Category Archives: freetime

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.

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.

Boundary Conditions

I mentioned in the last post about ‘boundary conditions’ and a quote from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Here it is. It’s in the fifth installment, where Arthur Dent is looking for information from an old man who lives up poles (and can seemingly teleport between them). He points out he only lives up poles in Spring, Summer and Autumn, as he goes south in the winter, to his beach house. He then explains why he bought the beach house:

A beach house doesn’t even have to be on the beach, though the best ones are. We all like to congregate at boundary conditions … where land meets water, where earth meets air, where body meets mind, where space meets time, we like to be on one side and look at the other.

The boundary condition part just stuck in my mind as another truism from THHGTTG – I think people are attracted to them, myself included. If you haven’t listened to Hitchikers you really need to do so – it’s a masterpiece of wit and observation.

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Complete Radio Series

明けましておめでとうございます 2014!

Another year indeed, this one here in Japan is Heisei 26 (平成 26年)and Oshogatsu (正月)is winding down a little, as people return home from trips, either for pleasure, or traditionally to family, the rubbish collection starts again, and people get back to work. I’ve likely gone through bits about this before (2013, 2012 for example).

Once again, we’ve spent time with family, got out and about exploring with the kids, and managed to avoid osechi ryouri again for reasons too convoluted to go into here. Also, this year, I didn’t go down to the beach for sunrise as I had the previous two New Years – I thought it was time for a break and spend the new year morning at home making breakfast. Next year I may well be back – I actually quite enjoyed it.

So Happy New Year to everyone, and hope 2014 is a good one for you.

The Last Day of Movember

Mo&Sons-Mo-is-King

Well, all good things as they say, must come to an end, and here we are at the end of Movember, and I have to say I have grown fond of my moustache, but alas, it will be coming off tomorrow morning.

Mine was quite conservative – I was tempted by some of the more liberal styles, but I had a business trip, some important visitors, and a friend’s wedding during the month, so I went for something simple.

Of course, Movember is also about raising money, so I’d like to thank everyone who donated to all the ‘Mo Bros’, and especially to those who donated 420 USD through my page – it really means a lot.

So last year I did NaNoWriMo; this year I did the much easier Movember, so who knows what’ll happen next November – perhaps I’ll do both.

Only a week left in Movember

So we’re over 75% through Movember and that top lip isn’t looking too bad, albeit after a slow start!

Check progress over on my Movember page.

It might be surprising, but I’ve never done a moustache before – I’ve always been more of a beard type person, preferring the full set if I’m going to be unshaven. Whilst I’ve gotten used to it, I think I’ll be shaving it off that first week if December.

Still, that gives everyone more time to donate to the men’s health programmes they support, so the next time you’re getting your prostate checked, throw some thanks to the Movember people.

The Blender Open Source Film Projects

I first got into open source in 1998 when I installed Caldera’s OpenLinux. Open source worked for me as I could barely afford hardware, let alone software, and I’ve always kept a Linux (or FreebSD) box running for various tasks and for playing with.

Today, most people have heard of open source, or at least use some open source software, perhaps whether they know it or not.

One aspect of open source which perhaps people aren’t aware of are open source films – creative,  original content, created open source. One of the best ‘studios‘ for this is the Blender Foundation. Blender is itself an open source 3D modeling and rendering system, and they use the foundation and industry sponsorship now to actually produce content where all of the source materials – models, music, renders, all of it, is available open source, with the CG works mainly done in Blender itself.

I first bumped in to these projects in 2008 with their “Big Buck Bunny” short film, which was well written and well made, taking on the children’s animation genre.

Big Buck Bunny
Big Buck Bunny

Then I went back to their 2006 project ‘Elephants Dream‘ , which is darker, more for adults,  a grainy, atmospheric tale of two workers seemingly in an almost sentient machine.

Elephant's Dream
Elephant’s Dream

Next up was ‘Sintel‘, a fantasy short about a young woman searching for the dragon cub she nursed, and lost.

Sintel
Sintel

Their latest work is ‘Tears of Steel‘, which is unique as it’s goal was to use Blender to create the CG parts of a mixed live action VFX short film, based on a science fiction premise.

Tears of Steel
Tears of Steel

It’s another well executed short film, which brings home the flexibility of the open source tools, but also the wealth of talent of the people who use Blender and the strength of the community.

I quite like the idea of artistic works like this being open, so just as programmers and tap into source code to learn how things work, aspiring film makers and also take a look inside some of these high quality films and maybe learn a few things.

 

湘南ベルマレ 1−1 東京ヴェルディ

Last night we went down to the BMW Stadium in Hiratsuka for a family night out to see a live football game between the local team – Shonan Bellmare – and visitors Tokyo Verdy. It was a very decent night out all told – the stadium is in a nice park and there was a lot of stalls almost like a mini-matsuri outside, selling shaved ice with fruit syrup, beer and a decent array of snack foods. The stadium is a nice, if somewhat Soviet-era looking concrete construction which apparently can hold around 18,000, but it felt plenty full with last night’s attendance of 9,370.

Shonan play in J2, the lower of the two Japanese professional leagues, but that’s OK – my local team in the UK isn’t exactly top flight, but that doesn’t stop an entertaining game, and the crowd were treated to some good football for 90minutes, and even two well taken goals in the second half giving the final scoreline of 1-1. Points have to go to the Verdy fans who put up a solid 90minutes of drums and chanting, and at least from where we were sat, drowned out the locals.

It’s been a while sine I’ve been to a J League game actually, though I always watch games when I go back to the UK, and whilst the support style might change around the world, the community feeling on the terraces and the appreciation of the play seems fairly constant. I have to say though, watching an evening game 3Km from the Pacific Ocean in a t-shirt and shorts contrasts oddly to Boxing Day games in the north of England.

Bottom line: if you’re in Japan, and you haven’t checked one out, go and see a J League game, and if you’re visiting, put it on your to do list.

I didn’t take many photos as I was assisting in keeping the kids under control as it was their first ever live football game, and whilst my eldest said she liked it, she was tired after 75mins., and my youngest spent some time with one of us walking about as he was fascinated by the stadium and all the people.