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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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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Farewell Japan Summer Trip 2018 (Part 3) – Tottori Off-Track

Leaving Himeji, my next destination was Tottori (鳥取). Frankly, there’s nothing much to see or do in Tottori, a friend once told me. You only go to Tottori to see the sand dunes, and that’s about it.

However, the name “Tottori” kept appearing on the news two winters ago, when it registered the heaviest snowfall in all of Japan that year in more than 50 years – so much so that the accumulated snow threatened to swallow houses and vehicles. My irrational mind was made up that day – I had to visit Tottori one day!

Spanning about 16 km along the Sea of Japan, the Tottori Sand Dunes (鳥取砂丘, Tottori Sakyu) are the result of thousands of years of sand deposits from the nearby Sendaigawa River (千代川). Today, they are the main tourist attraction in Tottori City.DSC06548_editIf I’m being honest, I actually enjoyed the trip to the Sand Museum (砂の美術館) more than the dunes, the sweltering summer heat being one of the main reasons! The Sand Museum is situated one bus stop away from the main entrance to the dunes. I was a little skeptical of the Museum at first, which looked really tiny from the bus as I passed it on the way to the dunes.

However, stepping inside, I was blown away!

Think really massive sand sculptures – so huge that I struggled to get every single sculpture into my camera frame. Each year, the Museum features a different theme and this year happens to carry a Scandinavian flavour – from Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid sculpture (representing Denmark) to the Vikings (Norway) and Alfred Nobel (Sweden).

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The next day, I decided to do a day trip out of Tottori (since I practically ticked all the boxes of “things to see” in Tottori with that trip to the dunes). I was intrigued by a photo of this temple that looked as if it was carved into the side of a cliff.

I only came to know about the Mitokusan Sanbutsu-ji (三徳山 三佛寺) because I got bored on the train to Tottori and decided to browse the travel pamphlet in my seat pocket. To get to the temple, I had to take a train out from Tottori to Kurayoshi Station (倉吉駅), from where a 35-min bus ride would take me to the entrance of the temple grounds.DSC06620Never did I expect that I was in for some serious hiking that involved climbing over tree roots and clinging on to metal chains for dear life. However, the sight of the temple itself was enough to take your breath away, and convince you that it was well worth the hike (or hype).  How was this temple even built in the first place? Or was it really an act of the gods, as the legends would have you believe.

I rounded off the day trip by exploring Shirakabe (白壁), so named because of the characteristic whitewashed walls of the storehouses in that district, and said to date back to the Edo and Meiji periods. It’s one of those nostalgic old towns that get tagged / burdened with the “Little Kyoto” moniker. It’s possible to walk to Shirakabe from Kurayoshi Station (倉吉駅). However, the earlier hike up to Mitokusan had taken the stuffing out of me, so I settled for a bus ride that whisked me there in less than 10 minutes.DSC06688Unfortunately, Shirakabe turned out to be pretty disappointing for me at least, as the buildings were not only poorly preserved, but also, the streets were deserted and the shops closed. Oh well, at least I bought myself a bottle of local sake as a present.     LSDSC06692

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 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).

PANO_20180501_103146PANO_20180501_105833

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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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Spirited Away (Part 3)

DSC04240The sprawling grounds of Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera, coupled with its abundant spiritual energy, makes it a top draw among ‘power spot’ hunters. But what if you could visit a whole city and feel the same positive energy throughout the city?

Look no further than Nara (奈良), Japan’s ancient capital before Kyoto, and home to some of the oldest and most magnificent Buddhist temples in Japan. Less than an hour from either Kyoto or Osaka, Nara can easily be covered as a day trip or if you have some time to spare, spend a night or two in this peaceful spiritual enclave.

A Google search on “Attractions in Nara” will probably turn up more than a dozen results on Buddhist temples and “tourist brochure”-eating deers. In fact, so brazen are these deer that a recent article in the newspapers warned tourists against these deer and attempted to educate the same tourists how to use sign language to convince these roving (and hungry) stags that they have no more food in their hands. Remember, like us, a hungry deer can become an angry deer, no matter how cute they may be.

But we’re not here to talk about deer, are we?

Tōdai-ji, Nara

DSC04183Now, if time is of the essence, skip all other temples and head straight to Todaiji (東大寺), home to possibly the largest temple in Japan constructed entirely out of wood. It also houses a massive 15-metre tall Buddha (or the Daibutsu), the largest in Japan.

DSC04186The real ‘spiritual’ experience, however, is not only found at Todaiji (東大寺), but also in slowly exploring the vast temple grounds, which overlaps much of Nara Park (where the hungry deer freely roam). Take a leisurely stroll through the adjacent smaller temples like the Nigatsudo Hall, the Hokkedo Hall, the Kaidanin Temple, the beautiful foothills of Wakakusayama (which can be covered in a short hike). Feel your skin glow and spirits awakened in this oasis of zen.

DSC04222DSC04259On the way back to JR Nara Station, you will also pass Nara’s most celebrated Shinto shrine, the Kasuga Taisha (春日大社), with its enchanting stone lanterns. If you have a penchant for Japanese Buddhist art, pop by the Western-styled Nara National Museum. Finally, the two-hour circuit ends at Nara’s iconic symbol, the Kofukuji (興福寺), built in AD710 and its name literally translates as “the temple that generates blessings”. What a way to end off your spiritual sojourn!    LS

DSC04270Any 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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More Time For R&R

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. However, for most teachers, CCA commitments (i.e. sports teams and club activities) and numerous meetings (end-of-year reviews, staff planning, department meetings, CCA meetings, etc. etc.) are often packed into the last two weeks of November. Since 2011, I have spent all my “winters” overseas – five of them, in Japan. DSC04506Going into my third winter in Hokkaido, (the first came in 2015 before I went on the JET programme) winter now actually marks the end of my “travel season” as the daily sub-zero temperatures here made travelling less enticing, even potentially dangerous. Of course, as a tourist in Japan, you don’t really worry about blizzards or care about the biting cold. If I’m being honest, in those days prior to living in Hokkaido, I might have secretly welcomed it. These days, I spent most weekends at home, in front of the heater. Even a trip to the local supermarket or the launderette becomes a battle of wills. On weekends like these, I like to reminisce about the places I have visited in the past year.DSC04474On this note, I will leave you with some snaps from my most recent trip to Wakkanai, and the islands of Rishiri (利尻島) and Rebun (礼文島)To say I’ve been to Rishiri and Rebun (R&R) would be stretching it since I actually only had time to scratch the area around the ferry terminal, thanks to a combination of my own ignorance/optimism and the infrequent ferry timings.

For those who love off-the-beaten-track itineraries, these two tiny islands off the coast of Wakkanai are definitely up your alley! Don’t forget to pencil in a few days on each island because even though the islands are tiny, they are not small enough to make a round trip on foot.DSC04505By the way, the snow-capped/cloud-covered peak that featured on the packaging of the ubiquitous Shiroikoibito or 白色恋人 cookies (a souvenir synonymous with Hokkaido) is actually that of Mount Rishiri.

Another noteworthy tip is to schedule your trip in summer because you will get to savour some of the freshest uni (i.e. sea urchin) and seafood that Hokkaido has to offer. In fact, it is said that R&R probably offer the most delicious uni in Japan. I learnt this the hard way of course, as I visited in October this year, only to be told that uni was not in season.I had to settle for another of their famed delicacy, the “hokke chan chan yaki” or grilled fish in miso sauce.

As for Wakkanai, I found it to be rather disappointing. I did enjoy catching the sunset at Cape Soya though, a saving grace in my humble opinion. Otherwise, I would recommend that you plan your trip with one of these two islands (or both if time permits) as your base, instead of Wakkanai.   LSDSC04438

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A Whirlwind Trip to Kawayu

DSC04308I’m sitting here at my kotatsu typing away instead of being at school. The reason, Typhoon No. 21. Just when you thought typhoon season is over, here comes a humongous one to take the stuffing out of you. And of course, bearing in mind that this is Japan – typhoons love this long strip of archipelago for some reason. So here I am, typing away as the winds howl like the wolves outside, and the rains pelt my windows with a vengeance that sometimes have me wondering if I should start taping them. Or maybe it’s too late for that anyway…

DSC04244Living in Japan has taught me to be grateful for the weather, and to constantly check it every day. That has become one of the main reasons I tune in to the news broadcasts every night. While many Japanese watch the news for developments ahead of the upcoming Lower House General Elections (okay, perhaps not), which concluded last night with a sweeping victory for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling LDP party, I was more concerned about the rampaging advances of Typhoon No.21.

DSC04259DSC04264In September, another typhoon (Typhoon Talim) had forced me to cut short my long weekend trip to the Kawayu Onsen area. To sum up that trip, I never had a chance to explore the beautiful Kawayu area in depth except for a sightseeing bus tour – which was exactly that, you stayed on the bus mostly save for 15-minute stops at Lake Mashu and the sulfurous Io Valley). I never took a dip in any of the popular onsens here either (save for a 10-min bath).

Well, I guess I had other things to give thanks for. I made a couple of new friends (both from Taiwan), who turned out to be great travel companions even for that half a day. I also managed to get a refund on a night’s stay from the owner of the pension where I was staying. We had  a lengthy ding-dong over email explaining my reasons for cutting my stay short, and I’m thankful that he had been kind and understanding. And last but not least, I’m grateful to salvage a few good shots from my trip, given the less than pleasant weather from the approaching storm.   LS

P.S.: My apartment windows are still rattling from Super Typhoon Lan right now. What a name…if only you know what the name means in the Chinese vernacular…

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Summer Sojourns (Part 1) – Lavender Furano

DSC03674Summer hit Hokkaido like a home run out of nowhere this week, with daily temperatures soaring above the thirties. The week before, Kyushu had been battered by Typhoon No.3, leaving swathes of land in Fukuoka and Oita under water. Here in Hokkaido, however, temperatures are slowly creeping above 25 degrees during the day. When dusk falls, it drops severely to the mid-10s (15 or 16 degrees). And then, it took a sudden spike above the 30s.

Unlike my colleagues at school, I welcomed and embraced the heat. For once, it felt like I was back home again, having been born and raised in the tropics all my life. I was thankful for the opportunity to continue my exploration of Hokkaido.

Here in Hokkaido, summer means lavender and melons – and Furano is synonymous with both. There’s even a dedicated train line that only operates during the lavender season – ferrying tourists by the hundreds every day from Furano to Lavender Fields Station for only 460 yen (return). From Lavender Fields Station, it’s a 5-minute walk to Farm Tomita.

DSC03623Farm Tomita is the top tourist draw in Furano. Despite the scorching heat, thousands brave the summer heat to wander among its purple lavender fields. Although it’s still considered early in the lavender season, meaning to say, the lavender is not in full bloom yet, the purple flowers had bloomed sufficiently to make for beautiful images.

19780377_10154690842427036_5535549101343014770_oAn essential part of the Farm Tomita experience, besides snapping a ton of pictures beside these flowers, is lavender ice-cream. You can choose from a variety of flavours – lavender, melon or a mix of lavender and melon/vanilla. I recommend getting the lavender/melon or lavender/vanilla mix.

Complete your Tomita experience with a slice or two of honey melon – the perfect dessert to beat the heat. Truth be told, however, that I preferred the ice cream to the melon. Granted, the melons were sweet and juicy, but at 250 yen per slice, and knowing the premium prices that honey melons command in Hokkaido, I actually have tasted better ones from back home. Still, having come all the way to Farm Tomita, leaving this place without having tried both the ice cream and melons would have been a gross travesty!!

DSC03664I did, however, give the lavender souvenirs a miss. If there’s one thing that Japan does exceptionally well, it is to milk the tourist experience with all kinds of delicious and exquisitely packaged sweets and obscenely cute knick knacks that will have you tossing your entire fortunes into their cash registers.

At one end of Farm Tomita, there are shops selling lavender scented perfumes, lavender hand cream, lavender hand soap, lavender bath salts, lavender moisturising cream, lavender potpourri, lavender everything.

At the other end, there are cafes and restaurants offering all manner of melon desserts and drinks. Purple and orange may not be a fashionista’s idea of a matching outfit, but here at Farm Tomita, it is a winning combination!   LS

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Frozen in the Fall

Autumn is my favourite season. I love watching the landscape slowly turning from lush greens to a patchwork of red, orange and yellow hues. I still remember my first encounter with fall in Japan five years ago, when I visited Tokyo. Streets were lined with row after row of yellow gingko and red maple. It was almost like one of those scenes from a jigsaw puzzle. Shrines in Japan are most beautiful, in my opinion, during fall. There’s an inexplicable tranquillity and spiritual energy in these places.

It was with these images in mind as I tumbled along the countryside on one of those rickety buses that ply the countryside in Asahikawa. My destination? Sounkyo Onsen 層雲峡, a famous kouyou  or “autumn leaves” viewing locale in Hokkaido. I had spent the previous night in Asahikawa (about two and a half hours by train from Tomakomai via Sapporo) so that I could catch an early bus from Asahikawa Station to Sounkyo Onsen.dsc01969The pension where I had made a reservation was a humble family-run establishment, but Tripadvisor and Booking.com decals on its glass doors carried promises of a rewarding stay. Since I was two hours ahead of check-in time, I deposited my luggage at the lobby and headed for the Sounkyo Ropeway. The Ropeway was the easiest (i.e. laziest) option to get near the peaks of Mount Kurodake (), which towers above the sprawling Daisetsuzan National Park (大雪山国立公園). Seasoned hikers may prefer the hiking trail that continues from the summit of Kurodake, through Daisetsuzan to the summit of Asahidake. However, without proper hiking equipment and still nursing a severe bout of flu, I decided against the hike.dsc01985Nevertheless, the view from the 7th station of Mt. Kurodake was well worth the 1,950 yen that I had to cough out for the gondola ride. At the top of the Ropeway, a chairlift whisks you nearer to Kurodake’s peak and a tiny cafe for a further 600 yen. Despite forecasts of early snowfall (yes! Snow in October!) in the later half of the day, the weather held up sufficiently for breathtaking vistas of the valley below. My only lamentation was that autumn had not quite peaked here in Sounkyo, contrary to what was written in many of the travel literature I’ve read. In other words, the valley was only covered in sporadic blots of yellow and red. Later, I learnt from the pension owner that autumn had been at least two weeks late this year.dsc02000My second day in Sounkyo was a rough affair. I had planned to make for the Ginga no Taki 銀河の (Milky Way Falls) and Ryusei no Taki 流星の(Shooting Star Falls) on foot – a journey that would take about 50 minutes. However, midway through my journey, the weather turned nasty. Strong gales and a combination of rain and hail threatened to wreck my umbrella (which it eventually did). I had no choice but to turn back as I was completely soaked and shivering. The winds were threatening to make this innocuous 50-minute walk into a dance with death.dsc02031As it turned out, the two waterfalls turned out to be rather disappointing. Perhaps the stormy weather had something to do with it. After my initial failed attempt to trek to the falls, I decided to have another go at it – this time, I opted for the bus service that would whisk me directly to the falls in case the weather decided to bail on me again. Just as the bus was about to leave the Tourist Visitor Centre, it poured buckets again!!! The wind and rain made it difficult to maintain my balance, much less steady myself for a picturesque shot of the falls. The stormy weather probably made the silver aqueous threads less magical than what their names would suggest. Whoever had named these waterfalls must have had a very cosmic (i.e. ethereal) imagination. Needless to say, I was less than impressed to say the least.

The next pit stop on the bus took the pits. I arrived at a giant cesspool of a lake called Taisetsuko (大雪湖). The pelting rain and chilly winds made the landscape even greyer and more dreary than what it already was. No sign of any autumn foliage, no sign of life, except me, a couple of elderly ladies and a family from China. The lake was a bleak mix of ash grey, sickly yellow and dirty green.dsc02039Back in the pension, a huge bowl of ramen was a welcome treat after a frigidly cold outing. Unlike Asahikawa, Sounkyo Onsen is not known for its ramen, but on a miserably wet and chilly day like this, I gratefully slurped down my bowl of goodness. A trip to the Kurodake Onsen (conveniently connected to the pension by a passageway) thereafter was the icing on the cake, and the fastest way to warm up my body. The onsen also has a modest walled-in rotemburo (露天風) that offers a view of the surrounding landscape, albeit through wooden grilles.

And just as I was blissfully soaking my aches and chills away, I saw it! Snow!

Snow in early October??? This is crazy man!!! I mean, I was just told that autumn arrived two weeks late but it’s already snowing here in Sounkyo. Looks like autumn gave this place a miss this year!

If there’s something I’ve learnt since arriving here in Hokkaido, it is that anything is possible as far as weather is concerned. Here in Hokkaido, a 20-degrees diurnal range is not an exception, but the norm. And that is something I need to quickly get used to. I still struggle with waking up with cold feet to zero degrees in the early morning. I am constantly amazed by how my students could run around with boundless energy, playing football in the sun-drenched field during lunch break in 14-degrees weather. In the evening, I meticulously plan the steps to take in between changing and taking a shower, so that I do not catch a chill. I shudder to think what my first full experience of winter here will be like.  LSdsc02005