New Year Feature (Part 3) – Kurashiki Canals, Japan’s Miniature Venice

Leaving the depressing gardens, we went in search of shabu shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ), because my friend was craving it. It didn’t seem such a bad idea at all. Nothing like some steaming hot broth to warm up freezing bodies, I thought.

A light rain accompanied us en-route to the shabu shabu restaurant, as we navigated through some winding (and partially hidden) alleys in search of the hotpot paradise, aided by Google Maps.

Suddenly, the heavens decided to throw a tantrum, and it started pouring buckets!!

Just then, we spotted the shabu shabu place from across the street and dashed for it, only to be greeted by a wooden sign hanging on its door that read “定休日” (meaning “designated rest day”).

We collapsed on the bench next to the entrance of the restaurant, exhausted and convinced that our day must have been cursed from the start.

There’s nowhere to go for now, because of the rain. So while waiting it out, I browsed Tripadvisor in search of the nearest place that might interest us.

I suggested this authentic (presumably) Indian/Nepalese diner that had some pretty good reviews (Besides, naan and curry were a slice of home for us). If we couldn’t have soup, something spicy could do the trick.dsc04833_blogSo there we checked in (after about half an hour of waiting), when the torrential rains slowed to a drizzle. The restaurant’s interiors are surprisingly simple, sparse even. No ornate paintings of Hindu gods hanging on the walls or wooden sculptures of Krishna or elephants.dsc04832_blogMy friend couldn’t help ogling (yes, shamelessly ogling) at the young dashing Indian waiter who served us, so much so she decided to ask for a selfie with him after we had finished our meal. The naan and curry we had were superbly done, crispy around the edges while not losing its chewy texture. And the curry was deliciously spicy – nothing too overwhelming but enough to give you that kick.

Many Indian restaurants in Japan would give you a scale of spiciness from 0 to 10 to choose from to cater to the generally low spice tolerance of Japanese.  I went with a 5 while my friend opted for a 4.

Sufficiently (and satisfyingly) fueled, we ventured out onto the streets again.

We made our way back to Okayama Station, with the smell of rain (and curry) lingering  on our noses.

Our next stop was Kurashiki (倉敷), a mandatory visit if you are in Okayama.

Only 15 minutes from Okayama Station on the JR Sanyo Line, followed by a 10-minute walk down south from Kurashiki Station along Motomachi-dori (元町道り) or via a sheltered shopping arcade that runs parallel to it, you will be instantly transported back in time to the Edo Period (1603-1867) at Kurashiki Canals (倉敷美観地区).dsc04839_blogNot quite Venice-beautiful, but nonetheless picturesque, Kurashiki Canals (倉敷美観地区) used to be an important rice distribution centre during its halcyon days.

Populated by rice storehouses, built round a network of narrow canals to facilitate transportation, these storehouses, painstakingly preserved, have been converted to museums, cafes, boutique hotels and shops selling local sweets or Japanese handicrafts.dsc04835_blogdsc04841_blogThere’s even a specialty store that sells all things sesame – you have to check it out!! We went omiyage (お土産) window-shopping, tasting the different Japanese sweets but not buying any of them. Very cheeky of us I know (and perhaps not very nice) but hey, Japanese omiyage can be very expensive!!!dsc04847_blogThere’s also the incongruously Western-looking/Romanesque Ohara Museum of Art (大原美術館), apparently Japan’s first museum of Western art, featuring works by Picasso, El Greco, Gauguin, Modigliani, Rodin, Klee, Pollock and Kandinsky among others.

We decided to skip the museum, since neither of us was into art.

My friend wanted to go on a gondola ride but it seemed like New Year’s Eve was not a day for gondola business.

One tip for visitors is to come early, because we noticed that all the shops started to close for the day at around six in the evening.

So if you arrive after sundown, there’s really nothing to see or do except to stroll along the eerily quiet canals.

But if photography (or taking selfies) is your thing, Kurashiki Canals is most alluring in the soft evening glow.        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. 😊dsc04856_blog

 

Sapporo: A Winter Wonderland

img_20170205_115802-3SNEAK PEEK: SAPPORO SNOW FESTIVAL 2017

A friend was pretty amused when I exploded in exuberant joy that I have just snagged a hotel room in Sapporo this weekend!

What’s the occasion this weekend, she asked. What do you like about Sapporo?

Well, firstly, there’s nothing to dislike about Sapporo. If I could pinpoint something, it is that there’s just too many people in this tiny city.

Secondly, what’s the occasion? It’s the eagerly anticipated Sapporo Snow Festival!!! It’s probably the biggest winter event on the Japanese calendar this side of the archipelago.

I’m not sure how many winter festivals there are in the world, but the Sapporo Snow Festival probably ranks amongst one of the most well-known.

Months before the Festival, almost all the hotels in downtown Sapporo, that is, Odori Park, Susukino and even nearby Nakajima Park, are fully booked, with most hotels charging three to four times above the average room rates. So you could imagine the exhilaration when I managed to snag one myself, one week before the Festival.

What started as a mere adolescent muck-about in Odori Park has become one of the top tourist draws for the city of Sapporo and Japan, with an expected draw of around 2 million people from across Japan and the world, the Japan Times reported.

For its 68th edition, this year’s theme revolves around TPP!!! Nah, not the trade deal that newly elected US President Donald Trump threatened to destroy. Rather, TPP stands for Trump, Pikotaro and Pokemon-Go!!

These feature heavily in many of the sculptures that dot the park, with Pikachu and Pikotaro, proving to be very popular among the sculptors. There are also several renditions of giant apple-pen and pineapple-pen combinations!!!DSC03152.JPGThe Festival is most famous for juggernaut sculptures that turn Odori Park into a whimsical winter wonderland. This year features amongst others, Nara’s 1,300-year-old Kofukuji Temple, Paris’ Arc de Triomphe (perhaps, to improve French-Japanese trade relations?), mascots for the 2017 Sapporo Asian Winter Games (which kicks off from February 19-26 in Sapporo and Obihiro), the Decisive Battle scene from popular video game Final Fantasy and the ever-popular Star Wars.dsc03141dsc03115You can also catch international sculptors from 11 participating countries including the United States,  Australia, Latvia, Finland, Thailand and Singapore in action as they vie for the grand prize.

In addition, there’s also Citizen Square, an area just outside the former Sapporo Court of Appeals that feature a series of smaller sculptures lining both sides of the pathway outside the historical landmark.

Besides Odori Park, two sister sites at Susukino and Tsudome also feature ice sculptures and snow rides for the kids respectively.

For more information, please refer to http://www.snowfes.com/english

The Sapporo Snow Festival starts from 6th February to the 12th February.   LS

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Jewel on the Elbe

DSC00354Almost entirely flattened by the Allied bombing raids in 1945, this Baroque jewel along the banks of the Elbe has risen from the ashes to become one of Europe’s most charming cities. Compact enough to explore on foot, Dresden makes for an easy day trip out of Berlin, or a quick stopover en route to Prague.

Do not expect a lot of fanfare or a vibrant nightlife though. The best way to appreciate Dresden is take it slow and let yourself be immersed in the arts, music and architecture – whether in the Zwinger Palace, the Frauenkirche and the Semperoper. Here, you can find works by Raphael, Titian, Botticelli, Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Giorgione, Vermeer, van Eyck, Veronese… In other words, Dresden is an art fanatic’s debauchery tea party!

Spend an afternoon with a book and coffee (or just people-watch) on the Brühlsche Terrasse. It’s easy to appreciate why this city bags the moniker of “Florence of the North”. Dresden is a feast for the eyes and soul. And after you’ve had your fill of the cultural spirit, it’s time to head to Altmarkt (Old Market) to satiate more earthly pleasures – and I mean, your stomach.  LS

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A Bungling Makeover

You don’t need to remind Berliners of their dark past during the Second World War or of Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany – because these reminders are scattered all around Berlin. The city is chock full of these poignant epitaphs. Interestingly though, these are the same reasons why tourists are drawn to this historic city built out of swampland. A wave of optimism now surrounds Berlin as numerous construction projects are transforming the city.

The greatest transformation, though, is in the arts and entertainment scene. The city’s clubbing scene draws exuberant crowds from all over Europe. On the streets, artists / artisans are a thriving (and blooming) species in Berlin, and the streets are their open canvas.

Along certain sections of what remains of the infamous Wall, the government is having a hard time trying to preserve a historical blight (a major tourist draw) that Berliners from both sides zealously sought to tear down a little more than a quarter century ago. Desperate to shed its post-war shackles, Berliners have indeed come a long way. Today’s Berliners are progressive, liberal and they know how to have fun!

However, the city’s ever-evolving physical landscape seems to be struggling to keep pace with its cultural evolution. As we speak, the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport – intended to replace both the Schönefeld and Tegel Airport – has become somewhat of a misnomer for German efficiency. Plagued by numerous delays, poor planning and mismanagement, the airport’s opening has been pushed back to 2018 or 2019 from its original schedule of 2010. Until the afore-mentioned construction projects are completed, these now serve more as distractions than attractions. Berlin can best be described as a “city in transition”.  LS

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