Goodbye Tomakomai

IMG_20160903_121650_HDRIt’s two days before I finally say goodbye to this apartment where I’ve spent the larger part of my two years in Tomakomai (苫小牧), Hokkaido. Looking back, I remembered during the first few months when I first arrived in this industrial city with a population of a little under 200,000, I would take train rides out every weekend, either to Sapporo or to explore the surrounding areas outside the city. That’s because short of chimneys billowing thick columns of smoke, there’s scarcely anything here in Tomakomai. It’s an ugly city.

And I hated it here.IMG_20161113_150720_HDRAs I count down to the last week in this city, I found myself re-visiting some of the places that I had initially explored when I first arrived two years ago. First up is Midorigaoka Park (緑ヶ丘公園), the largest park in the city. Tomakomai is not blessed with wonderful weather. It’s grey and cloudy most of the time. In other words, depressing! So on days when the sky’s perfectly blue and clear, and the sun is shining at its brightest, people head to the parks or to climb Mount Tarumae (樽前山).IMG_20161113_150055_HDRDuring my first visit to the park two years ago, I got lost. It was a cool late autumn evening, and I decided to explore the woods that connect to the park. But as I ventured deeper and deeper, I felt something amiss. I was the only one in the midst of the greenery. However, I kept on walking further and further into the foliage, despite the waning sunlight. What really set alarm bells ringing and prompted me to turn back was when I came across a wooden sign with the words that warn of bear sighting in this part of the woods. Terrified, I promptly retraced my steps as quickly as I could, and only breathed a sigh of relief when I heard sounds of passing traffic.IMG_20161113_152346_HDRThis time, however, I opted for a less adventurous approach. Having bought a bento box of stir-fried Chinese noodles and a can of beer from 7-Eleven, I headed to the Kintaro Pond (金太郎池), where I found a shady spot under the trees. I dug into my lunch, while watching gulls and Mandarin ducks paddling leisurely and dogs chasing after frisbees.IMG_20161113_144601_HDRSufficiently fuelled up, I ambled towards the observation tower, which offers a 360 degree panorama of the city. On a clear day, you could probably see as far as Mount Tarumae and the peaks around Lake Shikotsu (支笏湖).  But today is not the day.IMG_20170727_151403Many thoughts clouded my mind as I surveyed the scenery before me, the grid-like city layout, the ugly chimneys and billowing white smoke, the oil tankers dotting the port of Tomakomai. How did I end up here in the first place? I made a decision to take a sabbatical after getting worn out at work as a teacher in Singapore. I had become disillusioned in a job I used to love – teaching. The more years I accumulated in the teaching service, I found myself doing less of the job I was initially called to do.IMG_20180727_162553And at that time, JET seemed like the most attractive option. I had always wanted to explore living and working in Japan – and the inspiration behind this, would you believe, was after watching a Japanese TV drama called “Beach Boys” during my teenage years. That drama followed the adventures of two Japanese executives who quit their jobs and left their highly stressful urban lifestyle behind for one summer and stumbled upon a pension by the sea.IMG_20161027_074440_HDRI figured spending a couple of years in Japan could allow me to get away from the mundaneness of working life, from Singapore for a while. I must admit, a part of me had secretly wished I was posted to some rural city / town by the sea. Maybe then, I could live out the laid-back life as portrayed in that drama I watched more than 20 years ago. But a part of me was also worried about being posted to the countryside. I am such a conflicted individual. However, as it would turn out, I got neither of those. I was posted to Tomakomai.

Sometimes, I wondered if I had, as a friend put it, committed “career suicide” by coming to Japan. Would I still be able to return to Singapore and carry on working as I had used to?

If I have a second chance, would I do this JET thingy all over again?

Probably not.

Maybe if I had a more “exciting” posting (say, Sapporo, Osaka or Hakodate), maybe if I had a larger circle of JET friends, an endless list of maybes. There’s a cliché that you will often hear in JET, and that is ESID – Every Situation Is Different. Perhaps, that is true to a large extent. But ultimately, we make our own choices, given the cards we have been dealt with. There are definitely highlights from this experience, as much as regrets.

But I would not have known, if I have not tried it.

That, was my choice.     LS

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Golden Week 2018 Special Feature (Part 3) – If I Had 365 Days in Yeosu…

I would try to visit each of the 373 islands sprinkled around Yeosu (여수), Korea’s beautiful southern port city. Granted, most of these islands are uninhabited and some are just pieces of rock jutting out of the East China Sea, I may already have my work cut out. But if given the chance, I would really love to spend a year here, because Yeosu’s coastal scenery is breathtakingly gorgeous.

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Island hopping wasn’t really on my agenda on my recent visit because I only had three days there. It was also my first visit there. I had previously written about my love for Busan, but Yeosu (여수) stole my heart the first day I arrived. The entire city exudes such a relaxed vibe, so different from the crazy bustle of Seoul.

IMG_20180502_151001This vibe was perhaps best personified by the guesthouse owner, who made me feel so at home when I first checked in. I had just arrived from Suncheon (순천), wet and cold because it had been raining since morning.

With nowhere to go due to the inclement weather, I hung around the reception area, and quickly struck up a conversation with the staff (which comprises the owner and her lovely mum). She spoke little English, but with my patchy Korean, we managed to get by. One of her first questions to me was how long I intended to stay in Yeosu (여수), to which I replied “3 days”.

천천히 놀려 도돼요,” she said. (which means “You can take your time to enjoy Yeosu”).

Indeed, “천천히” (slowly) became a phrase I constantly reminded myself during my stay in Yeosu.

IMG_20180502_181656The rain eventually cleared up sometime during the evening, and I decided it’s time to explore the neighbourhood. My first stop was Yi Shun-shin Promenade, whose statue stood proudly over this coastal city. IMG_20180504_185556_1A much revered Korean admiral during the Joseon dynasty, Yi was most noted for his amazing naval tactics against the invading Japanese, in which his fleet of 13 “turtle-ships” repelled a 133-strong fleet of Japanese warships. There’s even a mock-up model of Yi’s turtle-ship,  that invites visitors to step in and experience (with life-size dioramas) how life on Yi’s ship might be like in those days as they set out to battle the Japanese.IMG_20180504_144940Yi Shun-shin Promenade was a place I would return to over the next two days, not because I had nowhere else to go but because it’s a fabulous place to wind down the day, and to truly appreciate the beauty of Yeosu. The sleepy promenade comes to life in the evening, when a long strip of red-and-white striped tents (Korea’s ubiquitous pojangmacha 포장마차) line the promenade.IMG_20180502_190604However, unlike the ones you would find in Seoul, those in Yeosu (여수) are bona fide “restaurants” in their own right, and serve mainly seafood hotplate. I joined the queue at Tent no.13, apparently a hit with the locals on Instagram. That night, despite strong gusts of wind that threatened to blow away the canvas roof at some point, I enjoyed a succulent meal, and even managed to exchange small talk with a group of locals seated at the next table.

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IMG_20180504_180729Just as prominent, the twin arched bridges that framed the promenade on either side, were places I would return over the next two days. Brilliantly lit at night, the twin arches almost formed a perfect mirror image. I probably crossed the twin bridges at least half a dozen times over the rest of my stay, examining the sights of Yeosu from different vantage points, from Dolsan Island (돌산도) to Odongdo (오동도).IMG_20180504_164309There’s also no shortage of cafes, where you could grab some excellent beans and kick back at the rooftop terrace. One of these cafes, I discovered, even doubles up as a steak restaurant. Hmmm….interesting fusion!! On my last day, after my descent from Dolsan Park (돌산공원), I just stopped by a convenience shop to grab a beer so that I could just sit outside and gaze at these beautiful bridges.

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The buses here still terrified me though, as they whizzed through heavy traffic with scant regard of road humps. For example, the bus that took me to Hyangiram Temple (향일암), a Buddhist hermitage located on the opposite end of Dolsan Island (돌산도), accomplished the journey in under 40 minutes, although according to Google, the journey would have taken 1 hour 37 minutes.IMG_20180504_103710I alighted from the bus a little shaken but I was immediately welcomed by a breath-taking view of the ocean. Perched atop a cliff, Hyangiram (향일암) is an oasis of calm. You would have to negotiate a relatively steep road, lined on both sides with restaurants and locals touting the city’s famous gat (or mustard leaf) kimchi 갓김치 before you even reach the entrance to the temple. They even offer to deliver the kimchi to your residence.

Before you begin your pilgrimage to the top, why not load up on some carbs with ganjang gejang (간장게장) – raw crabs marinated in soya sauce – a local specialty. Trust me, your bowl of rice will be gone in no time with these delicious crustaceans!!IMG_20180504_103835IMG_20180504_104015Another massive flight of stairs awaits you from the entrance to the top of the Hermitage. Fortunately, a trio of “See No Evil”, “Hear No Evil”, and “Speak No Evil” Buddha miniatures are strategically placed along the steps to offer you a brief respite, and excellent photo opportunities.IMG_20180504_105012The Hermitage is made up of a cluster of smaller temples, for which getting there is half the fun. For example, you have to pass through an extremely narrow (and dark) alley, created by nature’s forces, to get to one of the temples housing the Goddess of Mercy. Once there, you find yourself surrounded by a necklace of islands shimmering in the East China Sea.

Now if only there’s a café here as well…

천천히”      LS

IMG_20180504_114710Any images published in this article, unless otherwise stated, are owned by the author. Any unauthorised reproduction or use of these images in any form is strictly prohibited. Please kindly write to me for permission to use any of the images. Thank you very much. 😊

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Golden Week 2018 Special Feature (Part 2) – Take It Slow In Suncheon

IMG_20180429_170047_HDRSuncheon (순천) is the kind of small-to-midsize suburban city that would probably not feature very high (if, at all) on the list of one’s travel itinerary in South Korea. With a population of just under 300,000, Suncheon is only the third largest city out of five that collectively form the South Jeolla Province, or Jeollanam-do (전라남도).

However, to a nature enthusiast, Suncheon is a biodiversity treasure. The city brands itself as the “ecological capital of Korea”, and rightly so. Boasting an area of over 25 square kilometres, the Suncheonman Bay Wetland Reserve (순천만습지) is one of the five largest coastal wetland reserves in the world.IMG_20180501_154820Here, rows of reeds stretch as far as the eye can see, and if you’re lucky, you may just catch a glimpse of some rare migratory birds such as the hooded crane, white stork and black-faced spoonbill. If not, you can still enjoy listening to the reeds rustle in the wind, and let your thoughts (and worries) drift away.

Suncheon is a place you want to enjoy slowly.

To be honest, prior to my visit, my itinerary in Suncheon was based largely on an article I had come across on Pheuron Tay’s travel blog, A Korea Travelogue. Ms Tay had written several articles on Suncheon, brilliantly detailing her travels to a few places in Suncheon. So, if you would like a more comprehensive review of the places to go in Suncheon, I would highly recommend you have a read as well.IMG_20180429_175144_HDRThis post is more of an attempt to summarise the main attractions, coupled with my personal experiences and thoughts about Suncheon as a whole.

My sincere apologies for the quality of the pictures in this post, as they were all taken using my smartphone. My once reliable Sony α 5N had decided to call it quits regrettably.

My first impressions of Suncheon upon arrival at Suncheon Station were that I might have possibly glimpsed a part of Seoul in the late 90s. Fronted by a massive roundabout, the city spreads out gradually, in rows of shop-houses no higher than four stories.IMG_20180429_184541_HDRA river (as well as a huge flyover) slices through the city almost abruptly, dividing the urban sprawl, which continues to spread out on the opposite bank of the river. While glitzy motels with neon signs blaze at night on one bank, the opposite bank is almost in a perpetual blackout, save for a long column of restaurants that run parallel to the river.

Here, you can savour some of the best gourmet fare that Suncheon has to offer.

The city is famous for mudskipper (a species that can be found in abundance in the Bay) soup, hanjeongsik (한정식), or a full-course meal filled with yummy side dishes.

However, it was to the warm comforts of a bowl of piping hot dwaeji-gukbap (돼지국밥), or pork-and-rice soup that local residents flocked to on this chilly spring evening during my visit. Take note, though, that the pork slices in the soup are often mixed with pig intestines, liver, kidney or other entrails, in case you are not a big fan of animal innards.

I loved them!!IMG_20180429_190520_HDRIMG_20180501_184214On the other hand, despite its purported health benefits, my first experience of the mudskipper soup (pictured above) wasn’t all that exciting. I had ordered the soup, as part of a hanjeongsik (한정식), but the fishy taste of the soup didn’t sit quite well with my taste buds.

Suncheon fare is not all meat and mudskippers though. In fact, it is surprisingly rich in greens. You can order a wild vegetables hanjeongsik (산채한정식), which translates literally as the “wild vegetables full course meal”, with some over 20 side dishes of vegetables freshly harvested from the mountains.

And the best place to savour one of these is right after your pilgrimage to Seonam-sa (선암사), a Buddhist temple. The 1 km hike to the temple grounds from the bus stop is about as delightful as exploring the temple itself.IMG_20180430_105538If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even continue on from the temple to the peaks of Mt. Jogyesan before finishing at another temple, Songgwang-sa (송광사). If you intend to do the full course, leave early so that you can reach the other temple before sundown.

The temples also offer accommodation if you book in advance. However, do note that Koreans usually do temple stays to purify themselves, or simply to escape the bustle of city life for a quieter, more meditative environment. Be prepared to observe strict ground rules and attend Buddhist rituals if you choose to stay.

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Temples are not the only places in Suncheon where you can immerse yourself in quiet contemplation.

I stumbled upon a spanking new café with a rusting industrial feel, and sipped gourmet beans as I people-watched. It seemed like a gathering space for the city’s young and trendy. A rare sight in an increasingly greying city.IMG_20180429_184004_HDRIMG_20180429_180812_HDR

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I let my thoughts drift away as I wandered among the straw houses at Naganeupseong Folk Village (낙안읍성), imagining what life might have been in an era gone by. The photos in this post do no justice at all to the splendour of this historical castle town. I would suggest you pop by over Ms Tay’s blog for more stunning pictures and a beautiful review of the place.

IMG_20180430_163948_editI paused to do panoramic shots at every knoll I “circled” in the artfully manicured landscapes by renowned postmodern American landscape architect, Charles Jencks, at the Suncheon Bay National Garden (순천만국가정원).

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I trudged up every winding staircase and narrow alley at the Suncheon Open Film Location (순천 드라마 촬영장) to steal glimpses of daily life in Seoul in the 1960s, right up to the early 90s.IMG_20180502_111253_HDRI even relived my Street Fighter adolescence at the local arcade there. Boy, did I suck at using Ryu. I didn’t fare much better with M. Bison either. It cost me a grand total of 1,000 won for two tokens, but brought back a ton of memories.IMG_20180502_104616_HDR

If not for the dare-devil buses (equally crazy and reckless as the ones in Seoul, if not more so), that remind you that you are still very much in Korea, Suncheon is a place where you should really take it slowly, almost contemplatively.    LS

Any images published in this article, unless otherwise stated, are owned by the author. Any unauthorised reproduction or use of these images in any form is strictly prohibited. Please kindly write to me for permission to use any of the images. Thank you very much. 😊

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Golden Week 2018 Special Feature (Part 1) – Hongdae in a Heartbeat

Hongdae is never the same.

Every time I visit Seoul, there’s no other place I would rather base myself at than in Hongdae (I stayed in Mangwon during my first visit there five years ago). The reason?

Firstly, guesthouses or backpackers’ hostels are aplenty here, and features some of the city’s more stylish and hippest ones too.

Secondly, you are smack right in the middle of possibly the most “happening” districts in Seoul. Hongdae is the heart of Seoul’s youth culture, and possibly a few subcultures as well. The district is abuzz with people (mostly teenagers, college students and young working adults in their twenties), pubs, cafes and restaurants .

Speaking of which, I realised during my second visit in November 2014, that my favourite chicken and beer restaurant, endearingly called 치맥 (read as “chimaek” by the locals) has vanished without a trace during my second visit. And for subsequent visits, I also realised that some other shops have gone. Longevity is a real issue here in Hongdae. Because of stiff competition and high rental leases, today’s “go-to” pub / restaurant / café quickly becomes nothing more than a memory tomorrow.

Hongdae is never the same.

Even the people that frequents this area of Seoul has decidedly changed over the years.

These days, the crowds have become more varied, not only in terms of age groups, but also more cosmopolitan. When in the past, you are more likely to find enclaves of foreign tourists in specific areas (for example, Americans in US-millitary stronghold Itaewon, Asians in Insadong or Myeongdong). Today’s Hongdae draws an increasingly international hoard. It is a hive of activity here almost 24 hours a day, and even more so on weekends, when buskers (mostly “K-pop idol” hopefuls in their twenties) draw huge audiences and cause massive “traffic jams”.

IMG_20180427_175013Likewise, during my most recent visit, I have chosen to base myself in Hongdae. Stepping out of Exit 3 of Hongik University Station to Yeonnam-dong, I was greeted by a familiar vibrancy. Groups of young Koreans sat on picnic mats strewn across a long green patch of lawn. I dragged my suitcase past trendy cafes, where people not only congregate to chat and have coffee, but also to see and be seen. And just as I was about to turn the corner to cross the street, I discovered that Yeonnam-dong has changed too. A section of the road at the end has now been completely paved over, and now spots an artfully designed water feature and sculpture installation.

Hongdae is never the same. But I will always choose to stay here in a heartbeat.    LS

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Spirited Away (Part 3)

DSC04240The sprawling grounds of Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera, coupled with its abundant spiritual energy, makes it a top draw among ‘power spot’ hunters. But what if you could visit a whole city and feel the same positive energy throughout the city?

Look no further than Nara (奈良), Japan’s ancient capital before Kyoto, and home to some of the oldest and most magnificent Buddhist temples in Japan. Less than an hour from either Kyoto or Osaka, Nara can easily be covered as a day trip or if you have some time to spare, spend a night or two in this peaceful spiritual enclave.

A Google search on “Attractions in Nara” will probably turn up more than a dozen results on Buddhist temples and “tourist brochure”-eating deers. In fact, so brazen are these deer that a recent article in the newspapers warned tourists against these deer and attempted to educate the same tourists how to use sign language to convince these roving (and hungry) stags that they have no more food in their hands. Remember, like us, a hungry deer can become an angry deer, no matter how cute they may be.

But we’re not here to talk about deer, are we?

Tōdai-ji, Nara

DSC04183Now, if time is of the essence, skip all other temples and head straight to Todaiji (東大寺), home to possibly the largest temple in Japan constructed entirely out of wood. It also houses a massive 15-metre tall Buddha (or the Daibutsu), the largest in Japan.

DSC04186The real ‘spiritual’ experience, however, is not only found at Todaiji (東大寺), but also in slowly exploring the vast temple grounds, which overlaps much of Nara Park (where the hungry deer freely roam). Take a leisurely stroll through the adjacent smaller temples like the Nigatsudo Hall, the Hokkedo Hall, the Kaidanin Temple, the beautiful foothills of Wakakusayama (which can be covered in a short hike). Feel your skin glow and spirits awakened in this oasis of zen.

DSC04222DSC04259On the way back to JR Nara Station, you will also pass Nara’s most celebrated Shinto shrine, the Kasuga Taisha (春日大社), with its enchanting stone lanterns. If you have a penchant for Japanese Buddhist art, pop by the Western-styled Nara National Museum. Finally, the two-hour circuit ends at Nara’s iconic symbol, the Kofukuji (興福寺), built in AD710 and its name literally translates as “the temple that generates blessings”. What a way to end off your spiritual sojourn!    LS

DSC04270Any images published in this article, unless otherwise stated, are owned by the author. Any unauthorised reproduction or use of these images in any form is strictly prohibited. Please kindly write to me for permission to use any of the images. Thank you very much. 😊

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Spirited Away (Part 2)

Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto

DSC03862From those previous two experiences at the Fuji Sengen Shrine and the Fushimi-inari Shrine, I realised that perhaps, I am more sensitive to the ‘spiritual’ aura of a place. At the risk of sounding bonkers or hallucinatory, especially to those skeptical of the existence of ghosts or the paranormal, I shall let you, the reader decide if you believe or not.

Of course, not all temples and shrines in Japan are spooky. Take Kyoto, for example. Feudal Japan’s ancient capital probably has the largest concentration of temples and shrines in a single city. However, on one of my visits to a temple, a Buddhist monk actually told me a very interesting fact about the temples in Kyoto.  According to him, many of these temples have a secondary function. They serve as auxiliary military outposts, where armies can be gathered / hidden, and also from which armies can be deployed to launch a surprise attack on the enemy.

DSC03845Many temple grounds in Kyoto are uncannily palatial and are often built with ‘secret’ chambers or passageways. I’m not sure about your reaction but a light bulb instantly switched on in my head when I heard this. Of course it all makes sense to me now!! Temples are not only meant for monks or shinto priests. They may even have served as the secret hideouts of fugitive lords.

Many temples and shrines in Kyoto are designed like forts, if you think about it. Consider Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺, literally “Pure Water Temple”), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A long passageway lined with stalls (i.e. the Higashiyama District) is now a bustling tourist attraction. However, during the days of yore, it may have served as both a merchant town and important ‘refueling’ stop for the feudal lord’s army. Kiyomizu-dera’s outstanding feature, a massive wooden stage that offers spectacular views of the old capital, could have served the dual role of a lookout in its halcyon days.

DSC03857Looking out from the stage, you can feel the calmness and serenity of the vast temple grounds. The same tranquillity can be keenly felt in the other shrines and features, for example, the Jishu Shrine famous for its matchmaking prowess, the Otowa Waterfall, whose waters are said to bestow longevity and prosperity, or the vermilion Zuigudo Hall. The positive energy that exudes from Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺) makes this a powerful ‘spiritual spot’ in Kyoto.   LS

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(to be continued in Part 3)

Any images published in this article, unless otherwise stated, are owned by the author. Any unauthorised reproduction or use of these images in any form is strictly prohibited. Please kindly write to me for permission to use any of the images. Thank you very much. 😊

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Spirited Away (Part 1)

DSC03904I’ve been toying with the idea of this post for a while, but haven’t really got down to penning it until today. Spring vacation has just started, and it’s a much needed welcome change to see more of the sun. It’s also a time for many going away for short trips to recharge their batteries.

I’m not sure how this idea fits in with spring or cherry blossoms but nevertheless, if you’re planning to visit these spots, just read this with a light heart. What’s all this mystery ’bout, these spots, you might ask. I’m of course referring to power spots in Japan. Now you may have come cross this term from your research on the Internet, Tripadvisor or Lonely Planet. So I’m going to put forth a few disclaimers before we dive right into them.

Disclaimers:-

1. The term “power spot” started gaining traction in Japan since the 1990s, and as defined by All About Japan.com, these are sites that exude a particular energy based on concepts of feng shui. You don’t have to possess a ‘sixth sense’ to feel this spiritual energy. The site goes on to list the top 20 power spots in Japan. Now, this post is not about those ‘power spots’, although some of the listed sites may also be classed as such. Therefore, I would like to propose the term “spiritual spots” when referring to the spots I’m going to introduce in this post.

2. Those who are familiar with the concept of ‘power spots’, or who have read articles on them may find that the sites I’ve listed are not the same as the ones they have read or come across. Again, let me reiterate that I would prefer to call these sites “spiritual spots” instead of “power spots”. These sites do exude a particular energy. However, this energy may not be the positive energy associated with ‘power spots’. In other words, or in more layman terms, some of these sites are possibly ‘haunted’.

3. The experiences at these ‘spiritual spots’ are personal and are based on my own experiences on my travels. However, based on other articles I’ve read or researched, I can say with a certain degree of authority that these experiences are legitimate. You, the reader, have the choice to believe it or not.

4. It’s no surprise that many of the spots listed in this post are temples or shrines. After all, many of these revered places of worship have a history dating back hundreds or even a thousand years. In addition, many temples and shrines also serve as the final resting places of the deceased. Temples and shrines are used to refer distinctly to Buddhist (temples) and Shinto (shrines) respectively.

With these disclaimers in place, let’s jump right into these sites.

(Kitaguchi Honguu) Fuji Sengen Shrine, Yamanashi Prefecture

IMG_4306I first visited Japan in December 2011. That was also the year of the Great East Japan Earthquake that decimated a huge area of the Tohoku region and placed Japan on every traveler’s warning list for countries to avoid, not so much due to the possibility of another major earthquake or tsunami but rather the nuclear fallout from the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in Sendai. However, I went against convention because air tickets to Japan plummeted that year. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of finally visiting the country of my dreams.

Like any first-time visitor to Japan, I headed to Tokyo and took a day trip out to see Mount Fuji. Knowing that it’s early winter, and that hiking trails to Mt. Fuji were closed, the sole purpose of my visit was just to see Mt. Fuji from afar and to explore the Five Lakes area round Mt. Fuji, that is, Kawaguchiko (河口湖).

IMG_4269Not sure how this shrine appeared on my itinerary, but I remembered reading about it somewhere that the entrance to one of the hiking trails to Mt. Fuji actually starts from the shrine’s backyard. Sounds like an interesting place to explore, doesn’t it? A Japanese colleague to whom I recently spoke to about this shrine as a ‘spiritual spot’ did a search on the Internet, and burst out in laughter. Apparently, according to what he found online, this place is also famous as a “love shrine” – one of those shrines that are popular with women seeking a romantic or marriage partner. Hmmm…from these pictures I took, I could never have known. Could you?

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Fushimi-inari Shrine, Kyoto

DSC03890I know what you’re thinking when you see this name. Of course, this has to be a ‘power spot’. This is probably one of the top three most popular shrines in Kyoto, and possibly also the most photographed besides the Golden Pavilion Temple. However, I would like to offer my own take on this shrine to you. This shrine is really really creepy!!

Most tourists to Fushimi-inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社) are fascinated by the thousands of crimson and vermilion torii gates that wound around the hill on which the shrine is situated. Do you also know that many tourists do not make it past the half-way mark up the hill? Because, frankly speaking, the shrine grounds are huge, and the trek up the hill takes some effort. Most tourists make it as far as a pond which leads to a cave-like path that is dotted with fox (or kitsune) figurines. I say “cave-like” because the fox shrine is dark even during daytime. There’s even an urban myth that you should not go beyond this point.

For those who have, however, you will soon reach a cemetery built on the hillside, so there are steps leading to the tombstones, many of which are guarded by these fox figurines. Foxes or kitsune, have a long storied history in Japanese folklore. They are believed to possess supernatural abilities and are said to be able to shape-shift, taking on human forms. Some stories tell of fox spirits with nine tails, and possessing wisdom and magical powers. You can easily do a search online for spooky tales regarding these parts of the Fushimi-inari Shrine.

My own experience tells me that perhaps on hindsight, I should not have taken pictures here. I definitely felt the creeps here, and ‘power spot’ or not, I would advise you to be very respectful if you’re exploring these parts of the shrine.    LS

DSC03942Any images published in this article, unless otherwise stated, are owned by the author. Any unauthorised reproduction or use of these images in any form is strictly prohibited. Please kindly write to me for permission to use any of the images. Thank you very much. 😊

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(to be continued in Part 2)

Hokkaido, Is Home

IMG_20180216_150556It’s that time of the year again, when winter puts up a valiant fight with spring in a tenacious tug-of-war that manifests itself in the daily temperatures in Japan. Last week saw a violent blizzard pummel the whole of Hokkaido, forcing schools to close and kids to stay at home. (Teachers, of course, report for work as usual. Don’t ask me why, because this is Japan. Logic doesn’t hold much sway here).

That same weekend, in the aftermath of the blizzard, temperatures rose across Japan, hitting as high as 21 degrees Celsius in Kagoshima. To put things in perspective, 21 degrees is equivalent to early summer temperatures in Kyushu. But we are still, apparently, in the throes of winter.

IMG_20180129_081012I can’t wait for winter to pass. Winter sucks. I hate being woken up by frozen toes in the early hours of the morning. I’m sick of having to do a merry dance to the toilet, which for some reason only the architects in Japan know, is situated next to the door to my apartment. I resent having to pile layer upon layer of clothing, and yet my fingers still freeze every time I head out. In a nutshell, I hate winter, and I’m more than happy to see the last of it. Yet, every evening when I watch the news on TV, I’m reminded that I live in Hokkaido, where winter lasts half a year. Even as daily temperatures rose across Japan, here in Hokkaido, we are still mired in sub-zero temperatures.

But Hokkaido is winter. Winter is Hokkaido.

IMG_20180211_210634Its powder draws avid skiers and snowboarders around the world to its numerous ski resorts. The annual Sapporo Snow Festival is a top tourist draw, transforming Odori Park into a winter wonderland. Many cities and towns in Hokkaido, too, have their own mini version of snow / ice / winter festivals, not so much to celebrate the cold as to find an excuse for debauchery.

IMG_20180210_131734In February this year, the Winter Olympics was held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Olympic fever gripped Japan, its athletes dominating daily news headlines in a country that is always eager to celebrate and worship sporting excellence. The press hailed the graceful performances of male figure-skating champion Hanyu Yuzuru and praised female speed skater Nao Kodaira for her display of sportsmanship in embracing a tearful Lee Sang-hwa.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter OlympicsChinami Yoshida (second from right) celebrates with Japanese skip, Satsuki Fujisawa and other members of the Women’s Olympic Curling Team after edging Britain to the bronze medal at the Pyeongchang Olympics, South Korea. Source: Reuters Pictures.

Hokkaido, too, crowned its own sporting champions. A group of young women from a nondescript city in Hokkaido propelled the profile of a nondescript winter sport (at least where Japan is concerned) to the national psyche. That sport, in question, is curling.

The Japan Women’s Olympic Curling Team may have only bagged a bronze medal in Pyeongchang, but their sporting achievements have struck gold back home. All five members on the team hailed from Kitami, a city with a population of just under 120,000. Average attendance in the city’s curling facility spiked during the Games. In the city’s souvenir and pastry shops, you can find the cherubic faces of the women curlers plastered all over boxes of Kitami omiyage, including the cheese cake that the ladies were filmed snacking on during their breaks. There’s even a shrine where you can pick up an omikuji (a Japanese fortune-telling charm) in the shape of a curling stone.

curling charmsSource: Kyodo News.

In the words of Chinami Yoshida, a member of the Women’s Olympic Curling Team (pictured above): “Never in my dreams did I imagine that one day, I would be an Olympic champion. In this town where there is basically nothing. However, I’ve learnt that it doesn’t matter where you’re from. It matters to have a dream. And that dreams do come true.”

I definitely do not share the same lofty ambitions or dreams as Chinami, but I do remember that my personal little dream is to experience living and working in Japan since deciding to study the language more seriously more than five years ago. Cliché as this may sound, I’m currently “living my dream”. In addition, I’m living in Hokkaido, a popular holiday destination choice among my fellow countrymen back home. Yet, here I am, lamenting the freezing winters in Hokkaido. I suddenly realized I have many reasons to celebrate and to be thankful, even in the freezing depths of winter.

Like the people of Hokkaido, I find myself unconsciously cheering for the curling team as one of my own. And as much as I hate the cold and the fact that we have six months of winter here in Hokkaido, I’ve also come to realise that Hokkaido, is home.   LS

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More Time For R&R

DSC04429Winter used to be my favourite season when I was working as a professional teacher in Singapore. This is because in Singapore, we have no winter. More importantly, as a teacher in a public school, winter marks the start of the “travel season” as the academic calendar draws to a close by mid-November. The “luckier” ones would have already jetted off by the last week of November. However, for most teachers, CCA commitments (i.e. sports teams and club activities) and numerous meetings (end-of-year reviews, staff planning, department meetings, CCA meetings, etc. etc.) are often packed into the last two weeks of November. Since 2011, I have spent all my “winters” overseas – five of them, in Japan. DSC04506Going into my third winter in Hokkaido, (the first came in 2015 before I went on the JET programme) winter now actually marks the end of my “travel season” as the daily sub-zero temperatures here made travelling less enticing, even potentially dangerous. Of course, as a tourist in Japan, you don’t really worry about blizzards or care about the biting cold. If I’m being honest, in those days prior to living in Hokkaido, I might have secretly welcomed it. These days, I spent most weekends at home, in front of the heater. Even a trip to the local supermarket or the launderette becomes a battle of wills. On weekends like these, I like to reminisce about the places I have visited in the past year.DSC04474On this note, I will leave you with some snaps from my most recent trip to Wakkanai, and the islands of Rishiri (利尻島) and Rebun (礼文島)To say I’ve been to Rishiri and Rebun (R&R) would be stretching it since I actually only had time to scratch the area around the ferry terminal, thanks to a combination of my own ignorance/optimism and the infrequent ferry timings.

For those who love off-the-beaten-track itineraries, these two tiny islands off the coast of Wakkanai are definitely up your alley! Don’t forget to pencil in a few days on each island because even though the islands are tiny, they are not small enough to make a round trip on foot.DSC04505By the way, the snow-capped/cloud-covered peak that featured on the packaging of the ubiquitous Shiroikoibito or 白色恋人 cookies (a souvenir synonymous with Hokkaido) is actually that of Mount Rishiri.

Another noteworthy tip is to schedule your trip in summer because you will get to savour some of the freshest uni (i.e. sea urchin) and seafood that Hokkaido has to offer. In fact, it is said that R&R probably offer the most delicious uni in Japan. I learnt this the hard way of course, as I visited in October this year, only to be told that uni was not in season.I had to settle for another of their famed delicacy, the “hokke chan chan yaki” or grilled fish in miso sauce.

As for Wakkanai, I found it to be rather disappointing. I did enjoy catching the sunset at Cape Soya though, a saving grace in my humble opinion. Otherwise, I would recommend that you plan your trip with one of these two islands (or both if time permits) as your base, instead of Wakkanai.   LSDSC04438

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A Whirlwind Trip to Kawayu

DSC04308I’m sitting here at my kotatsu typing away instead of being at school. The reason, Typhoon No. 21. Just when you thought typhoon season is over, here comes a humongous one to take the stuffing out of you. And of course, bearing in mind that this is Japan – typhoons love this long strip of archipelago for some reason. So here I am, typing away as the winds howl like the wolves outside, and the rains pelt my windows with a vengeance that sometimes have me wondering if I should start taping them. Or maybe it’s too late for that anyway…

DSC04244Living in Japan has taught me to be grateful for the weather, and to constantly check it every day. That has become one of the main reasons I tune in to the news broadcasts every night. While many Japanese watch the news for developments ahead of the upcoming Lower House General Elections (okay, perhaps not), which concluded last night with a sweeping victory for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling LDP party, I was more concerned about the rampaging advances of Typhoon No.21.

DSC04259DSC04264In September, another typhoon (Typhoon Talim) had forced me to cut short my long weekend trip to the Kawayu Onsen area. To sum up that trip, I never had a chance to explore the beautiful Kawayu area in depth except for a sightseeing bus tour – which was exactly that, you stayed on the bus mostly save for 15-minute stops at Lake Mashu and the sulfurous Io Valley). I never took a dip in any of the popular onsens here either (save for a 10-min bath).

Well, I guess I had other things to give thanks for. I made a couple of new friends (both from Taiwan), who turned out to be great travel companions even for that half a day. I also managed to get a refund on a night’s stay from the owner of the pension where I was staying. We had  a lengthy ding-dong over email explaining my reasons for cutting my stay short, and I’m thankful that he had been kind and understanding. And last but not least, I’m grateful to salvage a few good shots from my trip, given the less than pleasant weather from the approaching storm.   LS

P.S.: My apartment windows are still rattling from Super Typhoon Lan right now. What a name…if only you know what the name means in the Chinese vernacular…

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