Part 1: Sydney to Osaka

By allrite on September 11, 2017


Posted in: Flights, Japan, JRNEWStour

For some a journey is only a means to reach a goal. Their sense of achievement comes from conquering the tallest mountain, deepest trench or being the first to set foot in an unexplored land.

Some just want to follow others, their glory derived from belonging to the group.

I am not those people. For me the goal is only a motivator to explore the path towards it.

I want to see and know it all, to walk all the paths until there are paths no longer. It is why I studied Mathematics and Physics at university, for they are the fundamentals of the universe and I want to understand it all.

Unfortunately, there is never enough time to see everything. So the traveller must skim through some of the landscape around them. It is why I love trains, for their path is constrained, preventing one from losing themselves wandering everywhere but nowhere, ensuring that the way forward is achievable. But I always keep my eyes open, seeing as much as I can see along the way. And if I must travel the same path more than once then I can enjoy it for a new day brings forth new sights, different seasons, changing colours and people.

This is my twenty-first time in Japan. I have spent those previous twenty times crisscrossing the country, passing through all but two of its forty-seven prefectures. Japan has countless railway lines, both part of the big Japan Rail corporations and smaller private and council owned operations. But as Japan’s population decreases and contracts to the major cities so must their railways. It is probably futile for a visitor to attempt to catch them all, but it is a great motivator for exploring more of the country.

A more immediate motivator for this trip, my second this year, was the news that JR Hokkaido claims that it cannot maintain half its railways. It was too late for some lines. Typhoon and earthquake damage had closed them, probably never to reopen. A couple of branch lines are also under immediate threat and some had already been closed over the past few years.

Some of the other lines listed by JR Hokkaido’s chairman include connections to Japan’s most northerly and easterly railway stations.

Keep in mind that no schedule has been announced for these particular closures, but with typhoon season approaching I felt an urgency to ride the lines. Plus I had a couple of existing bookings to Japan that needed to be used.

It is no secret that I have struggled with flying over the past couple of years. I developed an anxiety about turbulence that has lead to me postponing or cancelling bookings. Life too has become busier, especially with all my young son Alex’s activities where I have responsibility for taking him there. Whereas I might have sneaked off for a few days on a trip now it causes such disruption to the routine that my wife is forced to take leave to cover for it, unfairly for her.

I calculate how many days I would need for the entire remaining Hokkaido rail network that I had yet to ride. But if I am to see both Japan’s northernmost and easternmost stations then why not do the entire set and head as far west and south as I can (excluding the Okinawan monorail, but we are talking regular trains). What a challenge!

I need seven days. A whole week. That’s tough.

Then my wife B decides that she wants to come to Japan again too. And she and Alex don’t want to spend hours on trains.

In the end I change the dates of my bookings, give one to Alex and buy another for B for the mid year school holidays. I’ll fly up four days early and get the Hokkaido travel done and meet them in Osaka for a family holiday for the remainder of the two weeks. Somehow I have to squeeze the south in too.

The night before A stay at the Ibis Budget Sydney Airport

I hate the anxiety that wrecks the beginning of my flying holidays, so I try not to think about flying for the weeks leading up to the trip. The weather complies with sunny skies and I steer away from looking at the weather. I plan to pack the weekend before, sleep early, make some time to relax.

That’s my plan, but naturally it goes pear shaped. I have a major project due, but then other groups start adding in their own deadlines. Everyone needs everything finished by the end of the financial year (June 30), whether or not there is any reason for it other than an arbitrary deadline. I know how to do everything, but there is only one of me.

My flight out is at six AM on Saturday so I have booked a hotel room by the airport to save the stress of driving to the airport so early. I was going to stay home on Friday and calmly prepare, but I find myself driving to the office for some database work that can’t be done remotely. Then I drive home, collect my son from school, but rather than spend time with him I have to keep churning out code. I’m still doing it when B arrives back to take him to tutoring (don’t ask, not my idea). All I can do is fling the last few things into my bag, grab the work laptop, and join them as they drive to Hurstville.

I sit there in the food court of the Westfield shopping centre struggling to get this code working for someone who needs it next week. I know how to do it, but it just isn’t working. At six-thirty pm I give up and tell him it just isn’t going to happen. If he’d actually given me a month’s warning then I could have fit it in, but a week, this week, was just too short.

It doesn’t feel good leaving things undone, but what can I do? I have my own deadlines set by school holidays. There is just one of me and after a frantic six months I frankly don’t just deserve another holiday, I need one.

So we drive towards Sydney’s domestic terminal. It’s dark outside and I’m happy for the new Mazda’s GPS to do the navigation on my behalf. I need to calm down.

We’ve stayed at the Ibis Budget Sydney Airport once before, prior to Alex’s very first trip eight years ago, back when it was called a Formula One. It was terrible then and it is terrible now. I’m glad it is just me staying that night.

It is as bare bones as you can get. Only a bar of soap to wash with, not even a combined tube of shampoo and body wash. Though it is adjacent to the airport, the only view I have is of a general aviation hanger and a Krispy Kreme outlet.

Actually, the Krispy Kreme looks good in the night, so brightly lit up, busy. A couple of hoons drive their doof-doof mobiles stupidly around the car park. B and Alex farewell me and I’m glad we changed their pre-flight bookings to the much more luxurious Stamford Hotel across the road.

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Krispy Kreme shop
The view out of the window.

My own stay here will be brief enough that it doesn’t really matter. But I love staying in a hotel the night before a trip, fantasise about it frequently. I want to spend some time getting into the mood, grab a snack from the bright fast food joints outside, kick off my shoes, play my music out loud (not that loud as to disturb the neighbouring occupants).

I don’t need an alarm to wake me up. My body is amped enough to do that. I shave, dress and pack the last few items before heading downstairs to check out. It isn’t even five in the morning yet.

The skies are dark and the air chilly as I take the fifteen minute walk along lonely streets under the amber lights to Terminal 2. It’s the first day of school holidays, but I beat the rush to drop off my bag at the Jetstar counter. I was just going to use carry on luggage, but weight has defeated me and I was in too much of a rush to repack things.

Relax, enjoy I tell myself as the airport slowly wakes up. No flights yet, for it is still curfew time. I buy a slice of fruit bread and a drink and watch the tarmac. Then I head off to the gate. But first a trip to the bathroom when a wave of nausea strikes. It’s fear.

I’m not giving up.

When the call comes I board the aircraft and sit down in a seat just forward of the wing.

Relax.

Slow breathing. Listen to your breathing.

Relax.

I am relaxed.

Finally, everybody is on board. The cabin manager welcomes us to the flight.

The first hints of dawn are just appearing in the sky as we push back from the gate. I expect us to taxi out to the third runway but we don’t make the turn and instead are heading toward the Ibis Budget. An East-West runway take-off. How novel!

We race past the long term car park, cross the main runway as the powerful landing lights of the first inbound visitors shine towards us, past the parked aircraft and rise up into the air behind the coastline of Botany Bay. We pause the ascent at 5,000 feet to check with Air Traffic Control that all is in order, then resume. I was expecting us to head out towards the ocean as we always do with the flights to Queensland, but no, we are turning inland, parallel with the Georges River. Past the bridges, past my house, then swinging up across Western Sydney.

Takeoff of JQ952

This is rather fun actually. I appreciate the change.

The seatbelt lights are extinguished and the captain, one of the two James up front, sounds over the blower.

“Good morning and welcome to Jetstar flight 935 to Cairns. As you can see the seatbelt lights have been switched off but you should keep them on in case of any unexpected turbulence. Our planned cruise altitude is at 34,000 feet and hopefully arriving 20 minutes early. We are currently over Richmond and our flight path should take us over Narrabri, Moree and Roma before we begin our descent into Cairns at Townsville. We are expecting a smooth flight along the way. The weather in Cairns is for a few showers but we’ll update you the forecast closer to our arrival.”

Great news! Nothing to concern myself until Cairns. I sit back and stare out the window lulled by the hum of the engines, half asleep with the exhaustion of busy days, late nights and a very early morning. The city lights below disappear to be replaced by the dark grey green of national park forest and salmon highlights replace the indigo of the sky.

The crew pass through the cabin selling snacks and drinks. I have a five dollar credit, but only ask for a bottle of water. My stomach still can’t think of anything else.

Outside the scene is now a dusty yellow. I feel like we are flying over a desert landscape. Eventually it resolves into the normality of a hazy blue day with farms and rivers, mountain ridges and mines beneath us.

I have flown this route enough times now that I don’t feel the need to observe every detail. Instead I let myself enter a fugue state and try to make up for lost sleep.

With half an hour of our two and a half hour flight left we begin our descent into Cairns. There is now a layer of cloud below and I feel a touch of anxiety. I take out my camera to video the descent.

I know we will approach from the north, so we overshoot the city, descending over the mountain range that surrounds it. I can see thick clouds, the showers, off the coast.

We pass through multiple layers of cloud, the blue sky disappearing into whispy grey. Suddenly the cloud breaks to reveal the edge of the dark green mountains as they meet the sun-speckled sea.

Curving around, ahead of us and parallel to the coast are large rainclouds merging air and sea into a deep foreboding grey. Tendrils of cloud reach out and grab us, droplets of rain skid over the window and we bump through each patch, but we are moving with purpose towards the ground. Below the cloud the vast sea appears once more

Then we are over land again, crossing the mangrove lined rivulets, the northern suburbs of the city and down on the wet tarmac of the airport.

The descent into Cairns

As we skim along the runway and taxi in towards the terminal there are plenty of interesting aircraft to see at Cairns, from the helicopters and Dorniers of the Coast Guard to the all white derelict Shorts Belfast of Heavylift. We pull up at the domestic terminal next to a Jetstar A320. Fortunately the rain has stopped and the sun is out because there is no airbridge for us today.

It’s been a great flight! An excellent start to this adventure. That was the flight I needed.

I now have to collect my checked in bag and recheck it and myself in for the flight to Osaka.

The first thing is to actually get my bag and it’s a reasonably long wait for my bag on the carousel. Fortunately it’s not raining as I carry it along the long outdoor, but sheltered, path to the International Terminal.

There is already a long queue at the Jetstar check in desks, though most appear to be for the flight to Tokyo. A sign says that the Osaka check in doesn’t open until ten am, but I don’t receive a complaint when I go to the desk a little early.

I ascend the escalator to security and throw out my almost empty bottles prior to joining the queue. My bags pass through the x-ray and me through the metal detector without issue and then it is through to the duty free corridor.

The scents, alcohol and chocolates do not tempt and I emerge into the departures area with about four hours to waste.

I want Cairns International to be something more than it is. The blue carpet, the pale mint green walls make one think of a semi-exotic tropical cross between a hospital and a resort. Sadly there’s not actually much to do there.

A few shops mainly selling the kitschy kind of items only a tourist with more money than taste would buy, a newsagent/travel shop and a cafe/pizza joint. There is a single small lounge which I once used on a Jetstar business class ticket, but which is not affiliated with Qantas so I cannot use now.

I am a bit hungrier now so I head to the cafe for some fruit salad. Their prices are really high. Drinks especially are overly expensive in the terminal, even in the vending machines. I buy one anyway as I like to have a ready supply of liquid for the upcoming long flight.

As the gateway to the tropics I think it a pity that Cairns doesn’t decorate its airport with a more exotic feel and provide food options that showcase the area rather than the boring generic cafe. There used to be tropical fish tanks here a decade ago and it’s a pity they were removed.

Instead there isn’t much to do but sit around and watch a few other international services depart. There is Singapore’s SilkAir, Air New Zealand, the other Jetstar 787-8 to Tokyo Narita and a Papua New Guinea Fokker F100 that farewell us. A number of airlines and destinations have come and gone over the years. Once you could fly Qantas Boeing 747s to America and 767s Japan and even the sole international turboprop flight, a QantasLink Bombardier Q400 to Port Moresby.

Qantas’ first attempt at a discount long haul international subsidiary was Australian Airlines, with its magnificent orange, black and white livery. We flew them on our very first trip to Osaka. Sadly, they and their 767s are gone from Australian skies, eventually to be replaced by Jetstar’s modern Boeing 787-8, the airline and aircraft that I’ll be flying there today.

The single desk with electrical outlets is already full. I wish that I’d brought a paper book, heavy though it is and am tempted to buy one at the newsagent. But that would just weigh my bag down further, so I read one of the e-books sitting on my tablet.

I can’t focus. More sleep would be nice. B and Alex are watching Despicable Me 3 at the cinema with friends, eating popcorn and sweets.

Eventually the time comes to board our flight. The occupants of the small business class cabin are asked to board first, then those at the rear of the aircraft. Finally it is my turn to pass down the long mint corridor to the airbridge and on to my carriage for the long flight ahead.

The Jetstar Boeing 787-8 has become my favoured mode of aerial transport. The nine-across cabin is a source of contention for many and I admit that the seats are rather narrow, but fortunately the middle seat is left empty today. I settle in under the red and blue mood lighting and check out the seat back entertainment system. Then I switch it to the flight map mode and prepare myself for flight.

As we taxi out to the runway I can see heavy clouds over the city. But I watch another aircraft rising up and avoiding them and I have hope.

A Qantas 737-800 takes off ahead of us, then it is our turn on the runway. This is it, the long flight. May it be safe and smooth.

We lift off into the skies, the turn left, away from the city and out towards the coast, missing the weather as we head upwards. I look back towards the airport and then the land disappears beneath a layer of cloud, only to return briefly as we follow the Queensland coast northwards. There are glimpses of Cape York Peninsula and the Great Barrier Reef. I try to discern any bleaching, but I cannot tell.

The captain welcomes us aboard and informs us that it will be a smooth flight to Osaka and that we are running ahead of schedule. The flight time is just under seven hours, beyond which feels too long. It’s funny because this was about the length of my very first international flight.

For a while I just listen to relaxing electronica on my phone, which is charging using the USB socket. Later I plug another charger into the regular power socket beneath the seat to charge my camera as well.

Forty minutes into the flight meals are served. I have preordered the roast chicken, the boringly safe choice. On recent flights I have quickly scoffed my meals, concerned about unexpected turbulence throwing them into my lap. This time I force myself to eat slowly and savour the food, to enjoy the experience of eating on high.

I do enjoy it. The chicken is succulent, the gravy and potatoes tasty, the vegetables as bad as overcooked vegetables will always be. Not the best meal I’ve ever had on Jetstar long-haul but quite edible to a slightly queasy stomach. The raspberry chocolate brownie was okay, but I didn’t touch the cold bread roll. It’s a pity there’s no salad anymore either. I always liked some salad. The only drink is a cold tub of water, but I always have my own stash.

After the meal we enter the high cloud above Papua New Guinea. Once we cross the ranges that cut the country latitudinally in two there are glimpse of jungle and thin rivers. The window shades are automatically dimmed by half, though they remain under my control.

I decide to leave them dim and distract myself with video, choosing the science fiction comedy Red Dwarf. Though it isn’t that long since I last watched the latest series, I enjoy reviewing the three episodes over again. It’s a pity they don’t have the entire series.

Once Red Dwarf is finished I look through the movie choices. It’s a pity that I only recently rewatched Interstellar at home as Christopher Nolan’s films often make good choices for flying. Long, scenic visuals and somewhat dreamy scores work well. In fact I first watched Interstellar on a flight back from Japan.

None of the other movies seem exactly what I want, so I chose Hidden Figures which is at least a movie I feel that I should watch, involving maths and physics as it does.

It is indeed a good movie and interesting to see how endemic racism was to society.

Now and then I glance outside at the scattered cloud below. We pass some anvil clouds that threaten to become storms, sometimes passing through their high tails. I know now not to worry and indeed the bumps are not so bad.

As the sun sinks lower in the sky it stretches out along the water in a broad shimmering line, casting long shadows from the clouds.

It is time for our light meal, which is good because it is dinner time at home and I am hungry. Another tub of cold water, a Tim Tam chocolate biscuit and a Junior Dad’s steak and cheese pie from New Zealand. Why New Zealand? Seems a bit wrong for an Australian airline to provide non-Australian meat pies. It’s UnAustralian even! Tastes good though.

I don’t feel like watching anything else and neither can I be bothered to listen to my phone, so I switch the entertainment system to play the sole good album on it, a compilation of John Williams music from Steven Spielberg movies.

Ghostly wisps of cloud fill the sky and we enter a mysterious region of high cloud. We begin our descent in to Japan.

Beneath the high cloud is a spectacular scene of the orange-gold setting sun reflecting off the ocean. The Japanese coastline appears and we weave our way through the Kii Channel past Shikoku and Awajishima Island. In the dusk light the landscape looks exotic and so different to Australia. I really am about to enter another country and this is the perfect time of day to do it.

In the background John Williams’ themes are playing in my ears. Could this be any better?

As we enter Osaka Bay we have to curve around, over the seemingly superfluous artificial island that is Kobe Airport, and down past the other reclamations towards Kansai International Airport, itself made of sand and mud from beneath the sea.

We touch down in the last light of the day. Now I can say that it has been a fantastic flight. The kind of flight I’ve wanted to have for so long now, one like I used to have.

Cairns to Osaka highlights

The windows fog up with the additional humidity inside the 787’s cabin. The cabin air has actually been really good this time, not so humid as on the last few flights and cool enough. But outside through the airbridge is a reminder that I have flown into summer.

I want to stop and snatch photos, but I also don’t want to be at the end of the immigration queue, so I hurry along to make the shuttle train to the main terminal. I get my photo taken, but the thumbprints always give me trouble. Even my own phone isn’t talking to my thumb right now.

Unfortunately there is already a long queue at immigration with passengers from other flights standing and waiting. Eventually I am processed and can collect my luggage from the belt. Even the customs area has a wait behind an Australian family with way too many bags. I wasn’t like this a decade ago!

I go straight to the Japan Rail office to be greeted by yet another queue, though thankfully much shorter than the one in January. I exchange my voucher for a fourteen day Japan Rail Pass and book the next day’s train tickets. This I am particularly eager to do as I am leaving on the first available Shinkansen in the morning.

Finally I am free! Using airport and train station wifi I have a quick chat with Alex and B over Google Hangouts as I wait for my train to take me to the hotel.

The Haruka rolls up to the station and I climb aboard. It is comfortable, airconditioned and not an aeroplane, so I take the opportunity to simply relax. Scenes of Japan flicker past outside. I’ve seen them many times before and will see them many times again on this trip, but they still evoke a sense of joy.

The train goes all the way to Kyoto, but I am getting off at the Shin-Osaka railway hub. This is purely a transit stop, for tomorrow the real journey begins.

The station is beginning to shut down for the night. I quickly head out and book some additional tickets for subsequent days, then head back into the station area looking for some dinner. Not much is still open,but I find a noodle shop where I order a chikuwa (fish cake) and udon dish that tastes so wonderful. I’m back. I’m really back in Japan!

I pick up some other snacks for tomorrow so that I can go straight to the train without worrying about breakfast.

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Remm Hotel Entrance
Entrance to the Remm Hotel Shin Osaka

My hotel, the Remm Shin Osaka, is connected to the station building. I’ve stayed here once before and it’s perfect. With its very modern decor I can imagine quite a few visitors complaining that the rooms are tiny, but everything has its place. There is even a massage chair!

I setup my pair of bluetooth speakers and connect my phone to play music. It’s so nice not to require earphones.

I don’t know how you can work up such a sweat doing nothing but sitting down all day in an aircraft, but I stink. The raindrop shower, which has a blind so that you can looking at the television through a window, feels so good on my tired body. And is there anything more perfect than collapsing into a bed after a long flight to the sound of Blade Runner and drifting off to sleep?

Tomorrow I will begin my journey to Japan’s northernmost station.


4 thoughts on "Part 1: Sydney to Osaka"

  1. Steve says:

    Great observations and surprised to discover you are slightly nervous flyer.

    1. allrite says:

      Hi Steve,

      Yes, I’ve travelled with turbulence anxiety for over a decade but only in the past few years has it got really bad. Quite irrational.

      Regards,

      Andrew

  2. Chris says:

    Superb report – wonderful style of writing. I’ve been enjoying your trip reports for quite a while now!

    1. allrite says:

      Thanks Chris! I really appreciate that.

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