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.

Subscribe to get access

Read more of this content when you subscribe today.

 

Farewell Japan Summer Trip 2018 (Part 5) – N(onsen)se in Kinosaki

DSC06717_editIt’s 35 degrees just after three as the train slowly chugged into Toyooka, pronounced Toh-yo-oh-ka (豊岡). If I’m being honest, I didn’t have much of a choice in Toyooka as my base camp for the next three nights. Ideally, I would have snagged a room in one of those atmospheric ryokans lining the banks of the scenic Kinosaki River.

Subscribe to get access

Read more of this content when you subscribe today.

Photo Gallery

To access the photo gallery, please subscribe or log in.

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.

IMG_20180504_165332

Subscribe to get access

Read more of this content when you subscribe today.

Photo Gallery

To access the photo gallery, please subscribe or log in.

To The Ends of Hokkaido: Rishiri & Rebun Islands

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.

Subscribe to get access

Read more of this content when you subscribe today.

Photo Gallery

To access the photo gallery, please subscribe or log in.

What’s Your Beef?

img_20161204_134224_hdrIt feels great to be able to pen a few words again and as some of you may have noticed, I have not posted anything new since my last adventure in Sounkyo in October. This is because after finally deciding to register my domain for a monthly fee from WordPress, I realised the fee doesn’t entail a free upgrade in storage space. In other words, I wasted my money on getting the domain. My account was already chock full. This, despite having combed through all my photos and deleting a good number of them. Needless to say, I was pretty annoyed with WordPress.

However, today, I received a sudden notification that WordPress had decided to spare me some extra space, so here’s a recent trip that I haven’t got the chance to publish till now.

As it turned out, winter descended on Hokkaido as soon as my trip to Sounkyo ended. It seemed like Hokkaido just decided to skip autumn all together and jump straight to winter. The cold makes travelling less enticing, and my weekends since Sounkyo had largely been spent tucking my legs under my kotatsu blanket and watching TV.

On one of these lazy weekends, I was watching a local variety show in which contestants gorged themselves to death, trying to devour as many plates of food as possible. On this particular episode, the contestants competed to see who could finish the most number of plates of steak in half an hour. And the setting? Shiraoi.img_20161204_124942_hdrFor the uninitiated (i.e. me), Shiraoi is famous for its beef, and though normally a sleepy town with pretty much nothing but a derelict Ainu village as its main tourist draw, the town’s cows have gained quite a reputation here in Hokkaido.

Shiraoi also happens to be surprisingly accessible from Tomakomai – about a little under 40 minutes by train. I decided, I had to taste some of those beef! A search on Tripadvisor told me that Amano Family Farm was the top ranked steak house to satisfy my belly carnivores. However, the catch is, without a car, this place would take at least an hour and a half’s walk from Shiraoi Station through fields of nothingness.img_20161204_132615_hdrimg_20161204_132132_hdrThe walk turned out to be not as bad as I thought, and the weather stayed ‘relatively’ warm at 5 degrees. Five degrees may not seem like much but here in Hokkaido, 5 degrees qualifies as a ‘warm’ day – considering the past week had seen temperatures hovering around the minus 10-14 degrees mark.

What about the beef? Well, I think I’ll let my pictures do the talking. Bon Apetit!   LS

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Watching The Clouds Drift By – Muroran (Part 2)

I woke up to a bright and sunny morning in my budget hotel room in Higashi-Muroran (東室蘭). The original plan was to take the train back to Tomakomai after check-out. But looking at the weather, it seemed such a massive waste to just pack up and go home. Yesterday’s exertions (and disappointments) were still fresh in my body and mind. After mulling over the options over bread and coffee at the hotel café, I decided to give Muroran another shot.dsc01826After a quick browse through Tripadvisor, I decided to check out Cape Etomo (絵鞆岬) and seek out one of Muroran’s specialty dishes – curry ramen. I must say this had to be one of the best decisions I’ve made on this trip. If there’s one place you ever need to try curry ramen, it’s Aji-no-Daio 味の大王. Though it’s still 11.30 a.m., the tiny restaurant was already packed with patrons. The curry is viscous thick, and the noodles are springy. Sweat was oozing from all pores down my face, but I was savouring every drop of the curry. Needless to say, I polished the bowl down to its last dregs.img_20160919_115042My belly folks were humming a tune, and I hopped along to it as I made my way to Cape Etomo (絵鞆岬). Google Maps informed me that the trek to the cape would take about an hour on foot, but this time round, I decided to try my luck and just board any bus that would take me as close as possible to the cape. Last night’s misadventure told me that bus no.14 might be my best shot. And so it proved to be, though I had to ride my luck and guess the stop to alight. From my alighting point, it was just another 300 metre walk to the cape, which took less than five minutes.dsc01840dsc01841Although less celebrated than Cape Chikyu (judging by the fact that besides me, there were only three others), Cape Etomo, in my opinion, has more to offer. Not only can you enjoy a panoramic view of the Pacific, but also a perfect vista of the majestic Hakucho Bridge that spans the port of Muroran and its marina. I spent a good half an hour just taking in the scenery.img_20160919_142753img_20160919_143820_hdrHowever, the best find had to be Café Mutekirou, perched at the edge of a small knoll along the coast. The interior had a minimalist feel to it, with a granite wall accompanied by two humongous speakers as the dominant centrepieces. Jazz music was playing, and the entire café was drenched in sunlight through the floor-to-ceiling windows. I slurped my Americano and leaned back on my wooden deck chair, content to just watch the clouds drift by over the Hakucho Bridge. What a way to spend the long weekend!

Ç’est la vie.   LS

img_20160919_154053_hdr

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Chasing Japan

IMG_3253I could still remember vividly my first trip to Tokyo. Well, why couldn’t I? After all, it was only about five years ago, to be honest. No big deal, you may think.

It was, for me.

I finally had the opportunity to see Japan for myself. A country whose modern history was defined for me in school textbooks in terms of Japanese supremacy and militarism, of ruthless ambition to conquer a large part of Southeast Asia during the Second World War, of murderers in the Nanking massacre and countless others, of brutal soldiers who raped and killed comfort women and innocent children. Of course, that was a Japan from a different time, a different rule.

DSC01868Japan today is a modern democracy, celebrated for its cuisine and culture, and revered for its natural beauty. Its economy may have stagnated for more than two decades in recent times. Yet, the Land of the Rising Sun is still recognised as one of the most influential economies in Asia, and even the world.

Eight months before my visit, the entire country was reeling from the shock and devastation caused by the Japan Tsunami on 11 March, triggered by an earthquake that measured a massive 9.0 on the Richter Scale. I remembered when the tsunami struck, I followed the news religiously every day. My heart went out to Japan and the Japanese people. News reports of disaster victims queuing patiently for relief supplies at evacuation centres showed me a side of Japan I have never seen before. It’s during times like these that reveal the mark of a people, and the class of a nation. And I could not help but salute their resilience, their respect for each other, their civic mindedness, their solidarity. Since that maiden trip to Tokyo in the fall of 2011, I’ve also visited Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Nara, Hiroshima, Fukuoka, Miyajima, Beppu, Kumamoto and Hokkaido in the years after.

IMG_3916I returned from that trip to Tokyo in 2011 with a new determination and conviction to take up the Japanese language again. I use the word ‘again’ because I had previously taken Japanese as a language elective module during my varsity years. I had lasted merely two semesters then because I found myself spending more time studying and revising Japanese than the other core modules, which affected my grades. This time, however, I am determined to master it, I tell myself. And when I do, I want to return to Japan, to find a job and experience living in Japan for a couple of years. I am on the verge of realising my dream come August this year.

And I can’t wait! 🙂    LS

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Touched By An Apsara

“Apsara” refers to the ancient art of dance performances performed by women in traditional glittering silk tunics and elaborate golden headdresses in the royal courts of Angkor during the reign of Jayavarman VII.

But in modern day Siem Reap, and I suspect, in many parts of Cambodia, Apsara is probably the most overused name you can find anywhere and everywhere. There’s Apsara Hotel, Apsara Spa, Apsara Boutique Spa & Hotel, Apsara Café, Apsara Restaurant, Apsara Foundation, even an Apsara Spice Garden.

DSC00612Frankly though, your trip to Siem Reap or Cambodia will never be complete without catching an Apsara performance. Many restaurants in Siem Reap offer this traditional dance performance, although prices vary markedly, so it’s good to check with your hotel before you make a reservation. You can find a relatively affordable meal with accompanying Apsara dance for US$12 at the Koulen II Restaurant. The best part of the deal – it’s a buffet!

DSC00663After your Khmer debauchery, head for the night markets for some bargain hunting. Or indulge your own Fear Factor fantasies by taking on some traditional Khmer street food – fried spiders / scorpions / crickets / baby frogs!  LS

P.S.: I’m sorry I kind of went on a hiatus again because work has started. So now that I’ve had a chance to take a breather and jet off again, I shall remove that cryptic post of Mount Fuji titled “Majesty” (taken from my flight back from Tokyo).

DSC00836DSC00623DSC00668DSC00665DSC00666DSC00622DSC00628DSC00654DSC00662

 

A Zen New World

These days I find myself increasingly reluctant to blog. Instead, from time to time, I like to browse through micah’s blog – she is one humorous (and kick-ass muay thai boxer and martial arts junkie) scribe – and just laugh my head off at her whimsical adventures and indulgent feastings.

I’m packing my bags again, ready to brave the cold and treacherous. Nope, I’m not going Alaska or attempting Everest. I’m returning to my favourite country – Japan! Don’t give me that look!

This time, I’m off to Hokkaido – think lots of snow, snow and more snow. I hope I won’t freeze my ass off there, so I’ve been frequenting Uniqlo lately to source for bargains. Truth be told, this is actually the first time I’m visiting Hokkaido, much to disbelieving scowls and “Not again…” jibes from my colleagues. Another first for me – skiing! God bless my bones!

Think I left off in Vienna in my previous posts, and I was wondering if I should continue from there, or excite you with images of Japan from my previous trips. I think you know the answer.DSC03591So I’m going to accost your sights with Kyoto, one of my favourite cities in Japan. Mention Kyoto and one automatically associates with Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. So if temples are not your thing, don’t bother visiting Kyoto.

However, labelling Kyoto as temple-land doesn’t really do it justice. After all, this was the original capital of Japan for more than a thousand years before Tokyo took the crown in 1868.

A friend who recently visited Kyoto commented on his Facebook that he had never witnessed such a confused city. I’m not sure if “confused” was the right word to use but I believe what he probably meant was that no other city in Japan challenges your notion of time, space and normality than Kyoto.DSC03731Here, geishas toting umbrellas totter in wooden clogs on the cobblestoned streets of Gion. Shrines pop up in the most unlikely of places (for example, in the middle of Teramachi, a bustling market and shopping arcade). And just a stone’s throw away from the shopping belt, mega temples built on hilltops instantly spirit you into a zen new world.

How can you not fall in love with this city?  LS

DSC03749DSC03780DSC03890DSC03796DSC03939DSC03482DSC03719DSC03486DSC03487DSC03489DSC03498Rice guardianDSC03459DSC03862DSC03583DSC03621DSC03610

 

Hungry For More

No other city on this trip filled me with more regrets than Budapest. Regrets of the positive kind, that is. Because there were so many sights to see, so many dishes to savour, and so many pubs to bar-hop that I almost fell into a near depressive state while packing my bags on the first (and my last) night in this beautiful city.

Did I say “beautiful”? That was an understatement!

Budapest is probably one of the most magnificent but understated (and under-rated) cities in Europe. Relatively a newbie compared to its ex-communist brethren (Poland and Czech Republic), Budapest has grown exponentially in the last decade. In the streets, Michelin-starred restaurants, local artisan stores and luxury hotel chains and designer ateliers are sprouting like moss after a springtime rain. Fortunately, a relatively depressed forint means that you get more bang for your buck.

There’s one thing that the Hungarians and Japanese share in common – their love for baths. Although the number of baths here pale in comparison to its Japanese counterparts, the tradition dates back to the Romans and there’s nothing more “local” than to spend a day at one of the dozen public baths that dot the city. Of course, as you may have guessed, this tradition is more like a graying pastime in modern Budapest. If you ask me, picking up some words of wisdom or being regaled by tales from Hungary’s Iron Curtain past from some septuagenarians doesn’t sound like a bad idea at all.   LS

DSC02340DSC02319DSC02125DSC02143DSC02105DSC02117DSC02097DSC02178