Kōrakuen Garden in Okayama

Okayama is a small city on the Shinkansen line between Himeji and Hiroshima. We first visited 11 years ago following the Rough Guide’s recommendation to use it as a base for visiting off-the-beaten track gems such as Takamatsu. Himeji is under 25 minutes away by train—an easy day trip—and its good value business hotels make it a better overnight stop for the sort of Rough Guide/Lonely Planet-reading budget conscious travellers we are. At the time it struck us as being a welcome opportunity to experience a more “real” Japan than the glitz of Tokyo and the foreigner-friendly tourist attractions.

Returning for the first time 11 years later, it was still as lovely as before but decidedly more aware of its potential as a tourist destination in its own right. It is the main gateway to the new and popular island-hopping bicycle tours and its Kōrakuen Garden is one of the great gardens of Japan and definitely worth a visit. It provided us with several hours of happy and peaceful diversion and, in contrast to Himeji Castle, there are multiple cafés and tearooms inside to keep you refreshed while you explore. Leaving the garden towards the castle there are some casual riverside restaurants with lovely views over the river. Okayama Castle’s commanding position completes the vista but is a modern concrete reconstruction following the original’s destruction in World War 2 so we did not venture inside.

Himeji Castle

Himeji is the most famous of Japan’s 12 original castles, and a popular stopover on the tourist route from Tokyo to Hiroshima. During our previous trip to Japan it was part-way through a five year programme of renovation and preservation so this was our first opportunity to fully appreciate its majestic beauty.

In addition to surviving wars and earthquakes, the castle’s domineering position on the skyline has been sympathetically preserved. Visitors arriving by train are left in no doubt as to why they should leave the train here with a grand vista from the Shinkansen platform. Reaching the castle is a 20 minute walk from the train station, not easy going in the July heat, but there are a good selection of ice-cream shops and bakeries to sustain you. No food or drink (other than water) is allowed to be consumed inside the ticketed part of the castle grounds, so it is important to time your visit around meal times.

The castle grounds are interesting to explore, and the West Bailey has informative displays about some of the former inhabitants, and how they lived. The main keep is unfortunately a little anti-climatic after such a grand build up. The upper floors of the keep are nearly empty so it becomes mostly about climbing flight-after-flight of very steep steps until you reach the top, where you can enjoy fresh breezes from the windows and the view out over Himeji city, except that Himeji is not the most pretty or interesting of cities to look at—you are already inside its best bit!

Hiroshima and Miyajima

Our previous visit to Hiroshima in 2012 was a single rainy day so we saw no more than the inside of the moving and informative Peace Museum. On that occasion we stayed overnight on the island of Miyajima but the packed nature of the itinerary left no time to linger in this calm and picturesque spot.

On this trip we had much more time to explore both Hiroshima and Miyajima, and were also blessed by some beautiful weather. Upon arrival at Hiroshima’s station by 300km/h Nozomi Shinkansen, there was both a feeling of comforting familiarity, but also a noticeably different atmosphere compared to Tokyo, for example the wider streets and shorter buildings means you see more sky.

Miyajima is a small island, a 10 minute ferry ride from the mainland. It is famed for the large torri gate on the beach, which marks the entrance to a substantial shrine complex that appears to float on the water at high tide. Aforementioned high tide was a little too early in the morning for our family of late sleepers in holiday mode, but it is still an impressive sight. The port area felt buzzy rather than busy (except when we crossed paths with a party of school children) but the enormous number of eateries made me glad we had come on a weekday rather than a weekend! I did also wonder, as it got progressively quieter throughout the afternoon, if there had been a big influx of people earlier in the morning for the high tide view and we were enjoying a more peaceful visit as a result of missing the set piece event.

Hakone: A volcanic break from Tokyo

Hakone is a pretty mountain town just 90 minutes on a train from Tokyo, making it an ideal weekend getaway destination for the denizens of this mega-city. There are numerous onsen resorts (naturally heated hot springs), powered by the volcanic activity, and a cable car that takes you right over the volcano crater from where they extract the hot water and then pump it around the region! The views at the top of the cable car are impressive, and we paid ¥100 to go into a little geo museum which was fantastic and very child-friendly.

Sadly, while on a clear day, there are opportunities to see Mount Fuji from the cable car and also from Lake Ashi, on the day we visited it was blanketed by a thick cloud.


A few weeks ago I had the privilege of making a short visit to Shanghai. It was a busy trip so my best photographs are from the plane. There was also an evening river cruise which allowed me to experience the city’s stunning modern skyline, as well as its historical European-style buildings.

Sydney Harbour from a Helicopter

During our trip to Sydney last August, I had the chance to enjoy a very special birthday present from my family—a scenic helicopter tour of the city. I have strong memories of how awesomely spectacular the harbour is from upon high as a result of climbing the Harbour Bridge in 2005, despite having no photographs. That tour does not allow you to take any unattached item that could fall onto the highway below, so cameras were forbidden—even hats and glasses had to be attached by bungee cord. This helicopter ride was considerably more comfortable, and required less physical effort.

Our pilot was a friendly and chatty guide. Our knowledge of the city and its surroundings gleaned from multiple visits to Sydney, exploring by ferry and bus previously, and this trip by car, made the tour that much more exciting when we spotted our favourite haunts. The harbour and its beaches have outstanding natural beauty, and the way the city flows across the landscape is an impressive spectacle.

Modern cameras thankfully allow almost unlimited shots since there was a lot of interesting viewpoints to capture. Taking photographs was challenged by the curvature of the window, the motion, and the bright Australian conditions, so a great deal of editing work has been done since the trip and it is a pleasure to finally be able to publish these. (Click “Read More” if you do not see the photographs.)

Click to See the photographs

Cherry Blossom in Tokyo

Japan is famous for its spring cherry blossom, although seasonal variation and its popularity make it difficult to see as a tourist. I think visiting as a tourist would also run the risk of being underwhelming. What makes the sakura special is way it completely transforms and dominates the urban landscape. Run-of-the-mill parks and canals, deprived by winter of any colour, are suddenly a riotous shade of pink and white. A few weeks later, the palette is a normal green. What was also unclear to me prior to experiencing it, is that sakura is a seasonal festival, not just a natural phenomenon. Shops and cafés produce seasonal specialities, and viewing the sakura is an excuse to get out of the house and enjoy some tasty street food with friends and family, perhaps washed down with sparkling wine and strawberries.

Like most parts of the world, spring is an unreliable season in Japan. The best days are comparable to fine English summer’s day, the worst are wet like the other type of English summer’s day. (It is unsurprising to me that strawberries are also in season in Japan at the moment.) Some fine weather in early March led to an early blossom, but this was then followed by two weeks of wind and rain, and some were predicting that the petals might be blown and washed away before there was a proper chance to enjoy it. However the day before we left for Hokkaido we were blessed with a perfect day of warm sunshine and we headed to the near-by area of Nakameguro which is reputed to be one of the best spots for enjoying the blossom.

Arriving mid-morning there was already a buzzy atmosphere. While it is a popular spot, everyone is here for for the same thing—a relaxed promenade, while eating, drinking and taking photographs—it was still very pleasant. Somehow the number of people enhanced the experience rather than detracted from it—sakura is something better enjoyed with others, not alone.

Skiing in Niseko (Hokkaido) in April

Having been regaled with many tales of glorious skiing in Hokkaido (both before and since our arrival in Japan), we were keen to experience it for ourselves at the first opportunity. School broke up for the Easter holiday on 31st March when many of the resorts are already closing down, but at the beginning of March the snowfall had been good enough that Grand Hirafu in the Niseko area expected to be operating through to the Japanese Golden Week holiday in early May and so we took the gamble and booked a trip.

It was a good decision. The flight north to Sapporo was an easy 90 minutes, made more comfortable by it being a wide-bodied aircraft with 9 seats across. Collecting a hire car was also straightforward, in the sort of we have a process, and that process has been designed to cope with foreigners way that probably becomes frustrating when you have been here a while, but for which I am still new enough to the country to be grateful for. The car turned out to be essential, both because the cheap transfers from New Chitose Airport are winter-only, as well as to get between the four different ski areas (Hirafu, Annupuri, Niseko Village and Hanazono). During the main season there are high altitude ski links as well as a shuttle bus between the areas, but both had finished for the season. Luckily our car was upgraded to an SUV which allowed our rental skis to fit in too. It is worth noting that only Hirafu is a proper village with independent restaurants and shops, the others are just ski areas with few other services. In particular Niseko Village is confusingly not a village at all: it is just a collection of car parks to allow access to the lifts, and a large Hilton hotel!

Our first day on the slopes was a perfect blend of skiing through soft snow in warm sunny conditions: I had been worried that the start of spring would mean skiing on slushy-ice but actually the volume of snow here means that even when it gets a bit warmer, the snow gets denser and claggier, so it is like skiing through buttercream not ice-skating. There are a reduced number of runs available as the snow recedes in certain areas, especially lower down, but the slopes are also practically empty, so it has proven a great opportunity to have a relaxing few days of enjoying the tremendous scenery in the sunshine, exploring the different ski areas and practising techniques.

On and off the slopes, it feels like we have travelled to a different country, not just a different island within Japan! French ski resorts are busy, bustling, places squeezing as many people and buildings into whatever space the geography permits—not unlike Tokyo—but here the village has a car-centric, low-density, feel. The large number of international visitors also means that café and restaurant staff all speak excellent English, contributing to the feeling of this being an easy and relaxing holiday. The two Australian-style cafés in Hirafu village has also given us a chance to enjoy a wider variety of western-style food (and coffee!) than we have found in Tokyo—a welcome taste of home after two months away.

Too Busy To… Visual Refresh

Update: The changes described in this blogpost were reverted in September 2023 after I decided to move to a new platform and archive this site.

It has been 7 years since I last refreshed the look of this blog. Best practices for delivering a high quality (i.e. fast!) experience continue to evolve, and I wanted to use a more modern theme that would incorporate recent improvements than the default theme WordPress shipped in 2016. This time I picked a third party theme called Astra, which claims to be small and highly performant. I did look at WordPress’ latest (Twenty Twenty-Three), which has a completely redesigned customisation mode based around their blocks editing paradigm, but it was so different that it needed a great deal of customisation work, whereas Astra continues to use the older Customiser theme editor and was thus very easy to continue to use my preferred layout.

The new look is so similar to the old that I initially wondered if the change was too timid. Ultimately I decided it did give the site a more modern polish, and the wider content area works well for the photograph-based posts—now the majority of what I publish here. Unfortunately my other goal of further improving site performance, particularly on mobile, was unsuccessful, with the new theme scoring approximately the same as the old one on pagespeed.web.dev. Interestingly while Jetpack Boost was able to improve some scores this was at the cost of other metrics which are weighted higher in the overall score. This meant that using Boost actually decreased the overall score—I suspect this is the result of starting with a theme which is already well optimised, and so Boost has now been disabled.

Having chosen a lightweight theme, further page load speed improvements require reducing page generation times in the backend php, as well as eliminating javascript and css from being downloaded. Both of these can be achieved by using fewer WordPress plugins, but a WordPress site with nearly 20 years of content cannot simply turn off plugins, even if the most recent post which used them is from years ago, because when that post is part of a dynamic page (for example, when viewing a tag) then the content will not render correctly.

One last experiment to report upon before I close this post: php version. There are reports that version 8.1 of PHP features a dramatic performance improvement and my provider has recently provided a per-website PHP version selection feature and offers versions 7.4 and 8.1 alongside the default 7.3. I briefly tried version 8.1 but the scores were not significantly better for a single test, and it broke the Flickr Justified Gallery plugin which I used in many posts between 2015 and 2018. For the moment I have switched to PHP7.4 so that I am at least I am on a version which WordPress supports, and it gives me some time to figure out the best way to solve the plugin issue.

Exploring Tokyo: Omotesandō

Omotesandō is a boulevard of high-end luxury fashion shops running through the Harajuku area of Tokyo. It is possibly the highest concentration of such shops, and the busiest area of this type, I have ever seen—although that may be related to its function as a transport artery rather than the retail establishments!

I would describe Omotesandō itself as of fairly niche interest but the grid of narrow streets which lead from it are full of surprising and delightful gems—the sort of area where turning a block too early is not a mistake but a voyage of discovery. Even the most unpromising street invariably yields tiny designer boutiques, art galleries and specialist cafés such as Higuma Doughnuts or the stationery-themed, cocktail serving, Bunbougu Café.

There is an abundance of good coffee too. Bread, Espresso & serves a latte that is almost short enough to be a flat white. The drip coffee of the day at the aforementioned Higuma Doughtnuts was excellent, and LATTEST Espresso Bar was a laptop-friendly hangout that, according to their website, aims to have the world’s best female baristas.

Despite there being so much fine choice, the small size of the establishments means that every eatery seems to be busy all the time. Large queues forming at peak times on sunny weekends is perhaps expected, but we had to wait for a table for breakfast at Bread, Espresso & even at 9am on an unremarkable Tuesday. Plan ahead if you intend to visit!

Sunday in Akihabara

Another fun day of exploring Tokyo, including the incredible 7 floors of techno-heaven that is the Yodobashi Camera store. Closing the main road to traffic during the day made for a great atmosphere, and produced the opportunity for a rare panoramic photograph.

Sunset on Cottesloe Beach

We took off from a hot, parched, brown London, and arrived in a wet and green Perth. It had rained every day for at least a week before we arrived, and was forecast to continue raining but somehow, luckily, we enjoyed a fine two days of Australian spring weather (~22ºC), before the rain returned on the morning we left.

Cottesloe beach is a miles-long thin strip of brilliant white sand, backed by some brilliant playgrounds and plentiful ice-cream and coffee. In the evening we were treated to a spectacular sunset as we walked along the seafront to our dinner.

Replacing legacy web galleries while preserving links

Back in 2002 my friend, Kyle, wrote an easy to use image gallery in PHP called “phish”. It was so good that many other people on the same web server used it on their own site, and since we were all sharing a single student webserver, deploying it was a matter of copying the files from his (world-readable) home directory to your own, and he kindly licensed the code under the GPL to allow us to do that.

Twenty years later phish was, until yesterday, still being used to display the older photographs on this website. The original code was written for PHP version 4, and over the years I had made minor fixes to keep it running on modern versions. These were published on GitHub to ensure I was complying with the original licence.

The PHP language keeps moving forward and the challenge of keeping such old code working meant I had been considering for some time how to modernise these older galleries. I evaluated a few options before settling on sigal as being the simplest to use, but then hit the problem of how to preserve my incoming links. The disadvantage of running your own software may be keeping up with maintenance, but the advantage is the control it gives you when it comes to replacement. In this case, I was able to replace the phish index.php with a new script which calculates the new location of the piece of content your web browser has requested and seamlessly redirects you. Having tested all the links I could find within my own site, it seems to work pretty well but please do let me know if you spot any problems.

So what about the next migration? Sigal generates static webpages rather than creating them on-the-fly for each request but the gallery theme (photoswipe) uses Javascript and CSS to display the images and provide the navigation. In the short term I hope that sigal will continue to be maintained by its author so I do not need to do the maintenance work. Longer term, whilst I currently have no experience with Javascript, I hope I can learn enough in the future to perform the same redirection trick for its gallery parameters (the #&gid=1&pid=3 after index.html) when the time comes.

Thanks for reading and you can now visit the new (old) galleries.