New Year Feature (Part 3) – Kurashiki Canals, Japan’s Miniature Venice

Leaving the depressing gardens, we went in search of shabu shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ), because my friend was craving it. It didn’t seem such a bad idea at all. Nothing like some steaming hot broth to warm up freezing bodies, I thought.

A light rain accompanied us en-route to the shabu shabu restaurant, as we navigated through some winding (and partially hidden) alleys in search of the hotpot paradise, aided by Google Maps.

Suddenly, the heavens decided to throw a tantrum, and it started pouring buckets!!

Just then, we spotted the shabu shabu place from across the street and dashed for it, only to be greeted by a wooden sign hanging on its door that read “定休日” (meaning “designated rest day”).

We collapsed on the bench next to the entrance of the restaurant, exhausted and convinced that our day must have been cursed from the start.

There’s nowhere to go for now, because of the rain. So while waiting it out, I browsed Tripadvisor in search of the nearest place that might interest us.

I suggested this authentic (presumably) Indian/Nepalese diner that had some pretty good reviews (Besides, naan and curry were a slice of home for us). If we couldn’t have soup, something spicy could do the trick.dsc04833_blogSo there we checked in (after about half an hour of waiting), when the torrential rains slowed to a drizzle. The restaurant’s interiors are surprisingly simple, sparse even. No ornate paintings of Hindu gods hanging on the walls or wooden sculptures of Krishna or elephants.dsc04832_blogMy friend couldn’t help ogling (yes, shamelessly ogling) at the young dashing Indian waiter who served us, so much so she decided to ask for a selfie with him after we had finished our meal. The naan and curry we had were superbly done, crispy around the edges while not losing its chewy texture. And the curry was deliciously spicy – nothing too overwhelming but enough to give you that kick.

Many Indian restaurants in Japan would give you a scale of spiciness from 0 to 10 to choose from to cater to the generally low spice tolerance of Japanese.  I went with a 5 while my friend opted for a 4.

Sufficiently (and satisfyingly) fueled, we ventured out onto the streets again.

We made our way back to Okayama Station, with the smell of rain (and curry) lingering  on our noses.

Our next stop was Kurashiki (倉敷), a mandatory visit if you are in Okayama.

Only 15 minutes from Okayama Station on the JR Sanyo Line, followed by a 10-minute walk down south from Kurashiki Station along Motomachi-dori (元町道り) or via a sheltered shopping arcade that runs parallel to it, you will be instantly transported back in time to the Edo Period (1603-1867) at Kurashiki Canals (倉敷美観地区).dsc04839_blogNot quite Venice-beautiful, but nonetheless picturesque, Kurashiki Canals (倉敷美観地区) used to be an important rice distribution centre during its halcyon days.

Populated by rice storehouses, built round a network of narrow canals to facilitate transportation, these storehouses, painstakingly preserved, have been converted to museums, cafes, boutique hotels and shops selling local sweets or Japanese handicrafts.dsc04835_blogdsc04841_blogThere’s even a specialty store that sells all things sesame – you have to check it out!! We went omiyage (お土産) window-shopping, tasting the different Japanese sweets but not buying any of them. Very cheeky of us I know (and perhaps not very nice) but hey, Japanese omiyage can be very expensive!!!dsc04847_blogThere’s also the incongruously Western-looking/Romanesque Ohara Museum of Art (大原美術館), apparently Japan’s first museum of Western art, featuring works by Picasso, El Greco, Gauguin, Modigliani, Rodin, Klee, Pollock and Kandinsky among others.

We decided to skip the museum, since neither of us was into art.

My friend wanted to go on a gondola ride but it seemed like New Year’s Eve was not a day for gondola business.

One tip for visitors is to come early, because we noticed that all the shops started to close for the day at around six in the evening.

So if you arrive after sundown, there’s really nothing to see or do except to stroll along the eerily quiet canals.

But if photography (or taking selfies) is your thing, Kurashiki Canals is most alluring in the soft evening glow.        LS

Any images published in this article, unless otherwise stated, are owned by the author. Any unauthorised reproduction or use of these images in any form is strictly prohibited. Please kindly write to me for permission to use any of the images. Thank you very much. 😊dsc04856_blog

 

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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A Zen New World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Coffee With A View

I’m exhausted. After a 30-minute and more strenuous-than-expected “walk” up a hilly road, I realised I desperately need to lose weight. Damn all that beer (and these days, soju / makkeoli)!! And the reason for my industry – to seek out this picturesque cafe in the middle of nowhere.

Buamdong, according to my Korean friend, is nicknamed the 사장님동 (Korean for ‘CEO’). That’s because many of the well-heeled and some Korean celebrities live in this neighborhood. And its star attraction is undoubtedly Sanmotoonge (산모퉁이), otherwise known as the filming location of popular Korean drama series “Coffee Prince”. Its breathtaking views justify the steep climb (and prices) I suppose. A cafe latte will cost you 7,000 won, almost twice the price for a cuppa in the city. Cakes start at 7,000 won a piece too. In cooler seasons, the alfresco area would have been fully occupied, but as it is summer, the heat drove me indoors. The view is great, but air-con is what I need at the moment.

Off-the-beaten-track enthusiasts have waxed lyrcial about the quaintness of Buamdong, its charm and mix of art galleries and cafes. Can I be brutally honest? It’s not exactly worth the hike (or the hype). Thankfully, I had also pencilled in an afternoon at Samcheong-dong (삼청동). This is still the place for some aimless wandering, cafe hopping, or leisure shopping at the local designers’ stores. In other words, a wonderful place to bum.

On hindsight, I felt a little silly, having trekked all the way to Coffee Prince Cafe earlier when there are so many fantastic options to choose from in Samcheong-dong. Seoul is caffeine city. There are probably more cafes in Samcheong-dong (or in Seoul for that matter) per square metre than vehicles that you wonder how they actually manage to balance the record books. But who’s complaining? An afternoon at Samcheong-dong is the perfect way to while away that lazy Saturday afternoon in Seoul. And if you’re tired from all that walking, treat yourself to a cuppa at one of those cafes with a rooftop terrace and a “Coffee Prince” view.  LS

DSC08109 DSC08111 DSC08116 DSC08121 DSC08154DSC08167DSC08162DSC08181DSC08176 Cafe hopping at Samcheong-dong, Seoul.

Hello world!

After not blogging for the longest time (and still a little rusty and unsure if I want to get back into this to be honest), I’ve decided I would give it a shot. I was really inspired by this blog called mykoreaneats which I stumbled upon while doing some research on the best places to feast in Seoul. I’m sure all the foodies out there will fall in love with mykoreaneats.

However, for lonesojourns, I would let my images do most, if not all the talking. These have been captured and exhibited only on Facebook, so it seems like a massive waste not to share them somewhere else.

I’ve titled the blog “lonesojourns” because it is exactly what it says. These images have been snapped during my travels, and I hope you would like them.

I have a special fondness for both Korea and Japan, so many of the snaps you’re going to see came from my sojourns there. Instead of the usual Tokyo or Kyoto sights, we’re heading to Kyushu. In my opinion, this is the most underrated island of Japan but also one of the most beautiful. There are so many things to see and do here, check it out!

Fukuoka / Hakata

Fukuoka, or Hakata as it is more commonly known in the olden days, is Kyushu’s largest metropolis. Its cosmopolitan vibe can be traced back to more than 2,000 years ago when this part of Japan was a lively trading centre at a time when much of Japan is ‘closed’ to the world. The city is famed for its devotion to ramen (ラメン), whether all under one roof, or scattered along the banks of the Nakagawa (yatai or mobile hawker stalls along the streets).

Sadly, when I visited, probably due to the cold weather, there are few of these. In any case, you wouldn’t be short-changed if you chose to dine at any of the famous ramen establishments – Ippudo, Ichiran or Ikkousha – yes, this Holy Trinity of Ramen all originated from Hakata.

Hakata has a lively matsuri calendar, which culminates in a mikoshi (gigantic portable shrines) race through the city (also known as the Hakata Gion Yamakasa Matsuri 博多祇園山笠) from 1- 15 July. Other matsuri include the Hakozaki-gu Tamatorisai (筥崎宮 玉取彩 – 3 January) and Hakata Dontaku Matsuri ( 博多どんたく港祭 – 3 & 4 May).  LS

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