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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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 1) – Majestic Himeji

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

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

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

DSC06324Mounting Himeji

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

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

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

However, I have one regret.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 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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Hirosaki の Hanami 弘前の花見

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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