Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Turning Japanese Part 2: where to go and what to do

Turning Japanese: I really thought so.

During my time in Japan, I learnt Japanese - had a lot of interesting friendships and travelled widely... here's where I would recommend:


Forget Tokyo (well you can't really miss it, and you'll probably have to escape it on your way through Narita Airport), but Osaka is a city alive. Osaka got all the character that Tokyo was missing. It's people are more approachable and are famed for their 'Kansai' sense of humour. This is a better city to base yourself from as there's a greater range of the core Japanese cities in range of Osaka, add to this the lack of radiation and the more relaxed sensibilities and it's where I'd choose.  It was the city in which 'Black Rain' is based and sits between Kobe (of 1995 earthquake fame) and Kyoto, which brings me to...


Kyoto is the old city and houses all the famous temples and castles. The asute will have already spotted that To-Kyo and Kyo-To are actually the same but reversed. Toyko took over from Kyoto as the major city just prior to the end of the samurai age (1868). The city only requires a day, but this is prime photo territory and some of those temples are exquisite.

I was taken around in a cramped bus (double decker bus squeezed into a single story to meet height restrictions), I'm 5'8" and I felt cramped!  That way you get to see 6+ temples in a day.  While in Kyoto, you may want to try out the Ofuro or hot pools, and maybe go for some Geisha action (except don't expect much action) ... that's if you have more money than God herself.

Either that, or stick to the tourist stuff and get your relaxation in another city!


One of my first film experiences of Japan (Manga only hit the UK in my early teens) was "You only Live Twice".  The whole concept of the story (outside the main characters of Bond, Kitty, Tiger and Blofelt) was entirely created and scripted by Roahl Dahl (yes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory blokey!)... which is pretty common knowledge, but to turn a fairly silly book (Garden of Death - pah!), with faintly racist stereotypes into such a tour-de-force was a masterpiece.

I don't know if super-villains camped in volcanoes before YoLT, but every mega-baddy from The Man from Uncle to the Incredibles has since. Lets be realistic, LEGO sold an awful lot of yellow, red and white spacemen based purely not the iconic visuals of that underground base and it was the first time I'd seen a NINJA as well (although they were dressed in grey and looked pretty ungainly really!)

Speaking of Ninja's, well remember the 'Secret Ninja training facility' in the film, well that's Himeji-Jo (Jo means castle or fort).  It's actually (in true bondy style) the most famous castle in Japan.  Unlike most castles though, it's actually fairly intact, very beautiful and appears in half the Japanese films as 'stock mighty fortress' - well worth a detour.


Further down the main island lies the beautiful town of Hiroshima. Unlike other Japanese cities Hiroshima was designed with a beautiful park (called the Heiwa Coen, or Peace Park) at it's centre. Natural greenery is largely missing from most Japanese cities and it brings a most London or New York-esque feel.
Oh yeah, and the Yanks dropped a huge bomb on it. Visiting Hiroshima is also about visiting the Peace museum, it takes about 4 hours to digest the sheer mass of human misery that one bomb did and it leaves you numb, shaken and not a little bit sympathetic to the people of Hiroshima. Luckily Hiroshimans are affable and very pleasent people. While they housed a dark history and deep wounds, they're city is beautiful and they have a very spiritual outlook.

While in Hiroshima, don't forget to cross the bay to the Miyajima and visit the enormous shrine in the bay. Stunning.


And that's it - short but sweet.  I travelled widely and off the beaten path, but these are the icons that stick in my head 15 years on.

Go to Japan someday, it is so worth it.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Bovington Tank Museum Showcase: Photo Heavy!

Welcome to Europe's Largest Tank Museum! Last weekend, the whole family travelled a significant distance down to Bovington and visited the tank museum. Now, my little boy its insane about tanks, as he is insane about Aeroplanes (hence the visit to Duxford - a lot closer).

Bovington is a biblically amazing museum, it's well arranged and full of 'uber-geek' WW2, cold war and anti terrorist tech. The only thing that outdoes the tanks (ok - does anything outdo a tank?) is the random and brilliant information, audio diaries and videos surrounding them that really flesh out the development, design and operation of these beasties.

Prepare for a tanky tour-de force!

Area 1 - WW1 trenches.

This area explains the origin of the tank in being what Winston Churchill (not yet a sir) described as a mechanical solution to the machined-gun and entrenched warfare. Tanks made trenches (in a stalemate WW1 sense) redundant. And there no better explanation then from Dan and Peter Snow:

SO tanks came on the scene, but they were dreadful affairs. Just like with aircraft and ships, tanks were transformed by the second world war. Going from very tinpot contraptions, the ambitions and impressive technical reach of the Germans forced everyone to rethink their strategies AND their tanks as well.

So, on to the tanks!

The North American Contingent

My wife, mother in law and daughter in front of a M4 Sherman Firefly. The Sherman was a tank fit to fight panzer 2's and 3's and unable to compete with the heavy armour the Germans had in the Panther, Tiger and Tank hunter categories. Clearly they'd listened to Stalin, but in this case the 'quantity is its own quality' was mispaced. Tankers estimated that it took 5 Shermans to bring down a single tiger... the audio history beside this tank highlights the story of one Tommy (British soldier) who took down three tigers from cover in his firefly. In a straight up fight, without ambush, the Tiger surpassed the Firefly easily.

The M3 Lee. Montgomery rode one in North Africa (in the Imperial War Museum), but this tank is the last of the 'duel gun' tanks. Put simply, it never really worked very well. Monty's Lee was stripped out inside and the height gave him a decent viewing platform.

An M5 Stuart light tank, a scout designed for spotting and reporting locations. Quick and agile, but note still the height of the units, making them easier to immobilised or hit.

An M10 Wolverine, America's original Answer to the tigers and tank hunters of the Reich. To put this in context, the Wolvering has 37mm of armour compared to the Jadgtigers 250mm. M10 were better than Firefly's and with the British 17 pounder gun (the Achilles), it could hurt the enemy ... but it wasn't designed to 'face down' enemy tanks like the German versions.

Classic early M4 (note the smooth shoulders), the Germans nicknamed them 'Tommy boilers' as they could cook one up with a single shot to the front armour - hardly ideal!

This is a Canadian variant on the Sherman called the RAM II. It's up-armoured but slower, and the standard 6 pounder seems to be missing the point.

This was one of my favourite finds of the day. It's a retrograded RAM II, which was called the Kangaroo. It's a good example of an allied APC ... and it's a beaut!
M22 Locust scout tank - very fast and low compared to the M5 - the Americans are learning from the Germans.
My favourite US tank, the M26 Pershing. This is a very pretty tank which is really the cumulation of American WW2 experience in tank design. Deployed to late to be any real use in Europe of the Pacific theatre, this tank proved it's mettle in Korea.

And finally ... what do you get if you sell a American tank to the Brits? You get a funny. The shroud around this M4 Sherman allows it to float ... err ish. It could drive and steer onto the beach using propellers ... but it wasn't really a practical beach-head option. A good friend of mine's father came ashore on D-Day in one of these and in his words ... pretty terrifying.

British Tanks

In many ways the British were even further behind the Americans in WW2. While pre-war we led the world in tank development (and had invented the 'tank' in WW2 - tank was originally a 'codeword' to disguise the top secret deployment ... but British codeword were like that in WW1 and 2 ... it's amazing we got away with it really - for some biblically good reading on British Warfare cheating and double-crossing (and we were the best!) read "Churchills Wizards".

Speaking of Churchills - here's one. This is the Crocodile, an enormous heavy Churchill tank - modified into a flamethrower tank ... nice. Note how this design looks archaic compared to the Tiger and KingTiger later.

Another Churchill, but this one mounts a weapon familiar to all 40k players ... its a real life demolisher cannon. Or in this case a reallife siege mortar. This tank was designed to roll up to bunkers and pillboxes and then give them what-for with a cracking range of ... wait for it ... 80 feet.

The apex-ish of British design ... remember most 'British tanks' were actually yank imports which we finished paying for in like 2001 ... bah! The Comet was good, but not the lack of sloped armour etc...
The B1 Char - Frances great hope. Too long in development and completely missing the point, it was too slow, too complicated to handle and too many guns. These monsters (and they are very well armoured) were completely outclassed by the Panzer2 and 3's of the Blitzkrieg. While they guarded the German border ... The Panzer's burst through Belgium and took France in two month ... Facepalm moment Frenchy.

USSR (or Russia to the kiddies)

Ironically, whilst the Russian's were caught on the hop but the German offensive, their development of tanks streaked into the lead really. Never comfortable, never accurate, technically inferior to German tanks - they still created many of the most effective designs of the war ... and in such numbers which such innovative combined tactics. Genius.

The T34-85 is a very distinctive tank and well perfection really. Until the arrival of the Panther (which was designed by the Germans based upon the T34) ... this was the premier tank on the eastern front. It was durable, well enough armoured and well 'sloped'. It was superior to the Panzer 2's and 3's, could challenge Panzer 4's and swamp the Tiger. It was the mainstay of the Russian army and a pleasure to look at.

KV1B - The Russian Monster.

This tank is a beast, Almost twice as tall as a T34, nothing below a panzer 4 could touch this armour ... and the guns it could mount were devastating. Horribly slow and horribly clunky, with dreadful maneurvability and turret traverses, but tough. Never confuse this with a Tiger ... but as a complimentary tank to the T34 ... is was.

SU76 - tinpot, creepy, crappy and yet effective. This tank is part of the bread and butter of how the Russians fight. They mobile artillery, whether direct fire like this or howitzers (like the SU26 or SU5) could and would cause devastation to german lines... they were cheap, disposable and devastating in numbers.

WW2 Germany.

There are a lot of things for Germans to feel a fair amount of guilt for in WW2, their tank design isn't one of them. They certainly did right by their men in this respect and the German designs are unarguably the best of the collection.

Panzer II ... note the crap gun ... this is an infantry support vehicle which was fast. It was a core part of the Blitzkrieg and the defeat of so many countries.

Panzer III - the posterboy of the Blitzkrieg. In early war design, this was the workhorse of the German army and had the longest operational run of all the designs. When it became redundant it would be refitted with a different role. A versatile, quick, well armoured tank ... but eclipsed by the later medium and heavy designs.

The Tiger tank. Emblem of the Reich ... it's a beast. However, note how 'square' it is. Not chance of a ricochet of that slab-sided bugger!

Panther ... glance back at the T34 and you can see the origins... it's got nearly twice the treadwidth of the panzer 3 and this tank is probably the best example of a pinnacle of german tank design. Sloped armour, wide tracks and rounded turret of the T34 meets the track superiority, engine, armour thickness and most importantly GUN of the tiger II. Awesome.

The Stug III ... a tank hunter that saw a lot of front line action. This one was captured in Finland (hence the logs attached to it's flanks for extra protection) and a slower speed?

My favourite tank - the Panzer II Luchs (or Lynx in English). This tank is tiny, outrageously quick and nimble and rides a shocking gun ... but its a scout tank. Compare this to a M5 Stuart earlier and the later M22 locust. Look familiar?

A Jadgtiger... the biggest of the 'hunting' (Jadg) class of tank hunter mobile guns. This one carried the biggest vehicle based gun (outside trains) of the war, 128mm... urkk.

Oh look, its a King Tiger ... ouch.

Anyone familiar with Call of Duty will be very familiar with these, the Germans used APC's widely, while the Allies didn't. That changed.

A Panzer 4 ... widely used and probably the best 'balanced' of the German designs ... it wasn't a brawler - but as a sniper tank it is exceptional.

Another Tiger II or King Tiger .... note the anti-magnetic paint ... street fighter.

A JadgPanzer ... little brother to the Jadgtiger ... this one could sport the dreaded 88mm (as could the Panzer 4's) and ambush from positions of strength.

The Hetzer could destroy everything in the allied armoury outside heavy tanks... and was cheap, small (about 6 ft high and 8 ft long) and easily concealed. Arguably the most successful of the tank hunters... it had 60mm of frontal armour (compared to the wolverines 37mm) at a 60 degree slope, which gave it the effective armour of 120mm. Cheap and very effective.

Modern British Warfare - Afghanistan.
Light tanks disappeared in the Cold War as 'Main Battle Tanks' or MBT's dominated the requirement. In the post 9-11 environment, MBT's are in small demand and the rise of the light tank has become a useful asset in desert patrols in Afghanistan. The Scimitar Scout tank is designed for anti-insurgent work and usually operate 10 days out in the desert before being restocked by Helicopter or a LRP convoy (like in North Africa, WW2!)

And finally, I can't remember what this is ... but it's very cool and can outpace a motorbike!

Hope you enjoyed a quick guided tour of Bovington. Well worth a visit.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

On another note, here's something inspiring...

Check out POPTECH for all your inspirational stuff.

This guy, Nathan Eagle, just WOW.

Nathan Eagle: Global mobile workforce from PopTech on Vimeo.