New Year Feature (Part 2) – Okayama’s Black Beauty

Exhausted from our pre-dawn excursions, including a two-hour maroon at a train station, we decided to sleep in on New Year’s Day, and woke up for lunch. It had been an eventful New Year’s Eve for us, having started the day as early as 8 a.m. The original plan that day had been to visit Okayama Castle (岡山城), bright and early so we could avoid the crowds.dsc04775_blogStanding majestically over the Asahi River (旭川), Okayama Castle (like many castles in Japan) is a reconstruction, the original structure having been almost totally destroyed during the Second World War. Only the Tsukimi Yagura (月見櫓), which translates literally as the “moon viewing turret”, remains from the original 1620 construction. However, what separates Okayama Castle from the others is that it is one of only two jet-black castles ever constructed in Japan, the other being Matsumoto Castle in Nagano. Their black facades have earned them the moniker “Crow Castle”.dsc04781_blogAs luck would have it, Okayama Castle was closed on New Year’s Eve. We consoled ourselves that the inside of the castle probably looked more or less like the dozen or so other castles we have already visited before, and left after taking a few selfies with the castle as backdrop.

Crossing the ugly steel bridge which connects to the castle, we arrived at Korakuen (後楽園), ranked as one of the top three most beautiful landscape gardens in Japan (the other two being Kenrokuen (兼六園) in Kanazawa (金沢) and Kairakuen (偕楽園) in Mito City (水戸市), Ibaraki Prefecture. Korakuen (後楽園) was actually one of my bucket lists of places to check off for Japan.

Except, as I stood on top of a tiny knoll (with Okayama Castle behind me) surveying the monochromatic landscape before me, I couldn’t figure out how the gardens earned its three stars in the Michelin Green Guide. In fact, I felt as if I’ve just been transported back in time to a period when all photos carry a sepia tinge.dsc04817_blogdsc04797_blogI’ve definitely seen more beautiful gardens in Kyoto and Tokyo!

Granted, the expansive lawns, ponds, intimate walking paths make for a relaxing amble. But beauty is not a description that comes first to mind. I decided to blame it on the season. After all, it’s a frigid winter morning. I’m sure a visit during summer or autumn would have done the gardens more justice.

What I did enjoy though, was sitting at one of the wooden benches littered along the banks of the Asahi River and admiring the imposingly majestic black beauty, that is Okayama Castle.dsc04826_blogI’m sure if my fingers weren’t threatening to dislodge themselves or that my belly people weren’t threatening a revolt, I would have liked to linger around longer, possibly with a cuppa in one hand and a book in the other. Summer time, perhaps.

Just then, the heavens poured.

Fat drops of rainfall on a freezing winter’s day. You couldn’t have planned this day better (sarcasm fully intended).

We took refuge at the entrance of a public restroom, looking cold, sheepish and hungry.

Our not-so-happening happening New Year’s Eve had just begun.    LS

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Farewell Japan Summer Trip 2018 (Part 1) – Majestic Himeji

I’ve finally said goodbye to Tomakomai and JET. Bizarrely, I feel somewhat relieved. Maybe, I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time. However, before I leave Japan for good, I have one last hurrah. I call it my “Farewell Japan Summer Trip”.

At the time of writing, I’m about two-thirds into my trip, and approaching the final few stops in my itinerary. However, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer, because I have so many photos I want to share from this trip. I’m not sure how many parts this travel series would work out to, so please bear with me.

Therefore, the main feature of this travel series would come in the form of short snippets and random musings, rather than a thoughtful (and lengthy) prose. In other words, less text and more images!! So enjoy!!

DSC06324Mounting Himeji

In my bucket-list of things to accomplish in Japan, one of them is to visit at least one place in each of the 47 prefectures in Japan, from north to south. My current record stands at 28, but by the end of this last trip, I hope to hit 30.

My first stop takes me to Himeji, a city I’ve always wanted to visit because of my fascination (read ‘obsession’) with castles!!

Known as the White Heron Castle or Shirasagi-jo (白鷺城) due to its elegant, white appearance, Himeji Castle (姫路城, Himeji-jō) is one of Japan’s most elegant and beautiful castles. It is also one of the first sites in Japan to be listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage sites.

However, I have one regret.

I shouldn’t have chosen summer of all seasons to visit Himeji. In general, August is the month you should do well to avoid Japan (maybe except Hokkaido, because the mercury seldom crosses the 30-degree mark).

This year, however, even Hokkaido was not spared from a massive heat wave that seared the rest of Japan.

Daily temperatures hover in the early 30s. And in Himeji, I was braving 35 degrees and sweating like a pig as I trudged up the uncountable steps in Himeji Castle.

For your info, the castle is six stories high and perched on top of a small fort. Imagine the number of stone steps you would have to climb just to scale this white bird!!

And those were not the only steps I climbed that day. The set of photos featuring Himeji Castle at sundown were taken from a knoll called Otokoyama (男山), a short walk from the park behind Himeji Castle.

After ascending a flight of about 200 stone steps, I found a spot that offered an excellent vista, waited for the sun’s dipping rays to fall on the castle and fed myself to the mosquitoes. Thankfully, the pictures were well worth the sacrifice.     LS

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Hirosaki の Hanami 弘前の花見

Golden Week in Japan is one of the most highly anticipated holiday periods in the Japanese calendar. Hotels in popular tourist destinations like Tokyo, Kyoto and Sapporo are reserved weeks or even months ahead of time. Crowds throng major cities. Locals picnic and party under cherry blossoms.

日本でのゴールデンウィークは、日本のカレンダーで最も期待される休暇の一つです。 東京、京都、札幌など人気観光地のホテルは、数週間前から数ヶ月前までに予約されています。 大都市は混雑している。 地元の人々はピクニックと桜の下でパーティーを行います。

Like the Japanese, I, too, have been looking forward to a much welcome respite from school. A chance to get out of Hokkaido and explore another part of Japan. I have never had the opportunity to travel during cherry blossom season before, so I was really pumped up for my maiden hanami experience. I opted for Hirosaki, a small city in the Aomori prefecture in Tohoku, or Northeastern Japan – rated by many travel sites as one of the top three cherry blossoms sites in Japan.

日本人のように、私も学校の休みで待っていました。 北海道をでかけて日本の別の地域を探索するチャンス。 私はかつて桜の季節に旅行する機会がなかったので、私は初めの花見体験のために本当にわくわくした 東北の青森県の小都市、弘前は、日本のトップ3の桜のサイトの一つとして数多くの旅行サイトで評価しました。DSC03311Located southwest of Aomori City, Hirosaki is about a 45-minute train ride away. The small city of just under 200,000 people was built around the Hirosaki Castle (弘前城), a three-storey keep surrounded by a fortified moat. With more than 2,500 cherry blossoms trees surrounding the moat and castle, Hirosaki Park makes for one of the most spectacular hanami sites come spring.

青森県の南西に位置し、弘前駅から電車で約45分です。 人口は180,000 くらいです。弘前城は、要塞堀に囲まれた3階建ての建設されました。 堀と城を囲む2,500本以上の桜の木がある弘前パークは、春になると最も華やかな花見のひとつになります。

During my visit, the cherry blossoms in the park are well past the “full bloom” status, meaning, the moats are littered with fallen cherry blossom petals, turning the moats into beautiful pink “carpets”. Entrance to the park is free, although an admission charge of 310 yen is required if you want to visit Hirosaki Castle.

私の訪れている間に、公園の桜は満開を迎えています。つまり、堀は桜の花びらで覆われていて、美しいピンクの「カーペット」になっています。 弘前城を訪れたい場合は、310円の入場料が必要ですが、公園への入場は無料です。DSC03233At the time of my visit, the castle keep has been shifted about 70 metres south of the crimson bridge, which has graced many a tourist promotional photo due to renovation works to strengthen the castle foundation. In other words, you are highly unlikely to reproduce a photo with the castle, crimson bridge and cherry blossoms in juxtaposition in the same photograph.

私の訪れた時には、城砦が、城の基礎を強化するために改修工事。多くの観光写真は、弘前の前に、桜と赤橋が一緒に入った。つまり、同じ写真 (城、紅の橋、桜が並んでいる写真)を再現することはできません。

The annual Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Festival (22 April – 7 May) transforms the park into a massive carnival, with boisterous crowds, numerous food and game stalls, and fireworks in the evening.  LS

弘前桜の祭り(4月22日〜5月7日)は、夕方には、数多くの食べ物や遊び場、花火など、大規模なカーニバルに変わって、にぎやかな雰囲気になります。 LSDSC03228

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Where Doing Nothing Is Everything

There are many things you can do in Prague. But then again, you can also do nothing. Because wandering the cobbled streets of the Staré Město (or Old Town), sipping locally brewed Czech lager (and I’m not referring to Pilsner) at Holešovice or just sitting along the banks of the Vltava at sunset are some of the most effortless (yet ‘productive’) ways to appreciate this charming city.

DSC00558Prague may have lived past its post-Velvet Revolution tag of the “Paris of the East”. Tourist arrivals since the turn of the century have driven up living standards and costs, and made this once affordable city on par with its more illustrious West European neighbours. However, these have done little to diminish the city’s allure. Even on a weekday, Prague Castle and Charles Bridge are swarmed with visitors from an international potpourri.

DSC00898Thankfully, there are pockets of Prague to call your own. And you can find them in the less crowded neighbourhoods of Vinohrady and Vršovice, or the rustic back alleys of Provaznická and Karlin. But if you desire to do nothing, just pick a good spot in one of the many alfresco restaurants at Malá Strana (or the ‘Little Quarter’) and watch the world go by, with a Pilsner.  LS

DSC00583DSC00561DSC00512_pDSC00610 DSC00624 DSC00678DSC00744DSC00944DSC00982DSC00911DSC00668

Of Castles and Black Bears

Mount Aso had just erupted over the weekend when I was making my way to Kumamoto. However, fears of volcanic ash blanketing Kumamoto were unnecessary as the volcanic crater had calmed down fairly quickly. Kumamoto’s main attraction is its majestic castle, which was built between 1601 and 1607 and housed the powerful Hosokawa clan (細川氏).

The present structure is a reconstruction, however, the original was burned down during the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion, in which it was recorded some 40,000 armed peasants and samurai led by Saigo Takamori (西郷 隆盛) lay seige on the fortress against the imperial army (Source: Lonely Planet).

In addition to imposing Kumamoto-jo (熊本城)you cannot miss the ubiquitous Kumamon or 熊もん, the mascot and symbol of the city. For an understated but otherwise serene place to contemplate the magnificence of the Hosokawa clan, check out the adjacent Honmaru Palace (本丸御殿) and the former residence of the Hosokawa clan, the Hosokawa Gyobutei (旧細川刑部邸).  LS

DSC07421DSC07673DSC07644DSC07678DSC0774420141208_10292620141208_103040DSC0777620141208_10451520141208_12454020141208_10113020141208_105748DSC07771DSC0777320141208_10350120141208_114311DSC07791 DSC07796DSC0778720141208_15253920141208_15300320141208_15313420141208_15472120141208_155114DSC0786220141207_16560520141207_163407DSC07685DSC07871 DSC07886 20141207_192241 20141207_185205 20141207_192921 DSC07710 DSC07701 DSC07702 DSC07721 DSC07900 DSC07901 DSC07904 DSC0790520141209_082646DSC0791320141209_085511DSC0791520141209_08323620141209_08465720141209_084936DSC07914DSC0791220141209_091757DSC07932