Fuji on one side, and the ocean coast on the other. If you keep your eyes open (so to speak) you’ll also see the odd farm track leading off the road – I’ve followed a couple of these, and they are a lot of fun. This time I rode up one for a few kilometres, and it was great to see a camp site I didn’t know existed, and a really nice stream and some waterfalls- a good place for a cup of tea from the flask.

The end of the Skyline is always a bit of a let down – there’s nothing there after the toll booth – just a long closed down restaurant place. A weird anticlimax, it’s also not very photogenic, though like the Energy Museum, I should probably look into it’s history.

Book Shelf: The Milkweed Triptych by Ian Tregillis

I waited a bit so I could read and cover all three of these books in one fell swoop – Ian Tregillis‘s Milkweed Triptych – Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War and Necessary Evil.

The overall story arc takes place in a forked alternate history starting in the 1930s, and ending in the 1960s by the end of the third book.

Though some one line blurbs pitch the trilogy as “British wizards vs. Nazi superman”, that’s a bit simplistic, and misleading. The books themselves also address this too, quite early on, so lets just lay down the the overarching premise.

The nazis have enabled humans to control fire, cold, be invisible and other abilitiesvia their willpower by hardwiring their brains with electrodes drilled into their skulls, hooked up to special batteries, leaving them all with trailing wires hanging from their heads. This is the work of scientist Von Westarp, who as the series opens, is experimenting on orphans.

Upon discovering this, the British have looked to a group of old and grizzled warlocks as their own secret weapons. To be straight though, this is not a Marvel supervillain vs. Gandalf story. The warlocks do not perform magic as such, more they negotiate with supernatural entities called Eidolons for actions like freezing swathes of Europe, or providing a fog curtain across the English channel, all of which have a price. These negotiations are conducted in the allegedly ancient language of Enochian, and Tregillis’s descriptions of these characters are superb in places.

Boiled down, the two main character protagonists (or perhaps that should be antagonists) are Raybould Marsh, a British spy, and Gretel, a product of a Nazi medical experiment who is a kind of clairvoyant. Of the supporting characters there is Will, a reluctant well-to-do junior warlock, and Klaus, Gretel’s brother. It can be argued these characters are more three dimensional than the main two, struggling with decisions somewhat made for them. Will’s dislike of the blood prices he exacts to ‘pay’ the Eidolons grates on him, and drives him to breakdowns and swings in character. Klaus lives in his sister’s shadow for decades, trying to extract himself and finally know himself and make his own decisions and more than his sister embodies the result of living when someone can see your future.

Whilst Klaus’s ability is to become ghostlike and pass through solid objects, Gretel is able to see timelines and where decisions may lead. These abilities cease when the user’s battery runs low, as it amplifies their willpower, so batteries become a strategic tool in the books. The question you find yourself asking by the second book, is that unlike her peers, does Gretel even need the battery? These peers include the sadastic Reinhardt, with his ability to incinerate things, to the mentally crippled Kammler who drools, and must be directed by a handler, whilst his kinetic powers flatten any object.

I should say that it appeared to me that Tregillis hates Marsh – all the worst things in the world happen to him, and he almost dumbly plods on, as just a point of anger, driving the story. He’s not the only tragic character – most of the characters are tragic, such as poor Heike, another product of the Nazi Dr. Westarp’s experiments who is essentially talked into suicide, before her corpse is then the victim of another characters twisted affections.

The Milkweed Books
The Milkweed Books

The first book essentially covers the war, then moves forwards twenty years to a Cold War where the Soviets have been reverse engineering Von Westarp’s work, and then the final showdown in the UK. The title of the final book, “Necessary Evil”, is interesting in that it’s difficult to believe which of the evils was actually necessary, as they all seem like more of an excuse.

It’s a well written set of books, which seems was always intended to be a trilogy, as setups you don’t even notice in the first book pay off in the last. It does feel planned and structured, over the retcon some writers can be forced to do over such a long arc. This is vital though to build belief in Gretel’s ability to divine futures and steer events down the one line she needs. Tregillis outright poses one such line in Gretel having Heike kill herself so the Soviets would put her brain in a jar for study, and that that same jar would be kept in the same facility she is held in, years in the future, so that she can make use of that jar. It’s a combination of talent, foresight and sheer cruelty.

Each book is standalone to some extent, but I really can’t imagine enjoying any of them outside of the trilogy; it truly is a triptych – a whole divided into three parts.

The final book wraps up most of the loose ends and finally addresses the very physical, sexual tension which builds for three books between Gretel and Reybould. There’s more chemistry between those two characters than between Reybould and his own wife, trapped between his hate, and Gretels fear and detachment.

In summary I would say the books are definitely worth a read, and in case you’re wondering, it is a setup where it’s not clear who the ‘good’ side are, and perhaps none of them are – both sides ruin innocence and in a fantastical universe show the way wars make people do deals rational people would never entertain. There are some parts of the ending which I would liked to have been more decisive, but overall, after the three book journey, it does satisfy, and you realise the kind of willpower Gretel possesses not just because of her powers, but as a person, and how far that can drive Reybould to extraordinary lengths.

Bitter Seeds –
Bitter Seeds – Amazon UK
The Coldest War –
The Coldest War – Amazon UK
Necessary Evil –
Necessary Evil – Amazon UK

Kiroro Snow Trip 2014

As a country with a spine of mountains and volcanoes, Japan not only gets a lot of snow, it gets a lot of good snow, and has built some great snow resorts up around them, which is possibly another reason why the country has hosted the Winter Olympics a couple of times (1972 & 1998). It’s also the reason why one of the first things I did when I moved here was to take up snowboarding.

This year for our family snow trip, we went up to Kiroro in Hokkaido. As far as I know, Kiroro has not held an Olympic event, but represents another type of Japanese snow resort – the bubble resort. It was built during the height of Japan’s economic bubble in the 1980’s and has well appointed hotels and facilities, which are wearing a little bit, and the place has the feel of something a little over done, but still shows how Japan likes to do things. This is the first time we’ve been back in 6 years (2008, 2006, 2004).

There are two main hotels there with not much else around, as it was a purpose built resort. We stayed at the Mountain Hotel, which is closer to the main slopes, but a few minutes by free shuttle bus down the road is The Piano Hotel which has a large souvenir shopping area, and some more bars.

The are a good selection of courses, though there aren’t that many truly difficult runs, so it’s a relaxing venue, and it’s a resort which likes to leave a fair amount of powder around, especially on the edges of the pistes, which means you can play on the more groomed central areas, then branch off into powder and light trees.

By the time we went in early January, a small ramp of snow had formed at the edges of the pistes, meaning you could get some speed up and ramp into deep powder and between some trees. The powder was so light it was more like surfing at times, pushing down on that back leg and lifting the front up to stop from face planting or just plain stopping due to a lack of traction. Mine is an old 2000 Nitro board which doesn’t flex much, so by the end of a few powder intensive runs, that back leg was getting a little tired. Also, I will admit I had to paddle out a few times from waist deep powder when enthusiasm got the better of me. It was snowing so much that tracks were covered by your next run, and some people were struggling to keep going on the flatter areas.

The nighter course is pretty good too, well lit, and has a good covered 4 person lift up. Regarding the nighter, they have an ‘evening’ pass, and a ‘nighter’ pass – the former is about 1000 yen more and gets you an extra hour.

Thankfully, a day lift pass gets you the nighter included, which is nice, because I know some resorts which charge extra for that. I also didn’t see a ‘first run’ fee, which is another bolt-on extra some resorts started doing a while ago.

I also spent a day on my skis and really enjoyed it – likely because they have some gentler slopes for that, and skis are still not something I’m competent on, but I do enjoy them, and it means I can ski with my eldest, though she outpaces me nowadays. Wait till next year and we’re both on boards!

If you have a family, it’s good for the children’s ski school and activity centre which isn’t too expensive in comparison to some resorts, and they’ve gotten the kit rental for kids well integrated. As ever in Japan nowadays, the quality of the rental kit was excellent, the teachers were good and if you need it, a few spoke some English. There’s a large section of the area in front of the hotel dedicated to a family lift, a children’s play area and a sledging area, all of which is kept separate from the main ski areas.

The weekdays were very quiet which was great for us, and even at the weekend, it never got crowded. Also at the weekend, they had a DJ booth in the hotel snow centre, run by the local radio station, Air G FM in Hokkaido, who drive the music for the resort, take some requests and hold competitions, which actually added quite a bit of energy to the whole resort (snowboarding to old Wham songs was a bit odd).

The only downside to Kiroro is the cost, specifically of evening meals. The breakfast buffet is often included with the hotel price, and it had a decent selection. Lunch either on the mountain or in the hotel restaurant was also reasonable for a snow resort, such as ramen running from 980 – 1,300yen a bowl. However, you should be aware of the evening meal prices – they range from 4,200 – over 8,000yen per person – even a child’s meal in some restaurants cost over 2,000yen though we found one in the Piano hotel for 500yen but it was basically some soup and rice, and the adult meals were still over 4,200.

If you’re not on a package deal, be aware there aren’t any real supermarkets or restaurants outside of the hotels, so your only alternative is cup ramen and instant yakisoba from the snack shops in both hotels. We took this latter option as it was so much cheaper with 2 children, but also because it took us back to our roots on snow trips which we did things as cheaply as possible. There is a bus to Niseko which apparently takes an hour each way, but we didn’t explore that option.

The area doesn’t have the natural onsen spa baths some do, but the Mountain Hotel does have a ‘fake’ onsen, and a rotenburo, both of which were clean and well maintained. There’s something fantastic about spending the day on the mountain, washing off, then relaxing in pools of hot water for a while. Why more countries don’t have this, I have no idea. This was the first year I could take my son in too, and he loved it.

I’m not sure if we’ll be able to do another snow trip this year, but if this turns out to be the only one, I have to say I really enjoyed it. Kiroro is aging well, and whilst there are some pricing issues there, the place is a good place to spend a few days.