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.

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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Farewell Japan Summer Trip 2018 (Part 4) – Ine Beauty

DSC07232As the ferry left the somewhat makeshift dock, the birds started circling round us. And I realised that’s why packets of prawn crackers are being sold for 100 yen per packet at the dock. People were holding prawn crackers aloft for the birds to swoop in for the ‘kill’.

Obviously, some got scared before the claws could reach out and ended up nervously throwing the crackers into the water, inevitably causing feathers to ruffle (literally) in the aftermath of their actions. These birds must have been conditioned to depend on these crackers for their daily feed.

I wondered if we are slowly killing them.

DSC07243The birds swirled around us all the way as we took in the sights of the funaya (舟屋). Only about 200 of these traditional “boat houses” remain in the sleepy fishing village of Ine (伊根), about 5 km north of Amanohashidate (天橋立) in the northern coast of Kyoto.

A little note on Amanohashidate (天橋立) before we return to the funaya or boathouses.DSC07438Amanohashidate (天橋立) is a narrow sandbar at the mouth of Miyazu Bay (宮津湾) in the northern coast of Kyoto Prefecture. Its name means “the bridge that connects the Heavens”.

With more than 7,000 pine trees dotting either side of the sandbar, it ranks as one of Japan’s top three most scenic views. This 3.3 km strip of sand makes for an ideal leisurely stroll at sundown or the perfect place for a summer camp anywhere along the whole stretch of sand.DSC07167I actually made Amanohashidate my base camp for the 3D2N that I was there, in order to explore the surrounding coastal region.

The fishing village of Ine can be explored as a day trip from Amanohashidate. Hourly buses ply the route from Amanohashidate to Ine, and takes you there in about an hour for 400 yen (one way).

DSC07361Most of the boathouses in Ine are “live-in” residences, although some have been converted to guesthouses and restaurants to serve the increasing wave of tourism to this area.

I saw two boys do back-flips as they plunged into the crystalline waters from their backyards. One of them started waving at us when he spotted our boat cruise by.

I wondered how it feels like to have the Sea of Japan as your personal swimming pool. Wouldn’t it be amazing to greet every sunrise and sunset like this, sipping coffee or beer in your own backyard?

DSC07382Luckily for me, I chanced upon one with an amazing view, a converted café, selling coffee at Starbucks prices. I sat there with my iced Americano, watching the birds circling the pint-sized sightseeing boats, watching the skies darken and the heavens pour. I realised that, just like the birds, we are slowly killing this village with our presence.

Time stood still that day.     LS

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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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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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Summer Sojourns (Part 2) – Tohoku’s Big Three

DSC03736Summer is not only a wonderful time to hit the wild outdoors, but also an occasion to indulge yourself in food and drink! Across Japan, many cities and towns will have their own version of a summer festival, usually characterised by a marketplace of food stalls (yatais) selling anything from yakitori, karaage or the usual bar grub to choco-bananas and candy strawberries. Some may be held on the grounds of the town/city’s patron shrine or next to a port (for seaside towns).

DSC03899Perhaps the most famous of all these summer festivals or 祭り (matsuri) in the Tohoku region of Japan are the Nebuta Matsuri (ねぶた祭り) in Aomori, the Kanto Matsuri (竿祭り) in Akita and the Tanabata Matsuri (七夕祭り) in Sendai, collectively known as the Tohoku Sandai Matsuri (東北三大祭り), or Three Great Festivals of Tohoku.All three festivals are held during the same period, and may overlap each other on certain dates. The Nebuta Matsuri kicks off in Aomori City on August 2 every year till August 7. Starting a day later is the Kanto Matsuri in Akita, followed closely behind by the Tanabata Matsuri in Sendai.

I have had the opportunity to witness all three up close and personal, in a whirlwind trip that took me from Aomori to Akita, and then on to Sendai, covering a distance equivalent to a third of Japan.

DSC03799First up, the Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori. Every night, from August 2 – 7, gigantic lantern floats are paraded throughout the city’s streets at night. Followed closely behind by a team of drummers banging away on enormous taiko drums (太鼓), most also feature a contingent of musicians on flutes and tiny cymbals. The floats typically feature scenes from Japanese mythology or history, so expect to see some really frightening scenes such as gods, ghouls, demons, dragons, snakes and multi-eye ogres.

Hotels are typically booked out way in advance, so do lock your dates and make reservations early. Otherwise, you may end up like me. For example, I had to set up base in Hirosaki because accommodation was full in Aomori. Fortunately for me, Hirosaki also has its own local version of Nebuta, which features the ougi-neputa (a fan-shaped neputa). The floats here may be of a smaller scale compared to Aomori, but they make for spectacular viewing nonetheless.

DSC03998Over in Akita (August 3 – 6), rows of lanterns hung on bamboo poles and balanced by skilful performers take centre-stage. In the day, different groups show off their skills to the beating of drums, flutes and chants of “dokkoisho, dokkoisho” as they compete to see who can hoist the poles the highest while balancing them on their foreheads, waists and shoulders. You can catch the various groups at different venues around Akita Station and the Museum of Art outdoor performance area. At night, the lantern poles are paraded along Chuo Dori street in the city centre.

DSC04036_copyWhile both the Nebuta and Kanto Festivals feature parades, drums and flutes, and a chorus of chants, the Tanabata Festival in Sendai (August 6 – 8) has none of these! Instead, tall, gigantic and colourful handcrafted streamers hang from bamboo poles decorate the entire stretch of shopping arcades along Ichibancho-dori (一番町商店街) and Clis Road, about a stone’s throw from Sendai Station. Some feature paper cranes, paper strips with handwritten well-wishes or other forms of origami. These streamers are also the first sight that greets you when you exit Sendai Station. At the end of the shopping arcades at Kotodai Park, stage performances featuring live music and dance as well as a huge open-air carnival of food stalls complete the festivities.   LS

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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

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