Full-length Feature: Tracing the Mediterranean (Part 4) – Lost in Translation (Part 2 of 2)

Romanticising about Rome is not the same as loving it. That’s something I wanted to clarify, given how I have waxed lyrical about the Eternal City in my previous post.
Beautiful though it may be, there were times I felt a little lost in translation. Prior to visiting Rome, I have been warned by many friends and family about pick-pocketing and bag-snatchers. I personally witnessed at close proximity a Roma (gypsy) woman try to put an arm around a girl (who’s probably no older than 20) while with her other hand, attempt to reach into her handbag. And this incident took place a few steps from the grandiose Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. DSC00795_blogDSC00911_blogThe irony of it all really, when you take into account that to get into the church, you would have to pass through security and bag-check. Here, a few steps behind the church, petty crime like stealing and pick-pocketing go on, unchecked.DSC00723_blog
DSC00377_blogI also notice the tight security at major attractions like the Colosseum, the Vatican Museums and the aforementioned church. That’s the new norm, unfortunately, in a world forever changed after the events of September 11. For some strange reason, I actually felt reassured when I see soldiers patrolling the streets.
DSC00844_blogBut, in this new world, there’s also a sense of frustration, of isolation, of apathy. I saw many beggars on the streets, mostly Roma men and women, both young and old, but also Italians as well. Lured by the promises of a better life in a big city perhaps, these people came here in search of jobs. But, with no authorised permits and high unemployment among the Italians, they took to the streets, prostrated with a cup in hand.DSC00691_blog
On one night when I had to make my way back to my hotel from the Spanish Steps (because the metro stopped operating after 10), I passed many homeless on the streets, swaddled in dirty blankets (their only piece of ‘furniture’). Perhaps out of fear, I avoided their eyes, and ignored their mumbled utterances in Italian.
DSC00514_blogAnd then, there are the African migrants. They mostly hang around the Colosseum and the road just outside the Roman Fora, dangling bracelets at passerbys or selfie-sticks. Some made an attempt at some small talk before delivering their sales pitch, although I’m not sure comparing the colour of their skins to mine counts as a genuine attempt at PR.
DSC00419_blogAt the hotel where I was staying, a new breed of economic migrants were present – that of the educated, Italian speaking Asians, working at the hotel reception. They hailed from countries like the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam. They greeted me with a forced smile, their manner of speech professional but ultimately hollow and cold. DSC00900_blog
So, beautiful as Rome may be, the familiar trappings of a big city are obvious everywhere you look. Immigration is a global issue, and one that my Italian room-mate at the hostel-hotel I’m staying was not keen to discuss, although he dryly admitted that many Italians do not have a job.DSC00808_blog
Fortunately, my pockets had not been picked, nor had my bag been snatched. But, suffice to say, I didn’t feel at ease in Rome. I felt like I was constantly on guard. I flinched when someone brushed against me. After which I would hastily swing my bag around and check for any open zippers. I clutched my camera close to my chest as I walked past the alley behind Roma Termini Station, littered with African peddlers selling fake leather goods and football jerseys.DSC00802_blog
Beautiful as Rome is, I was lost in all these lamentations. Then again, I suppose Rome is just like any other major city in Europe, not any different from Barcelona, Milan, London or Berlin. And I’m sure the same feelings / thoughts would surface again as I continue my exploration of other Italian cities. I just have to explore the city with my eyes (and mind) wide open.     LSDSC00324_blog

Full-length Feature: Tracing the Mediterranean (Part 3) – A Heart Full of Rome (Part 1 of 2)

Rome is drop-dead beautiful!!

I’m lost for descriptions every time I look at the Rome skyline at sunset. A plethora of emotions goes through your heart as you gaze and admire. Everywhere you look, all 360 degrees, there’s something that draws out from you a sigh of contentment, of admiration, of awe and wonder.

I’m not going to describe or go into detail about the sights I have seen in my one week stay in Rome. For these, you have a host of travel guides or blogs that will do these sights more justice than me.

Instead, I shall focus on my experiences and thoughts on what I’ve seen and felt in Rome.

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View from Victor Emmanuel II

I have to admit, I didn’t know where to start my exploration of Rome when I first arrived. I mean, I already had some kind of an itinerary in mind, but there seems to me, so much to see and do in the Eternal City.

For the first two days, I decided to follow closely a walking guide called Romewise.com by Elyssa Bernard, that was suggested to me by a young Polish girl, who bunked in the same room as me during my stay in Naples. She recommended the website because she and her sister had relied on it for their three-day tour of Rome and found it to be quite beneficial.

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Piazza Barberini
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Spanish Steps / Scalinata di Trinità dei Monti
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Piazza del Popolo
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Pincio
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View from the Pincio
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Victor Emmanuel II Monument
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So, to cut a long story short, I didn’t follow her guide to the T because I found it too intense for one day. You would have to start your day very early or you must have very muscular thighs to cover all that she suggested. Instead, I split her suggested ‘1st day walking tour’ into 2 days, and tweaked the route to form like two circular routes, as summarised below:

Day 1: Piazza Barberini >> Spanish Steps >> Piazza del Popolo >> Pincio >> Piazza Venezia >> Vittorio Emanuele II Monument (or Altare della Patria)

Day 2: Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs) >> Piazza della Repubblica >> Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore (Church of Santa Maria Maggiore >> Scuderie del Quirinale >> Trevi Fountain >> Pantheon >> Piazza Navona >> Campo dei Fiori >> Largo Argentina.

I’m so glad I rounded up my first day at the Vittorio Emmanuel II, Rome’s famed “birthday cake”, because from the marble terrace (which offers a more or less  360 degree panorama over the city centre) overlooking Piazza Venezia, I caught my first view of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum at sunset. You can even see as far as St Peter’s Basilica.

The domes / cupolas and cathedral steeples dotting the Rome skyline, bathed in golden light. It was such a mesmerising sight!!

Rome is compact in that sense, because all the ancient Roman ruins are more or less clustered together in one place – although the walking is anything but.

I hung around at the terrace till the last light went out, and after a thousand snaps of the Roma city skyline.

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Colosseum at night

Reluctantly, I left my vantage point and made a beeline for the Colosseum. Just seeing the Colosseum right there before your eyes makes my heart skip a beat – okay, several beats a few times.

As I approached the almost 2,000-year-old Roman relic, I caught sight of a cluster of modestly decked low-rise apartment blocks just across from the Colosseum. And I could not help but wonder what it’s like to stay just across from the Colosseum.

This must be one of the world’s most expensive real estates, I thought.

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Trajan’s Market / Mercati di Traiano

How does it feel to know that the ‘building’ just across from you was there long before you were born, and will still be there long after you die? Random, weird thoughts I know, but it’s a legit question.

I decided I would dedicate one full day to the Colosseum – a single entry ticket also gives you admission to the Roman Forum / Roman ruins and the Palatine Hill / Palatino, and is valid for two days. So, a tip here is not to rush the visit to the Colosseum, and then attempt to wrap up your ticket to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill – there’s no way you are going to appreciate either.

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For now, I’m just contented to sit at one of the stone benches near the aforementioned apartments and gazed at the Colosseum, now dappled in a soft glow in the moonlight.   LS

Note: This post features only photographs taken from the first day of my walking tour in Rome. More photographs of Rome will be featured in Part 2.

Full-length Feature: Tracing the Mediterranean (Part 2) – The Best Coffee is in Naples

For many of you, I’m sure, Italy is no stranger. The country, which boasts 54 World Heritage Sites, including countless priceless relics / ruins from the glorious Roman Empire (which at its peak, stretched from as far as the Middle East and North Africa to the south of England), is abundantly rich in ancient history, tradition, food and culture.

For me, after 40 years of my existence, this would only be my first trip to the famous Shoe/Boot of the Mediterranean. And one that took me more than a month to put the itinerary together…

Now, back to Naples.

Mention Naples, and the first thing that comes to mind for most would be Pompeii, the Roman city that was completely destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.DSC09519_blogToday, the ruins of Pompeii are a must for any visit to the capital of Italy’s Campania region. As your train from Rome approaches Naples, the imposing sight of Mt Vesuvius greets your arrival.

It’s difficult to imagine Mt Vesuvius as the same beast that engulfed Pompeii in lava more than a thousand years ago. Rather, Vesuvius feels like the guardian mountain of Naples.DSC09362_blogThe Italian people of Naples, or Neapolitans (as they are more fondly known) take pride in their coffee and pizza. You wouldn’t find Starbucks or Pizza Hut here – they would simply fail to survive alongside the thousands of Neapolitan cafes and pizzerias that churn out one of the best (if not the best) coffee and pizza in the world.DSC09349_blogTo get the most of your Neapolitan experience, simply hop into one of the many cafes in Centro Storico, and order an espresso (0.90 to 1.00 euros) and a cornetto (croissant) and have them at the bar counter (there are seat charges for indoor and outdoor dining). So many locals prefer to stand at the bar anyway.

For pizza, I would suggest you have a look around the Spanish Quarter for the cheapest yet amazingly delicious pizza or pasta.

 
The Spanish Quarter is one of my favourite spots to just get lost and wander around. There are markets, trinket shops, roadside vendors selling anything from slippers to antique watches. It’s also where I tasted some of the freshest and most delicious seafood and pasta in Naples.DSC09819_blogDSC09420_blogNaples is a compact city, and many of Naples’ main sights are arranged around Centro Storico, and easily reached on foot. For those slightly further away, Naples’ small (only two lines) but efficient metro lines link most of the sights.
 

As for me, I prefer to wander around on foot, taking in as many of the sights as I can, and just soaking in the local vibes. DSC09407_blogDSC09667_blogDSC09664_blogNaples has some of the most beautiful sunsets in the world, and I would recommend you set aside one evening to have a leisurely stroll along the port area, which stretches from just before Castel dell’Ovo to the marina at Mergellina.

If you are planning day trips from Naples, as mentioned above, Pompeii is a must!!! And depending on the duration of your stay in Naples, you can choose to visit Herculaneum (somewhat like Pompeii, but smaller), scale Mt Vesuvius, or perhaps the most popular choice – a visit to the Amalfi Coast or the island of Capri.DSC09495_blogNote though that the latter two places are actually in opposite directions, so it’s not advisable to combine the two for one day-trip. For example, I didn’t have time for Capri because I spent an entire day at Pompeii (I had initially planned for only half a day at the Pompeii ruins).

To get to the Amalfi Coast, take the train to Sorrento (about 1.5 hours) and then transfer to a local bus (another 2 hours) for Positano or Amalfi. More ambitious travelers would combine Ravello to complete the Amalfi trinity. However, do note that the last bus to Sorrento train station departs at 7 p.m., so unless you are planning to stay the night, it’s wise to give yourself ample time or start your trip early.DSC09735_blogDSC09773_blogFor me, I didn’t even get as far as Ravello, and even Amalfi was a bit of a stretch for me. Besides, the shorter daylight hours during winter (I went in February) meant that I had less time to explore as everything gets dark after 5 p.m.

Ideally, I would have liked more time at Amalfi because Positano, the first town along the Amalfi bus route, was beautiful but sterile in my opinion. Its postcard perfect beach, with the colourful hillside houses, was touristy and expensive.

That said, catching the sunset at the Amalfi coast was probably one of the highlights of my day trip to the Amalfi strip. And the best way to enjoy it is with a cup of Neapolitan espresso.     LSDSC09675_blog

Full-length Feature: Tracing the Mediterranean (Part 1)

I promised to leave Japan when I wrote my last post for 2018. As some of you might know, I failed to do so. This time, it’s for real.

This is a trip that has been four years in the making. I first had the idea of tracing the cities along the Mediterranean coastline in 2016, because I’ve always been fascinated with the Mediterranean region.

Countries like Italy, the south of France, Spain and Portugal are so rich in history, cuisine and culture. I had always been interested in ancient civilizations, in particular the Greek and Roman Empires.

Of course, to visit every major city in the Mediterranean region in one trip is almost impossible. I originally planned to spend four and a half months covering the coastline from Central Italy to Portugal, but due to my sheer ignorance of the Schengen ruling, I was forced to cut Portugal (and a side trip to Morocco) altogether and scale down the plan to meet the 90-day allowance for non-European Union citizens.

Still, three months of traveling nonetheless looks a bit daunting, given the longest I’ve continuously been on the road (not including my two-year stay in Japan) was a 24-day solo trip to Central and Eastern Europe (Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and Austria) back in June, 2012.


Central & Eastern Europe Trip – June 2012

This time, I would spend almost three weeks to slightly over a month in each of the Mediterranean countries I planned to visit, starting with Italy, then to the south of France, and finally ending in Spain.

My first stop?

Naples, Italy.     LS

Featured header image © https://www.123rf.com

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

 

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

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Spiritual Sojourns (Part 3) – ‘Power’ Up in Ise

It’s impossible to talk about spiritual spots in Japan without including a discussion of Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮) or Ise Grand Shrine. After all, this shrine is widely acknowledged by many Japanese as one of the most scared Shinto shrines in Japan.

I have known about the shrine from Lonely Planet and various travel blogs on the Internet. I have also heard a fair share of stories from my friends in Japan. One recounted that her mother insisted they make a pilgrimage there when she was plagued by a series of nightmares. Another gushed about how she met her fiancé while on a solo trip to Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮). The shrine holds different meanings and experiences for different people I spoke to, it seems. But all agree that this shrine is one of the most powerful spiritual spots in Japan.

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Therefore, while planning my last hurrah of sightseeing around Japan (before moving back to Singapore for good), I deliberately reminded myself to pencil in a day trip to Mie Prefecture (三重県), even though the journey was an inconvenient four hours to and fro from downtown Kyoto, where I was based at that time.

A few months prior to the trip, however, I received a message on Facebook from a friend, who asked me where exactly this spiritual spot in Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮) is, and how to feel the energy. I was stumped by the question, because I haven’t been to the shrine up until then.

“What do you mean where is the spiritual spot? Isn’t it something you feel naturally while you’re there?” I asked her.

Well, apparently, no.

My friend felt nothing at all, and complained that the shrines were swarmed with people, and how it was almost impossible to take a clean shot of the shrines without having strangers ‘photo-bomb’ you left, right and centre.

She even said she was a little disappointed and felt ‘cheated’ because the shrines looked very simple and ‘nothing special’ in their design.

That’s really missing the whole point about Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮). Because, what distinguishes Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮) from all other Shinto shrines in Japan are the clean, down-to-earth lines, devoid of ornamental carvings or decorations. This minimalist design is the defining characteristic of Ise Jingu!dsc08149_blogDSC08120

A few facts first before we proceed, Ise Jingu actually comprises two shrines. There’s the Geku (外宮), or Outer Shrine and the Naiku (内宮), or Inner Shrine. “外” is the Japanese kanji for “outside” while “内” is the kanji for “inside”.

The former is about a 5-minutes’ walk south of the Ise-shi (伊勢市) train station while a bus from the stop opposite the Geku (外宮) takes you to the latter.

The Geku is dedicated to the goddess of food, clothing and housing, Toyouke (豊受大神), while the Naiku is dedicated to the Sun Goddess Amaterasu (天照大御神様), the most important god in Shinto.

That should give you a clue as to which of the two shrines is the more “powerful”, spiritually speaking.

Except that, it doesn’t.

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When I finally made my pilgrimage there, I recalled the question my friend had asked me about where exactly this famed spiritual spot in Ise Jingu (伊勢神宮) was. And I realised what she had meant by that question.Because both shrines are immensely popular with both Japanese and tourists, they are often swarmed with people. Now, whether you believe this or not is another matter, but I would like to propose an answer to my friend’s question. In crowded places teeming with people, you are highly unlikely to feel any spiritual energy.

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Does that make sense?Spiritual energy is diluted or negated by the presence of humans (who carry with them an energy called “yang” in traditional Chinese beliefs) while spiritual energy is “yin”. These two types of energy are antithetical to each other.

In addition, spiritual energy is not a hot spring. It’s not something that gushes out from a single point / location / source / cave / aperture, like in an onsen. So don’t go looking for these places when you are in Ise Jingu.

So, what about my personal experiences? Did I feel anything there?

The short answer is yes, but only in pockets.

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What does that mean? You must know that both shrines cover an extensive area, and there are several smaller shrines housed within each area. In other words, in those smaller shrines, where there are fewer tourists, you are more likely to feel this energy.dsc08174_blogdsc08269_blog

Perhaps, that’s why many tourists choose to visit the shrines near closing time, when the crowds throng the exits. The catch is that there are possibly hundreds of other Japanese who think the same way.My personal take when you visit Ise Jingu is not to go searching for this energy, but instead just do the normal “touristy” things – take pictures at the entrances (and try your hardest not to be “photo-bombed”), sit at one of the benches at the pavilion near the entrance of Geku (外宮) and gaze at the beautiful pond, or wander the busy shopping street just outside Naiku (内宮).And while ambling around the various shrines on the grounds, feel free to roam and explore the smaller paths when you spot one. Follow your gut, instincts, sixth sense (whatever you call it) and ‘dive’ right in. And there, you will definitely feel this energy you are looking for.

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One tip I will give you though, look for the miniature ‘shrines’ while you are there. I found myself inexplicably drawn to them when I was at either of these shrines.     LS

I’m in the midst of preparations for a major trip (about 3 months) to another part of the world in the coming year, and I’m so pumped up for this upcoming trip! Stay tuned for updates!!

P.S.: This post concludes the last of the series on Spiritual Sojourns for 2018, and while there are definitely hundreds (even thousands) of other spiritual spots that have not been featured but worth visiting in Japan, I’m going to take a short break and leave Japan for a while.

In the meantime, continue to travel and explore the world out there. Stay healthy and bubbly. Here’s wishing all you guys out there Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year in advance!!! 😁

Spiritual Sojourns (Part 2) – Bewitched in Chikubushima, Lake Biwa

“Chi ku bu shi ma” (竹生島).

Now, say this again more quickly: “Chi-ku-bu-shi-ma”.

Repeat this five times.

竹生島! * 竹生島! * 竹生島!! * 竹生島!! * 竹生島!!!

This tongue twister of a name is NOT a joke. Not only is it a real island, but also one that happens to be one of the top three spiritual spots located in the mysterious yet enchantingly beautiful Lake Biwa, in Shiga Prefecture.

Measuring only two kilometres across, the first thing that you will notice as your ferry from Nagahama (there’s also another ferry that goes to this island from Imazu Port in Takashima City) approaches the island is this ashen-white torii gate, called the Ryujin Haisho (龍神拝所), dedicated to the Dragon God or Ryujin (龍神). For me, this torii gate exudes an inexplicably strong aura of energy, and its cliff-like perch over the emerald waters resembles a gateway for the spirits.DSC08609To get here, however, you would need to ascend a long flight of stone stairs – 165, to be precise – which make up what is called the Inori-no-Ishidan (祈りの石段), or literally translated “Stone Steps of Prayer”.

Thankfully, there’s a right fork midway up the stairs that leads straight to the island’s main Shinto shrine, Tsukubusuma Shrine (都久夫須麻神社). Built in AD420, the shrine’s main hall (本殿) is a designated National Treasure. DSC08607DSC08608Directly opposite (or facing) the shrine is a wooden pavilion that houses the Ryujin’s miniature altar, and the lookout onto the Ryujin Haisho, littered with thousands of clay dish fragments.

The myth goes that if you are able to toss two dishes (one with your name written on it while the other bears your wish) through the torii gate, Ryujin will grant you your wish.

I didn’t buy or toss any clay dish, however but it was just as enjoyable watching others try their luck.

A wooden corridor, called the Funa-roka (舟廊下) because it was supposedly constructed from Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s boat, leads to the Kannon Hall and Karamon Gate (#30 spot on the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage 西国観音参詣), now undergoing major restoration.dsc08634_blogEmerging from the hall, you will be greeted by the imposingly massive Hogon-ji (宝厳寺), whose construction dates back to AD724 upon an imperial edict during the reign of Shomu (聖武天皇) after supposedly having received a divine message from the Sun Goddess.

The temple is thus dedicated to the Benzaiten (弁才天), God of wealth, music and eloquence, who according to the divine message, descended on the island. It’s only one of three temples in Japan dedicated to the Benzaiten, the other two being Itsukushima (厳島神社) in Miyajima (宮島) and Enoshima (江ノ島)  in Kamakura (鎌倉).dsc08630_blogIf you haven’t tossed your wish at the Ryujin Haisho earlier, why not jot it down on a piece of paper and then encapsulate it in one of these adorable red darumas (達摩). It’s tempting to bring one of these home but unfortunately, you would have to leave it at the altar for your wish to come true!!

And just to make sure no spirit follows you on your way back to the ferry jetty, do not look back over your shoulders as you descend the stone steps of the Inori-no-Ishidan (祈りの石段), past this massive eroded torii gate.    LSDSC08642

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Spiritual Sojourns (Part 1) – Lake Biwa, Shiga

DSC03788Fall is almost over in Hokkaido, although you wouldn’t know that here in sunny Singapore. (To be honest, me neither. It’s almost two months since I moved back for good from Japan).DSC03819Fall is the best season to visit Hokkaido or anywhere in Japan in my opinion, because the islands (save for Okinawa) will be slowly clad in a mesmerising patchwork of crimson, mandarin and golden hues from north to south, beginning with Hokkaido. With Halloween round the corner, fall is also the best season for ghost stories (although some believe summer to be the best).

Whatever your seasonal/spiritual inclinations, this post is a discussion of neither.Rather, it’s the second series of a feature titled “Spirited Away” that I first penned this April. Just a quick recap, that feature seeks to introduce some of the so-called “power spots” in Japan, places where one can experience a spiritual energy. However, in place of “power spots”, I have proposed the term “spiritual spots” because although these sites do exude a particular energy, said energy may not be the positive or zen-like calmness expounded in other sources.

I would also like to reiterate the disclaimer that experiences at these ‘spiritual spots’ are purely personal, so if you are an atheist, just read it with a spoonful of salt.Continuing from my summer trip around the Greater Kyoto area in Japan, I spent the last one and a half weeks circumnavigating Lake Biwa or Biwa-ko (琵琶湖), as it is locally known. Now, if you’ve never been to Lake Biwa or Shiga Prefecture, please seriously consider it for your next itinerary in Japan.Covering an area of 670.3 square kilometres – that’s almost the same size as the whole island nation of Singapore – Lake Biwa is the largest freshwater lake in Japan. It’s also possibly one of the most beautiful places in Japan to enjoy the sunset. Its name came from the lake’s resemblance to a traditional Japanese/Chinese stringed instrument of the same name.Lake Biwa also happens to be one of the top spiritual spots in Japan, from my experience.Not surprisingly, there are many folklore associated with the lake as well.

One such story tells of fireballs being spotted at the lake, and that used to destroy fishermen’s boats in a bygone era. Another tells of a girl who drowned while carrying out her vow to sail across the lake on the 25th of February (apparently, that’s when the lake is at its most choppy self) in a bathtub to meet his lover – a priest!!DSC08685_blog.jpgOne of my main reasons for visiting Lake Biwa is the Shirahige Jinja, or Shirahige Shrine (白鬚神社), and its enchanting floating torii gate. In Japanese shinto, torii gates mark the entrance to the sacred, or holy grounds.

Most visitors to Japan are familiar with the floating vermilion torii at Itsukushima Shrine (厳島神社) in Miyajima, off Hiroshima. However, the Shirahige floating torii is probably the least known of the three, the second one being Hakone Shrine’s touristy showpiece in Lake Ashinoko, Hakone. Shirahige’s relative obscurity also means that unlike Kyoto’s Fushimi-inari (伏見稲荷大社) or Miyajima’s Itsukushima Shrine, there’s no well-trodden path that leads to it.dsc08715_blogIn fact, if you do not have your own set of wheels, the trek to this lakeside temple might even be a potentially life endangering affair.While making my way there on foot from Omi-Takashima Station (近江高島駅), I had to tread carefully along the side of an expressway, staying as close as I could to the fenders. And even so, I had to admit, I was intimidated by the speeding cars and my heart skipped several beats when container trucks thundered past me.Notice that the entrance to the temple opens straight onto the expressway (please see photo above). The safety cones have been strategically placed there so that visitors do not walk straight into oncoming traffic. Compared to the floating torii gate, the main shrine actually felt like an abandoned relic.

On the day I visited, there was no beautiful sunset, unfortunately. In fact, ominous black clouds blanketed the evening sky, and I sensed a storm brewing over the lake. Thankfully, the weather held up well enough, and only a drizzle accompanied me while I was there.

Even amid the darkness, I couldn’t help but sat there gazing at this for a good one hour.   LSdsc08693_blog

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.

The original plan was to do some onsen hoppin’ in Kinosaki Onsen (城崎温泉) and use it as a base to explore the surrounding locales. However, most ryokans were already fully booked half a year in advance by the time I was looking for accommodations back in March this year. Hence, I had to re-route my plan to Toyooka (豊岡), only two train stops away.DSC06748The idea actually sounds absurd if you think about it. In the simmering Japanese summer heat, who in their right minds would wanna soak in an onsen?

Apparently, plenty.

There are many crazy Japanese out there, and even crazier foreigners.

DSC06778The day involved a lot of moving around, so by the time I checked into my basic but adequate business hotel in Toyooka, I took a quick nap for half an hour after downing a can of Asahi (a much appreciated welcome drink from the hotel’s reception). With not much daylight left, I was just glad to check myself in to Kouno-yū (鴻の湯), the oldest onsen in this vicinity, and soak my fatigue away. It didn’t make sense to go onsen hopping given the approaching twilight.

Maybe tomorrow, I reasoned…

After a good night’s soak at Kouno-yū (鴻の湯), I checked into an izakaya and treated myself to some sushi and local sake.    LSDSC06798DSC06793

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